Friday + Dr. O’d = Writer’s Therapy
I sometimes give workshops and seminars in my Brooklyn Heights office on topics of interest to writers. If you would like to be notified about upcoming events, email me at Dr.Sue at mindspring dot com.
Dear Dr. O'D,
Every time a school, library, or bookstore asks me to come speak about my newest book, I love the feeling. It's such an affirmation in so many ways, and so I usually accept. Then, as the date on my calendar grows closer, I regret the time out of my life the engagement really costs -- not just the travel time and the lost writing day or days because of the actual event, but, in my experience, all the time and energy involved in the endless communications that inevitably surround most speaking commitments. I suppose this is
what we call ambivalence. But it's hard on me. I go from elation to dread and back again. I try to be selective about the invitations I accept, but even so, my calendar is filled with obligations. Sometimes I wish I never had to do any of it, but at other times I am horribly disappointed when a plum speaking engagement doesn't come through. I know this is part
of the writing life, and a sign of success, and I do enjoy the actual events, which I handle easily, and I know the connections with readers and librarians which are rewarding in themselves are also significant for building my readership. It's the zizagginess of my
emotional relationship to it all that feels in need of your help. How can I maintain better equilibrium?
--Love It, Hate It, Love It
As I’m sure you know, and are, no doubt, sick of hearing, your letter comes under the heading of “problems we all wish we had.” You are fortunate, not only in the attention your work garners, but in your ability to connect with readers and librarians in an enjoyable and productive way.
The consciousness of this good fortune, though, can engender guilt or sheepishness about acknowledging the ambivalence you describe, making it difficult to set limits on the encroachment into your writing time. After all, if we spit in the face of the Goddess of Amazon Rankings, she may decide to withdraw her blessings and bestow them on another, more grateful author. It’s good that you are able to recognize the difficulty you are in and seek solutions.
Even the most versatile and flexible writers have trouble switching gears between writing and the correspondence, scheduling, and public appearances necessary to promote their work. Writing, for most of us, requires detachment from the demands and concerns of the material world in order to focus on, and immerse ourselves in, the universe of our imagination. A telephone conversation or series of emails discussing dates and travel arrangements may take less than an hour of “earth time,” but when you need to journey up from the depths to perform these practical tasks, it can be hard to sink back down again—and when this happens repeatedly, it can seriously impede your ability to work.
I know you requested emotional, rather than practical, advice for dealing with this. I believe the two are related, though. You need to have a plan in place, to ensure that you respond to these invitations in a way that feeds your best interests and not your momentary sense of flattery or obligation. You need to become your own psychic secretary and bodyguard. The Goddess won’t be angry, I promise. She understands that you need the time and space to actually create the work she is helping you to promote.
Try designating certain days as “secretary” days and others as “boss” days. (Many writers who actively promote their work find that 3 “boss” days to 2 “secretary” days, with weekends “off” or at least more flexible, works well, but you will need to work this out for yourself.) On “secretary” days, you answer email, schedule appointments, travel, and perform all of the other important, practical tasks that keep your book-promotion business running smoothly. On boss days, you write. Period. You don’t check your email and you don’t answer the phone. You are not available to callers. If you weaken, remind yourself that you are doing the important work that makes the book-promotion business possible.
You may feel anxious at first when contemplating the flashing light on your answering machine or the pile-up in your inbox. Remember that if you were a surgeon, a schoolteacher, or a cabaret singer, you would not be reachable during working hours, and the world would go on. (You may wish to maintain a separate phone line for family emergencies only—and to screen even these calls, since family members’ interpretations of “emergency” tend to be elastic.)
You may need to schedule travel or a speaking engagement for a boss day, and that is okay (after all, you are the boss), but be sure to mark it as a secretary day and allot comp time for your writing. Similarly, there may be weeks, or even months, when you will need to favor one role over the other. When you are embarking on a new book, for example, you may require long stretches of uninterrupted writing time, and around a publication date you may need to devote most of your energy to promotion. Just make sure the ratio of writing to promotion time remains stable overall, and that you plan ahead to protect yourself from the seduction of a flattering approach.
Susan O'Doherty, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist with a New York City-based practice. A fiction writer herself, she specializes in issues affecting writers and other creative artists. Her book, Getting Unstuck Without Coming Unglued: A Woman's Guide to Unblocking Creativity, will be published by Seal Press this spring and is now available for pre-ordering. Send your questions to her at Dr.Sue at mindspring dot com.