Rocks in a Jar

I haven’t talked much about writing, lately.  Nor have I said much of anything that touches on the primary theme of this blog: balancing a busy life of work, school, family, and church to find and make time for writing.

I’ve been thinking about that theme lately.  It’s one of the reasons I started this blog.  I was about a year and a half into 3-year MBA program, and I hadn’t done any writing except for reports and term papers.  And even before I started on my MBA, I hadn’t done any creative writing since the disaster a little over a year earlier.  But the itch had returned with a vengeance.  I felt the need to be writing creatively again.

And so, the idea for this blog was born – out of a conversation with my Leadership Advisor at school – and the rewrite process on the story that recently earned my first professional-level accolades was begun.  I was quickly off to a great start, hitting a post every day – a pace I continued for several months.  At first I wasn’t sure what my defining theme would be – or if I would even have one.  But as I frequently posted about the challenge of balancing work, school, family, and writing, I eventually realized that this was my theme.

For the past few months, however, I haven’t really touched on that core idea.  And in the next few months, one of those stones I have precariously balanced in my life will be removed at last.  The blog, of course, will continue – but it’s not yet clear to me whether the theme will last.  Although, of course, even with school out of the picture, it’s still tough to balance the competing demands that are left.

So, I suspect that my overarching theme will remain, at least for some time.  It’s what makes my site unique, such as it is.  Which then leads me to wonder… if this blog is all about finding a way to balance the time in your life to make room for writing, why haven’t you been talking about it recently?  And why haven’t you been writing?

In answer to that, let me share a parable with you.  There’s a story, you’ve probably heard it before, of a professor who comes into class with a large jar, and in a box he has a bunch of rocks, some gravel, some sand, and a couple cups of coffee.  The story goes that the professor fills the jar with the rocks, and asks his students if the jar is full, and they reply yes (in the linked version of the story, the rocks are golf balls, but the meaning is the same).  He then in turn adds the gravel, then the sand, then the cups of coffee, each time asking the students if the jar was then full (it was, they said each time), but each time the new material filled in the cracks left by what was already there.

The moral of the story is that in the jar that is our life, there are important things that we should do.  These are the rocks of our life – things like time with our family, our career, and whatever else is important to us.  If we fill our jar with the smaller stuff first, like the sand, then there won’t be room for these rocks.  So we should focus on the big things first, and we’ll find time for each of the less and less important things (and if we don’t, our lives will still be “full” in the sense that we are living fully).  And even then, there will always be time for a drink with an old friend.

So, it’s a story about the priorities in our life, and finding the balance in our priorities so we can live life more fully and accomplish the things that we set out to do.  It’s the kind of story that would be at home on this blog.  It even parallels how I’ve talked about trying to find time to write: by fitting in the cracks of my life between the bigger things that have to come first.

But there’s another side to this, today.  I accomplished what I initially set out to do with this blog: I finished a story, polished it, made it as bright as I could make it, and I’d practiced writing – if not every day then still several times a week.

But the fact is – writing isn’t gravel or sand in my life.  It’s not one of the little things.  No, it’s one of the rocks – a big one right alongside Family and Work and School.  But the problem is… some of those other rocks, they’re bigger now than they used to be.  When I started this blog my family consisted of myself and my Dear Wife and our lovable furry friend.  Another was on the way – but now he’s here, with us!  When I started my immediate career wasn’t too demanding.  But then I went through a shake-up at work.  And now graduation is looming.  All of which means Family and Work and School – those have to be my absolute top priorities until everything settles down.

So those cracks in between the rocks, where you can put the gravel and the sand?  I need to fill those cracks with more rocks.  And not the rocks I want to fill the jar with, but the rocks I have to, because that’s my responsibility.  And to cut off the potential for criticism: yes, I do want to fully support my family, to succeed in every possible way in my career, and to graduate with flying colors at school – these things are important to me, and I freely choose to focus on them.  Which doesn’t mean I don’t also want to spend time writing.  Let’s say I even need to spend time writing.  But I need to do these others things first, because in them I also have responsibility to others, but in my writing I’m responsible only to myself.

So… I’m offering advice today that runs counter to what you’ll always read as the One True Word of Advice From On High That All Writers Must Obey.  What’s that One Truth?  It’s that writers write, and they write every day

It’s good advice: that’s how you get better, and that’s how you fulfill the measure of your self-definition.

But, sometimes… writers don’t write.  They don’t write because they need to spend their time on other, more important things.  Is it blasphemy to suggest that there are things more important to a writer than writing?  Nay, it is not.

Sometimes, you need a break.  You don’t want a break.  Your “muse” demands that you not take a break, because the ideas are just bursting to come out of you.  But if you ignore those other things, your life will fall apart.  If you ignore the writing, just for a little while, you can pick it back up again, right where you left off.

