I once read that if you want to be a writer, you must take an ax to the rest of your life.
Writing, like other arts, demands time. You need time to create. Time to ruminate. Time to rethink and revise. You even need time to share and promote your work.
Then, when you start to build momentum, the time demands increase — to the point where you find yourself resenting time demands placed on you by other things … like your day job, your friends, your family.
We needn’t feel guilty admitting it. It’s part of the writer’s life, and the artist’s life in general. People interrupt, interruptions break out concentration, and our work suffers for it.
But is “taking an ax” to the rest of our life the only way to stay dedicated? Isn’t there a better way — a way to have a balanced life, both as an artist and as a human being?
I was beginning to think I was stuck, until one day I was doing my Russian homework … and found my answer.
Anton Chekhov, the people-person. Who knew?
Perhaps this shouldn’t have surprised me as much as it did, but while I was reading a short bio of Russian writer Anton Chekhov, I was startled to discover how sociable he was.
And by sociable, I mean the man had a house full of people, with constant interruptions, and he met it with a smile.
Read for yourself (my translation):
[Chekhov’s] house in Melikhovo, outside of Moscow, resembled a hotel. For weeks at a time it would house writers, local doctors, friends, friends of friends, close and distant relatives, invited and uninvited. Despite the fact that they disturbed his work, Chekhov loved to see people in his home. He maintained this love of people to the end of his life. Although he was already seriously ill, he scarcely tired of guests.
Now, I’m not 100% inclined to believe their evaluation, since this textbook (Наше Время) tends to wax idealistic about great Russian artists, writers and thinkers … but from other things I’ve read, it doesn’t seem too far off.
And this was amazing to me. After I read it, I couldn’t get it out of my head. With so many people and so many interruptions — not to mention his career as a doctor — Chekhov still managed to be an amazingly prolific writer in his short life.
Even when he was “seriously ill” (and dying) with tuberculosis, he wrote faithfully. And received guests. The mind boggles.
The same text praises how Chekhov’s astute depictions of ordinary Russian people — from monks and artists to cooks and muzhiki — left behind a valuable portrait of Russian life at the end of the 19th century. Is it a stretch to assume that his astute, humane, often sympathetic depictions that we appreciate so much today are a result of his love of people?
Clearly, “life” didn’t stop Chekhov, and it even seems to have helped him. This should give us hope that it’s possible to balance life and art successfully — even if you have a house full of people. But how? What can we learn from Chekhov’s example?
Two simple things:
- You must prioritize your art — and work hard
- You must prioritize people — and love much
I realize that’s really abstract, but hold on. Now that we’ve got the theory, let’s talk about how this might work in practice.
This is where my own experience comes in …
Learning to Say No … And Yes
Around the same time I was reading about Chekhov, I saw an article on Business Insider talking about how important it is to say no if you want to be creative. In fact, the title is “The Most Successful Creative People Constantly Say ‘No.'”
So says the article:
Creating consumes. It is all day, every day. It knows neither weekends nor vacations. It is not when we feel like it. It is habit, compulsion, obsession, vocation. The common thread that links creators is how they spend their time.
No matter what you read, no matter what they claim, nearly all creators spend nearly all their time on the work of creation.
And therefore, the article concludes, we have to learn to say NO more often, in order to protect this time. (Thus taking care of #1 — prioritizing art and working hard.)
I read it over, I was nodding my head, I was 99% there. And yet …
There was still 1% that didn’t ring true.
As a Christian — especially as a Christian who believes in the “sacrament of the present moment” and abandonment to Providence — I couldn’t accept this JUST SAY NO dictum wholesale.
What if I ended up saying No to God’s will, in a misguided attempt to pursue my vocation my own way?
This was soon put to the test.
After Mass one Wednesday night, an acquaintance (we’ll call him Ivan) approached me with a request. I had an inkling of what it would be, and my hackles rose at once. The answer ready at my tongue was a big, fat No.
But Ivan’s request was urgent, with an imminent deadline and high stakes. What was more, I was the only person who could help him.
Ever fiber of my being resisted. Still, I managed to get out an “I’ll let you know by tomorrow.”
Walking home, I was in torture. I didn’t have time for this, I thought. There was so much to be done already, and I’d promised to commit to writing. Shouldn’t I be saying “no” to this, like that article had advised?
But my conscience would not let me go. I understood I had a responsibility to say Yes sometimes, even if it was something that wouldn’t profit me, and which took me from my creative work besides. In this situation, I could not in good conscience leave Ivan high and dry.
The vocation to be a good person is higher than the vocation to be a writer.
So I promised to meet him on one of my days off, after Mass, for about an hour.
During that hour, a wave of peace and joy rose up in me until it overflowed. It was the joy of helping someone, of course, but also of spending quality time with a good person.
In my fixation on “saying no” to distractions, I’d forgotten how much I needed people!
Later that same weekend, I took an entire evening to go to the spa with a friend, and an entire afternoon to visit another friend and her new baby. In fact, I spent a lot of that weekend with people, rather than with my writing, as I’d hoped to do.
And something hit me: I’m more like Chekhov than I realize.
Besides faith, two pillars keep me “fully alive”: writing and people. Both are indispensable. Both need priority … and balance.
If one rises too high, for too long, I start to feel restless. My joy in life ebbs away, seemingly without cause.
Worse: when I’m not writing, I’m less interested in other people … and when I’m not spending time with people, my writing gets forced and bland.
Find Your Ideal Balance
What are your pillars? What fills you with life and joy?
Find those things that bring you to life, and experiment until you find the right balance.
The key thing is to realize that both “life” and art are a priority to you — and to follow your reason and conscience as you decide when it’s time for Yes and time for No.
Sometimes you’ll be spending more time with people, sometimes more with your art. That’s all right. Do what you’re called to do in the moment, and if you find yourself getting off-balance, take steps to correct it.
It’s going to take some hard choices. Sometimes you’ll have to say “no” to others … and sometimes you’ll have to let go of your plans. We’ll talk more about that in another post.
How have you found balance between a social life and art?