John Hornor Jacobs on The Writing Life

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“A writer takes earnest measures to secure his solitude and then finds endless ways to squander it.” – Don Delillo

jhj_bio_photoFor a year and a half I was a full-time writer. I’d been working as a marketing manager for an Internet company and my agent had sold two series of mine and I had to produce words in a short amount of time or turn down the contracts. I, of course, wasn’t going to turn down any contracts and the money was very good. I also had a few freelance design clients that brought in some extra income.

So I quit my dayjob and settled in to write.

First problem I discovered is that when you’re full-time writing at home, there’s always something about your home that can lure you away from actually writing. Maybe an unfinished chore, maybe something good in the fridge. Possibly your dog getting cuddly. Or maybe it’s a nap. Actually, it’s usually a nap.

Second thing is, you’re always working. Since you work at home, there’s no point that you leave your workplace, except when you go out, and we carry our worlds with us, writers do. There’s no off-switch for a full-time writer. Or at least for me.

My wife noticed I was always disappearing to my office to jot down a random thought or mess with the prose in my always open Scrivener app. Pecking at the manuscript. Fussing and fretting. In the morning, at dinner. And at a certain point, she laid down the law and insisted that I get an out of home office.

I found one less than five minutes from my house in the lovely Hillcrest area of Little Rock, in the annex of an old church. I buckled down and began to write. For The-Twelve-Fingered-Boy-coverthe year I’ve had the office, I’ve written three novels there (and a short for-hire MG novel). Once I got out of the home, I was able to really produce.

But publishing money goes fast, just like regular money does, and eventually I found myself needing to get back to a dayjob, otherwise we’d have to downsize our family home. On a side note: it’s kinda hard to ask your kids to come down from a lifestyle they’ve grown accustomed to. Don’t get me wrong, they’d acclimate fine because kids can acclimate to anything. But I didn’t want to do that to them – so in the end, it became more about ME needing to keep the image I had of myself than my girls being disappointed they wouldn’t get to go on a vacation this year and suddenly have to share a bedroom and bathroom. That’s all on me.

Back to work I went. Though I still keep the writing office. It’s so cheap, there’s no reason not to.

My schedule goes like this: wake at 6:45 (not an early morning person) eat breakfast and take the kids to school by 7:30 – 7:45. Arrive at office around 8am. Fix coffee. Drink coffee. My job doesn’t officially start until 9ish, so I’ll bang out some words or answer emails from my editors. I’m employed as a senior broadcast designer (which means I design and animate things) for an African American television station. Normally I’m on tight deadline so I’ll get busy on my dayjob work. IfI can take a lunch, I’ll either shut the door to my office – or go out of the office – and write on my laptop at lunch for 30 minutes or so – usually amounting to only two or three hundred words. I’m not one of these power writers.

After lunch, back to the grindstone for the dayjob and then at the end of the day, I don’t think about work work or writing work at all. I go home and be with my family and try to be present and available, even though dayjob pressures and writing deadlines (those things that go whizzing past) weigh heavily on me.

Some nights I have Cuong Nhu (a martial arts class), other nights I cook dinner while my wife goes out. Usually, I don’t get the kids to bed until around 9:30pm and after that I decompress. But there’s not a lot of time to decompress, truly, since I need to get busy. So by 10pm I’m on my computer in my home office.

If you’re counting, I have a home office, a writing office (rented), and a dayjob office. I got some offices, y’all.

On weekends, after Cuong Nhu, I go to my writing office and do what I can. On Saturdays I’m crispy because Working from 8am to midnight every night is trying. On Sundays, I write at home, if I can. Usually my kids are desperate for me to spend time with them and I’m desperate to do so.

One weekend every couple of months, I’m lucky enough to be allowed to get out of the city, go to my family lakehouse, and have a marathon writing weekend whereI have an uninterrupted 48 hours to get story written and words down. Those have become invaluable.

So, all told, that’s maybe 10-15 hours of writing during the week and possibly 8-12 hours on the weekend. Plus a writing weekend here and there. Not a lot of time to write.

See how glamorous a writer’s life is?
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the_shibboleth_coverSo why do we do it? It’s a major hassle, all this writing. It keeps us from our loved ones, from exercise, from the wide world around us. The pursuit of excellence in its execution demands constant practice. It takes all our extra time, when we’re not making enough money from it to sustain families and ourselves. Why do it?

We do it because we love story.