There are things I want to write about, stories I want to tell.  I’m practically bursting at the seams to write them.  I want to dive back into a novel.  I want to write up new and exciting short stories to try for better success.  But… that’s not for today.  Today is for other things.  Tomorrow I write – not because I’m procrastinating, but because I have other things I must do first.

So that’s the story for today.  Find the balance in your life.  Identify your priorities.  Let writing be one of them, if writing is important to you, but don’t let that cloud what else is important: your family, your friends, and all of the other rocks in your jar.  And sometimes, that means spending a little time focusing on those other rocks before coming back to writing.

But, when those demands abate – and they will abate – then get right back to that blank page, to that computer keyboard, and start writing again!  Then, you can write every day.


8 thoughts on “Rocks in a Jar

  1. You’re absolutely right. I went years without writing (I’ve been there, working full time, full time school at night), not because I didn’t want to, but because there were bigger priorities. It’s only just now that I’ve finally got the space in my life to write, and writing finally gets to be one of the biggest rocks.

    Plus I believe blogs are not meant to be static, because people are not. They evolve as you do. You can always just let this space be whatever you need it to be, and not what anyone else expects. Good luck! You’re almost done – and when you are, no excuses about not writing 🙂

    • No excuses! Well, almost none. 😉 Interestingly, some of those rocks in my jar are bound to grow in size – but at least I’ll be removing one very big one. I agree that the blog will evolve, as well. Eventually, if all goes according to plan, I’ll go from being a complete unknown to a name that’s gaining some recognition in the field. This may be years in the making, of course. But as I strive toward that goal, the nature of the blog will have to change, too…

      But your similar experience gets to what’s been annoying me lately about that one bit of writing advice. Everywhere I look I always see caveats that there are no universal truths for writers, no bits of advice that are universally applicable except one, and that’s that writers write every day. But I’m realizing that’s not so universal at all. It doesn’t take into consideration the varying circumstances of life that writers may find themselves in. Am I less of a writer because I haven’t written anything fictional in three months? No. I’m just a writer who has a had to shuffle his priorities. And I think it needs to be said, for those writers out there who are in similar situations, that sometimes it’s okay for them not to write, that it’s okay for them to focus on other things for a while, because that’s what they need. When the situation changes, and they can move writing back up the priority latter – that’s when they need to take the advice on writing every day to heart.

  2. Hey Stephen,

    Sorry to hear you’re feeling stretched but equally glad you’re being optimistic and sensible about it.

    I think this is a struggle all serious writers face – writing sort of wobbles on the fence between being a hobby and job. Some that should only really be personal pleasure and satisfaction but requires an enormous amount of effort and energy to do properly. Often by the time you’ve done a day at the office, ground your way through the commute home – the last thing want to do is sit down at the computer and start squeezing out words even if you know that in the long term it will make you happier.

    I think your stones in a jar metaphor could be taken a step further. As this jumble of stones continue to grow they also begin to rub again each other, causing friction and eventually some will begin to grind down to make room. Your family begin to feel irritated that you’re always either working or writing. You take a less satisfying job but with shorter hours/commute to spend more time doing the other things. Jeez this is getting pretty grim now, I wish I hadn’t started on it. I’m trying to think of a happy resolution but am struggling – I guess eventually time will help make the decisions for you. No that’s not great isn’t it?

    Anyway – ironically I’m going to sign off here as I need to get back to work!

    Good luck Stephen!

    • Thanks. It’s not so bad, though. It’s a struggle, sure, and I want to be spending time writing. But there’s a peace that comes with saying to yourself: “It’s okay; there will be time to write later. For now, there are other things you must focus on. Worry about them, for now.” So it’s hard, because I can’t spend time doing something I like, but I’m free from having to worry about “If you don’t spend time writing, how can you call yourself a writer? Your skills are going to atrophy. The Apocalypse will happen and you won’t even have been published!” I can just say, no, those aren’t things I can worry about right now. Over time, I do think the form and composition of the rocks in your jar change. Some rocks get removed. Others may get worn down and smoothed over. New rocks will get added, too. I don’t think that’s a negative view. Change happens; it’s part of life. The trick is learning how to manage it, and not be managed by it. That’s what I’m trying to do with my current situation. I can’t spend much time writing, but I can plan for how I will manage my time now so that I can ensure that I will have writing time later when my situation changes.

      • Yep. That’s definitely a far more positive spin than where I was heading!

        I think you’re bang on the money though – “write everyday” is a fine motto for people or don’t intend on doing anything else with their lives. My target is “write at least three times a week”. As long as I hit that I feel like I’m keeping ahead of the game.

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