Discover more from A Slice of Li(fe)
2. Life and Life Balance
On Writing, Devotion, and Artistic Work
Hello! I’m really excited to writing to you one month later (maybe these will be vaguely monthly newsletters!)
What is Christina up to?
I have since accumulated all my furniture! Bookshelves are mounted, plants acquired, and I even have a shiny new library card (which I personally think is a hallmark of settling into a new place). I’m entering copyedits for my 2023 MG book soon, and just turned in my TRUE LOVE draft. So now I’m enjoying some of my free time, watching the leaves change colors and lighting my various scented candles (next task is recruiting a solid lineup of fall and holiday candles), and aiming to return to a project I started working on at the beginning of this year.
I’ve also been going to book events! It’s been wonderful getting to meet people and hear from my favorite authors! Last month I went to the launch for R.F. Kuang’s Babel, and just yesterday I had the incredible experience of going to Caroline Gertler’s and Melissa Dassori’s book event to celebrate Where You’ve Got to Be and J.R. Silver Writes Her World. It’s been so so fun!
Now, onto the very long-winded thought of this edition:
Life and Life balance: on Writing, Devotion, and Artistic work
Starting a new project is like falling in love. There’s nothing like it. You get dizzy. It permeates all corners of your mind. The more you feed it, the more it takes over.
The other day when I was talking with my friend Joelle (who has a brilliant and funny Substack of her own here and is also the author of the forthcoming Their Vicious Games, which you should immediately add on Goodreads) who mentioned that just like with a 9-5 day job, I needed to set boundaries on my writing time, too. A “close the laptop and take your mind elsewhere” moment in the day.
And I thought, oh?
Because I’d never really thought of writing that way before. Writing is a form of art, and I’d read an endless amount of books on the artistic life (all the Bird by Birds that I could conceivably consume over the years). I always believed that as an artist, you’re in collaboration with the muse, and so you let it lead you wherever it wants — when it wants. I stay up in the late hours of the night putting together book aesthetics, and wake up in the predawn hours, hopped up on nothing but my own adrenaline, to type down a scene in Scrivener as fast as I humanly can. There is no 9-5. The work slips in — at night, when I’m thinking of story ideas, or during the weekends, when I’m on a run, when I hear a song, when I’m out at dinner with friends.
That is the narrative of an artist. If there is one thing that defines our practice, it is devotion. An unflagging, deep, sometimes unhinged devotion that makes us cut back on sleep and ignore our obligations. We develop an enamored and slightly obsessive passion, and in turn, we produce beautiful art.
Every time I’m consumed by a new idea or a project, it is like a whirlwind romance with the buzziest of honeymoon periods. I go to coffee shops with my notebook and stay up late at night thinking about it like I’m waiting for a text from someone I have a crush on. There is no work life balance, because your art is your life. Your work blends into life. You are defined, quite literally, by the work, the output you produce, and your devotion to it.
Or your obsession.
In other news, I recently got into K-Pop. I’m discovering so much great new music! It’s wonderful. I bring this up to mention two songs that are related to my concept of a devotional artist. The first is Red Lights by Stray Kids. The Korean title is “강박” — which, to my understanding, literally translates to “compulsion”. The song talks about devotion to work from a musician’s perspective, and how that obsession with their work sometimes turns unhealthy. You become driven — compelled — by another force. The English translation of some of the lyrics are below:
“But I know, you and me
There's no other way
No matter how hard I try to run away, set the mic up
Until the moon falls asleep, even deeper
I really wanna know, yeah
I've already lost control, oh”
The love burns. Sometimes it consumes you —and sometimes you burn out.
It happens often in the artistic pursuits. Your heart lurches towards this vision and the rest of you is racing to catch up. There is a natural impulse to wrap yourself around your art, to let it become your identity. The hours melt away. Your nerves are jangly. I wish I could describe what it feels like to work on a book, why it becomes an appealing thing to sweat in your chair and churn out a story instead of relaxing, taking a break, and going out and having fun. In any standard day job, you set boundaries. You balance life and work — or you strive to. There are on hours and off hours and even the occasional happy hour. But here, when the art isn’t necessarily defined as work, when it becomes a hobby, an interest, a part of your identity, a part of your life—
And what happens when you fall out of love?
BTS’s song “Black Swan” talks about the fate of a musician who, having devoted everything to their passion, no longer find a spark and feel trapped — on the stage, and in the studio. They have encased themselves in their identity as an artist, and as that passion dissolves, so does their sense of self. The title and music video alludes to the 2010 film Black Swan, in which the ballerina has a complete and total psychological and physical breakdown and subsequently achieves what she believes is a “perfect” performance. She compromises everything toward that ideal of artistic excellence — and she achieves it at an ultimate cost.
We judge artists based on their work, and on that singular devotion. We hear of artists pulling compromising on things — self-care, friendships, family time. But then they produce dazzling art, the world consumes it and lauds the artist, and then the artist can continue to define themselves as such. There is little nuance for burnout, for rest, for time away to cultivate an enriching and soul-nourishing life outside of artistic output. Countdown accounts and twitter bots speculate daily on whether musicians have released a long-awaited album. Authors apologize when we go on hiatus for months. God forbid if we go offline for a year. I know in theory that this is all well-intentioned — it’s an honor when people like your work and want the next installment! Maintaining a presence is key to relevance in this attention economy! It all makes sense. It really does.
But sometimes I look at this, and wonder what it demands of art, and of the people who produce it.
At a certain point in my life I had tied everything — my identity and my self worth to my writing. Then I burned out. When I stopped producing writing for a few years, I fell in a deep, deep, sense of loss and confusion, because since I had lost my writing, it felt like I had lost myself. I had a call with one of my very dear writing mentors at the time, Andi Buchanan (who recently released the stunning Five-Part Invention), and she told me: “No matter what you’ve done or what you do from this point forward, you are always a writer and you always will be, if you choose to be.”
Hearing that was immensely freeing. I no longer subjected myself to an ultimatum that I had formed around myself — that I either would devote everything to writing, or I wouldn’t deserve to call myself an artist anymore. I allowed myself to take time off, to not write a single thing for two years, and then I came back—with a well-rested, healthier perspective — and I wrote the best work yet. I knew I had grown. And that book, miraculously, became my debut.
I think what I’m trying to say in the midst of all this is: Writing is work. I want to develop a work-life balance with writing too. I want to carry the mindset that if you identify as an artist, you always are one, and that it is not always tightly tied to the work you produce. Taking rest does not mean you have lost your license to be an artist. You are in a lifelong collaboration with your ideas and with your passion. The flame can burn slow and steady. Your art can and should make space for your peace of mind, your rest, your excitement, your life, your community, your growth — and it will be all the more fulfilled for it.
What’s Currently on my Mind
Currently reading: Where You’ve Got to Be by Caroline Gertler, The Gingerbread Witch by Alexandra Overy, an e-arc of Not an Easy Win by Chrystal Giles, and Babel by R.F. Kuang
Currently listening to: Decimal by Novo Amor, Wild Side by Suki Waterhouse, Hope by Arlo Parks, Man Who Loves You by Noso, It’s Still Cool if You Don’t by Briston Maroney
Until next time,