The Art of Balancing


When I read that my grandson – freshly out of a solid plaster cast for a broken arm – was balancing on his mother’s balance ball, weights in hand, singing energetically to “Another one bites the dust” I felt more than a moment of envy. Energy, enthusiasm, and action without fear. That’s a powerful combination.

I dream of being energetic; a person of action, cheerfully engaged and productive. Yet in my particularly busy times I appreciate why writers hibernate, work like crazy, and emerge only when the work is done. I also seek some balance and I am not sure that balance is possible without routine. What is it I am wanting – a balancing of the many different aspects of my life, balance within my working week, or balance over a longer period of time?

Productive time demands single-mindedness, or a strict routine. There is a lot of truth in the advice given, in various forms of the same idea: “If you wish to be a writer, write.”  (Greek philosopher Epictetus, who died in the year 135). More recently, writer Stephen King said “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” If so many writers are saying this, it must be true, right? I suspect that, perhaps, it’s not a fully complete instruction. Writing every day is pointless if you are writing badly, writing without purpose, writing with nothing in particular to say.

Thinking about writing has been decried, but I believe it is important to think about where you fall in the two camps of writers as described by writer Ryan Holiday in this interesting post. What is it that you have to say? Are you compelled to write? Or are you writing for the sheer pleasure of creating something new, crafting it, editing, nursing the very best from the language you have chosen to write in?

Holiday passes on excellent advice that he received early in his career: “go do interesting things”.

Go do interesting things. This is the fulcrum on which we must balance our careers, not on the hours in the day, not on the months in the year, not on the routines we establish. If I fill my life with interesting things, and slide from one end of the seesaw (the writing end) to the other (the illustrating end) then somehow, I hope, that productive balance that I seek in my life will come. It will come not because I have clocked up a certain number of hours in the day, but because in my interesting life I have ideas and stories that are demanding to be written, demanding to be illustrated, determined to be published.

A Book Without Pictures

“and what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?” (Lewis Carroll, in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland).

‘It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,’(Lewis Carroll, in Through the Looking Glass).

One of the blogs I follow is Brainpickings. Today my inbox brought me some background on Alice in Wonderland.

It has been an ‘Alice’ kind of week. A young Italian friend is reading Alice in English. She purchased her copy of it in Spain. Alice certainly gets around. We had a little fun with my favourite quotation about memory. Here it is (in context):

‘I don’t understand you,’ said Alice. ‘It’s dreadfully confusing!’

‘That’s the effect of living backwards,’ the Queen said kindly: ‘it always makes one a little giddy at first —’

‘Living backwards!’ Alice repeated in great astonishment. ‘I never heard of such a thing!’

‘— but there’s one great advantage in it, that one’s memory works both ways.’

‘I’m sure mine only works one way,’ Alice remarked. ‘I can’t remember things before they happen.’

‘It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,’ the Queen remarked.

Occasionally I wonder if I am living backwards. My book without pictures has been on hold for a long time, stalled on 30,000 words when I took a break from it. The next chapter is writing itself as I sleep – my subconscious has been working backwards. My paintings for an exhibition are progressing reasonably well; my daytime work is going forward. And somewhere in the working day, and on my desk, are some little owls waiting for some colour. A book must have pictures, after all.

Keeping to a Time Line

blog owls

In story writing there is always a time line. Most children’s stories are in chronological time and easy to follow. Adult fiction often dips in and out of the chronology, taking readers back in time or plunging in some time ahead of the story line’s actual beginning, creating a more challenging read.

Sometimes my life gets a little out-of-order, and so does my time line. It’s probably why I draw new timelines on A4 paper, rather than write things into my diary. I like the illusion of control.

The down side of being your own boss is being able to alter that timeline and constantly push out your own deadlines. I am good at meeting deadlines. In fact, I am great at meeting them, I’m one of the most reliable people I know. That is, when someone else gives me the deadline.

Now, with only my dreams and plans dictating my day, and with many other interruptions and distractions in my life, meeting deadlines is not so easy. It means treating each day as a work day, and scheduling in time off, or time for other projects in my life.

I frequently draw inspiration from my eldest daughter, who asked me once, quite pointedly,  “Is it in your dreams, or in your diary?” It was a great question; so useful, in fact, that I quote her regularly. When friends say “I’d love to come and visit you … sigh…you’re living my dream…” I challenge them with this question. Very few of them reach for their diaries. Even fewer manage to get past the dreaming stage.

Today, however, is diary/time line day for me. It’s time review progress, and to set a new deadline or two. I’m a ‘big picture’ rather than a details person; I like to have an overview of my year.

At the end of last year my dream was to be sending manuscripts to publishers and to have sample illustrations for other books done by the end of March. I was then going to head to the Bologna Children’s Book Fair (see earlier post) to familiarise myself with the industry, portfolio under my arm.

My timeline had dates running down the page and details of books, paintings and travel plans alongside them.

My aims to the end of March:
Three manuscripts posted to three different publishers.
Three more manuscripts finished and sample illustrations made.
My (still secret) book written and illustrated, ready to send to publishers.
Ten new paintings for a joint show in Italy to be completed.
Trip to Bologna as a hopeful writer/observer.

The reality: 
Loads of research into publishing, and the decision to self-publish was made.
Publishing house chosen, account set up.
Seven manuscripts completed.
Three illustrated books published.
Legal Deposit copies of three books posted to the  National Library of New Zealand.
My special (still secret 😉 coming later this year) book written, revised, and ready to illustrate.
Eight new paintings completed.
Three paintings currently on display in Cassino, Italy, at a group exhibition.
Blog up and running.
Lots of new materials purchased and work happening (a treat to play with, instead of going to Bologna).

Am I on schedule? Not really. I am still about twenty years behind with my goals, because it took me that long to move them from my dreams into my diary.

Today’s diary: 
Review time line. (Done). Decide what went well and what could have been better.
Set new deadlines. Then it’s on to some small pictures.

I have a tough boss, and little owls are waiting to fly.