questionmarkHow do manage your time between writing and relationships? Aside from the hours of just you and your computer (not to mention meetings, phone calls, and more meetings), how do you find time for significant others?

I just broke up with a nice girl because I couldn’t make enough time for the relationship. I felt guilty every hour I spent not writing and when I got a free moment, my first thought was writing when it should have been my relationship. How can a writer remain prolific and not estrange him/herself from people? Can the two worlds coexist and if so how?

I don’t want to end up sad and lonely but at the same time I’m unable to compromise my strong work ethic to make time for new relationships (it’s hard enough maintaining the existing ones!)

–Michael
Los Angeles, CA

Unless you work at Wendy’s, it’s always tough balancing a career and a relationship. What’s even harder is balancing three things: a day job, a relationship, and the writing career you’d like to have. So the first thing I’d say is, accept that one of these three things isn’t going to get all the attention he/she/it deserves.

These days, I mostly work from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday. Sometimes I have phone calls after hours or on weekends, and occasionally I’ll have to fly to London on five hours’ notice. I get up two or three times a night to jot down things that pop in my head, and I’m always borrowing my partner’s Treo to text-message myself some snippet of dialogue overheard at a party. But from outward appearances, I have a pretty normal working life. So, living with John August the screenwriter isn’t any more difficult than living with John August the attorney would be. That’s a luxury of being able to write as a career.

Back when I was working as an assistant, and writing at night, I had a lot less “free” time. I didn’t go out much. I stayed in on Friday nights and rewrote. I didn’t date a hell of a lot, either. I made a conscious choice to buckle down and get some scripts written. In the end, both work and relationship turned out well, so I guess it worked.

But I’m not sure it was the smartest choice, given my situation at the time. Many writers take ten years before they meet with any real success, and if I’d continued to put writing above relationships, I’d be a sadder, lonelier guy today.

For you, Michael, the better choice might be to stake out some Non-Writing Time, when you deliberately and guiltlessly do the things normal people do, including dating, parties, and watching your sweetheart’s favorite show even though you don’t particularly care for it. Once you specifically block off some Us time, it’s easier to set aside the ten or so hours a week you need for your writing. And if she can’t live with that, well, she can’t live with a writer. Better to know it now.

On a related note, make sure you’re not using your strong work ethic as an excuse to avoid social interaction. Writers are notorious hermits, and that can be dangerous.

During my writing-at-night era, I didn’t go out much at all, but the times I did were often revelatory. An example: I remember meeting Trey Parker at Three of Clubs in Hollywood in either 1994 or 95. Although I’ve never spoken to him since, I know it was him, because this guy was also from Colorado, and he corrected me when I called him Troy. Twice. He told me that he and a friend were making this video Christmas card for a guy at MTV. I felt kind of bad for him, because it seemed like he was kind of struggling.

Of course, that video Christmas card was the original South Park, and he and Matt Stone became successful zillionaires. Seeing the first South Park, I felt some envy, sure, but more importantly I felt inspiration: this guy I met a year ago is now making this kick-ass show. If he can do it, well, maybe I can too.

Obviously, my life didn’t turn on one chance meeting at a bar. But the sum total of all these little incidents really do add up. So whether it’s drinking, dating, or relationship drama, make sure you’re out there experiencing actual life. It will make you a better writer, as well as a more-interesting person.