At some point in every writer’s life, they read something earth-shattering. Heart-stopping. They read something that changed them. They didn’t want it to end, not the story, nor the book, nor their relationship with the characters. It fundamentally altered them, on an elemental level.

New worlds became visible. New vistas opened up. Sky cracked open and words poured forth.

I write because I would add my voice to that chorus, that innumerable caravan of all the writers who came before.

I get paid to write, I am a writer, but sometimes the coin in which I’m paid is more than figures on a ledger. By writing, my spirit expands – I dredge up the meaningful aspects of my own being, freeing them, becoming lighter – and I join in story with all those voices that came before.

Pretty good company, that.

John Hornor Jacobs’ first novel, Southern Gods, was published by Night Shade Books and shortlisted for the Bram Stoker Award. His second novel, This Dark Earth, was published in J2012 by Simon & Schuster. His young adult series, The Incarcerado Trilogy comprised of The Twelve Fingered Boy, The Shibboleth, and The Conformity, is published by Lerner Books. His first fantasy series, The Incorruptibles will be published in Spring 2014 by Gollancz in the UK.  John is the co-founder of Needle: A Magazine of Noir and was the active creative director until fall 2012. He has a quartet of horror stories, Fierce As The Grave, available through Amazon.com on the Kindle platform. He’s represented by Stacia Decker of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. 

You can learn more about John Hornor Jacobs on his website, johnhornorjacobs.com, or follow his lively conversation on Twitter @johnhornor and Facebook www.facebook.com/John.Hornor

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5 comments to John Hornor Jacobs on The Writing Life

  • Thanks for this glimpse into your life, John. The home writing office works for some people and not for others. It’s been great for me over the years. I’m pretty good at keeping on task during the day, and also at turning it off come the evenings and weekends. Not always, of course — I slip in both directions. But generally it works.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Hello again, and thank you for such a clear picture you’ve given us. I have to say it’s somewhat comforting to read about someone who *isn’t* a before-the-crack-of-dawn writer since, yeah, really not me either. And I definitely identify with the cobbling together bit of writing time here and there. For me and my present priorities it comes out to maybe 8-10 hours for the entire week, so slow and steady-as-I-can manage is the name of the game for me. I’m really a very impatient person, but yes, the *story*, the story that wants to be realized, that wants to add to the lovely, vast landscape we humans have built in our collective mind with the telling of stories. Story is definitely one of my cornerstone addictions, and I’ve got to feed it one way or another. :-D

  • Razziecat

    I’ve always wished that I could write full-time. I can’t afford to quit the day job, so I write in the evenings, on week-ends, and when I have days off from work. But, two years ago I had a week off and the house to myself – and got almost nothing done. It’s not as easy as it sounded in my head ;) Sometimes knowing I only have about three hours a day to write pushes me to do more with the time I’ve got (and sometimes it doesn’t-hey, I’m human).

    I loved what you said about life-changing stories, words pouring out of the sky, etc. But you know, by the time I got to the life-changing stuff, I’d already been surrounded by story, from my mother reading to us as kids, to the book club she signed me up for, and the grade school library, and the books we always had at home, and so on. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t read, and that’s pretty cool :D

  • I started writing while married, with 3 small children, a full-time job and 10 horses (6 cats, 4 dogs, 3 iguanas and a raven out in the Joshua Tree). For me it was all about scheduling. My (ex)husband built me an office and lined it with bookcases (more to get the books out of the rest of the house). After kids did homework, critters were all fed, and boys were put to bed, I’d go to my office for 2 hours each night. Weekends meant I might get 4 hours of writing time in.

    Now, the kids are all grown and I’m down to 5 dogs, and I make due with whatever space I carved out of regular living space and I’ve found it much more difficult to stay with the BIC-FOK routine. I’m trying to get back into the scheduled thing again, just so that I can say, “From 9 til 11, I write!”

  • Hear hear, John. Thank you for this. I’m of the “fit it whenever I can, wherever I can” mind, taking my laptop everywhere with me, like this coffee shop meeting room where I’m writing with eight others right now, but when I don’t feel like going out it can be a challenge not to do household chores. I am trying to get better at that, and my current setup (a plain table in the spare bedroom, rather than the pretty, artsy decorated desk where my dinosaur PC and printer are set up), seems to be doing better. Also, I set up a shelf at my back for the cat/muse, who makes himself known if I don’t take breaks at least thrice an hour to turn around and pet him. It’s helping, anyway. :)