Q&A with Shoilee Khan

Q: What's your advice to writers with day jobs?

A: 1. Accept that the reality of your writing time will not live up to the image you've created. I've tried to balance my teaching and my writing by setting aside specific days in the week as sole writing days - no teaching, no appointments, no errands, just writing. I envision waking up, making breakfast, taking a walk in the wilderness, making a hot cup of tea, and settling into a day of writing with soft slants of sun stretching across my desk. This has happened one or two times. It could happen again. It's lovely and fulfilling when it does happen. But, on all the days that it does not happen - the days where I wake up too late, the days I sit at my desk for three hours and realize that I've eaten two sandwiches and written one paragraph, the days that the urgency to check my student emails, or mark student papers intrudes again and again and again, the days I find the evening burning out my day, my writing quota unsatisfied -- on these days, it's imperative to remember that the vision need not be reality for the writing, some writing, any writing, to get done. 


2. Stop comparing your productivity needs with the productivity practices of other writers. It's beneficial to know how other writers get their writing done, but understand that their practice may not be your practice. Some writers wake up two hours before work and write furiously until they have to leave for their jobs. Other writers write late into the night after their families have finally gone to sleep. Some steal parcels of time throughout the day. Some, like me, set aside specific days to write. You do not have to aspire to a single vision of productivity and feel that you are somehow failing if you cannot perform in the same way. If you are done by 7 pm, then so be it. Watch Netflix, eat an ice cream cone, and go to sleep. Wake up and write in the morning. If you are horrified by mornings, then write at a different time. Decide what will be tolerable for you, then make it work. If it doesn't work, then you try something else. In the midst of all that trying, some writing will happen, and eventually you'll find the regularity, or the right momentum for you. 

3. Realize that what once worked beautifully, may one day no longer suit you. At the beginning of the term, I set aside specific days to write. I was diligent about keeping work at work, prepping most of my lectures while I was on campus, and waking up on my writing days with only one goal: create. Then, the marking started trickling in. It was fine, I stayed on course. Then, all the marking poured in. I knew it would happen. I've been teaching for five years so this was no surprise. It's the inevitable drowning beneath student papers that strikes mid-October and is relentless until the end of term. But, my writing schedule had worked so well that I wanted to force the rest of my life to abide by it. I only grew more frustrated as the marking leaked into my weekends (first transgression), then into my evenings (second transgression), then finally, into my writing days (third and most horrifying transgression). I could say that marking was the problem (and maybe it is), but instead, I needed to accept that my set-up was not meeting my needs and I should readjust. This could mean sacrificing my writing days now to have a week of only-writing later. It could mean writing less on my designated days and accepting the presence of "non-writing" tasks on those days. Really, it would have to be whatever would yield the greatest potential for me to get any amount of writing done. 

4. Take time off. If having dedicated stretches of writing time is important to you and your work, and you are able (financially and otherwise), then plan to take time off as a working holiday. This could mean a few days, to a few weeks, to a leave of absence. Decide what you need and then see how you can go about making it happen. Some writers find a daily balance where the variety that a full, busy work day offers actually feeds their work. Others need long stretches of dedicated time to fully immerse and create. Some writers need both. If you can take some time off, try it - and do so, guilt-free. 

5. Abandon the guilt. Do not wallow in guilt after you shirk your writing commitment. If you are not practicing your craft the way you think you should, you can change your expectations, or you can change your practice. You should not try to flourish on guilt - it will prevent you from ever rising up again because it is meant to keep you down. Swallow exactly one spoonful of guilt if you must, let it be a quick shot of fuel, but then you burn it out, abandon it, and you begin again as many times as it takes. 

More about Shoilee...

Shoilee Khan currently teaches English in the School of Communication and Literary Studies at Sheridan College. She received her MA in English Literature from the University of Toronto and her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph. Her fiction has appeared in a diverse collection of magazines and journals, including Adbusters, Room Magazine, The New Quarterly, and Other Voices. Her short story, "The Kidney Connection" was nominated for the 2011 Journey Prize in Fiction and a chapter from her novel in progress won the 2010 Other Voices Fiction Contest. Most recently, she was a participant in the 2015 Banff Writing Studio at the Banff Centre for the Arts.