So it's no secret that I've decided to quit my job this summer. It's all part of a larger theme going on in my life, to reassess the things I really want to do and then take actions to make those things happen. Right now, I want more time to focus on writing and publishing, so working from home on my editing business seems like a good way to make that happen.
But let's get real, from a financial perspective, quitting a job is scary. When you're going from a sure paycheck each month to a totally unknown income, it forces you to take another look at your finances.
Right now, my husband and I are re-accessing our expenses and making an effort to save more money in anticipation of the first few months of the job transition when our total income will in all likelihood be lower than before. It's been an interesting experiment.
Putting a hard-stop on spending makes me realize just how much money we were essentially throwing out the window, with little to nothing to show for it. The pressure to buy things, particularly to fix small nagging problems, is omnipresent. Here are just a few things I've thought about buying in the last few weeks:
1) Tickets to Deadpool.
2) Kongs for my dog. (She takes hers outside when I'm not looking and loses them in the woods somewhere)
3) A butter dish. (Ours broke)
4) An umbrella. (Broke)
5) An ironing board (I've never owned one)
6) Micellar face wash (I blame reading fashion blogs for putting this idea in my head)
7) A black pair of shoes. (I don't have a casual pair of black shoes)
8) EATING OUT
Individually, these are little things, but they add up, especially when it would be so much easier to order a new umbrella from Amazon with one-click purchasing. And yes, I can afford a new umbrella, but I don't need to. It turned out that I already had an extra umbrella lying around. I just had to think about it and then find it, which showed me that what I really need is to be more aware of my possessions. Ultimately, I guess I'd rather switch jobs, or take a vacation with my husband, or save up for a down payment, than own a superfluous umbrella.
One of the ways my husband and I are trying to be more aware of these types of purchases is by keeping a record of everything we do buy using a good old-fashioned pen and paper system. We now keep this notebook on the kitchen table.
At the end of the day, my husband and I look at our bank account and see what purchases we made during the day. Dog food. Beer. Car registration fee. Stuff like that. And we write it down.
I think it's the double-whammy of both looking at our checking account every day and then writing those purchases down which has helped us be more aware of how we're spending our money. It makes us double-think any purchase, knowing it's a tangible expense that will have to be accounted for at the end of the day. It's the non-budget budget.
That means for every one of those eight items I listed above, I've had to ask myself, is this something I really need or want?
A little play-by-play:
1) Deadpool: Is this a movie I wouldn't mind waiting for until it comes out on video? Yes.
2) Kongs: We still have one kong left that's perfectly serviceable.
3) Butter dish: I've gone five years without one since the last one broke. Clearly, this is a low priority in my life.
4) Umbrella: Already had one hidden away in the closet.
5) Ironing Board: Neither my husband nor I wear clothes that need to be ironed.
6) Face Wash: I already have lots of beauty products. When they run out, I'll reassess whether this is something I really want.
7) Black shoes: If I'm working from home, will anyone care that I'm wearing brown shoes with a black sweater? Nope.
8) Eating out: This is the hardest one by far. All I can do is try and buy good food from the grocery store that we like cooking and eating. Always a struggle though.
What's funny is that this exercise has solved a little money mystery for us. At the beginning of each month, I would put $X.00 away into savings, but by the end of the month I'd routinely have to take out $Y.00 from savings and put it back into checking. Yes, it looked like I was trying to save too much. Except, if I did the math on our expenses, it was in theory possible to save $X.00. I just didn't know where the extra $Y.00 was being spent.
Turns out $Y.00 was being spent on garbage like I listed above. Buying junk we didn't need and eating an excessive amount of food at restaurants. Now I understand why, growing up, my parents never allowed us to eat out. All that money they saved? They used it to pay off their mortgage in just 16 years.
So yay! Now we have $Y.00 extra each month to help with the upcoming job transition. Which means more writing! Which has a thousand-fold greater worth to me than a new pair of shoes. Pretty neat.
Have you ever tried a new budgeting system? What worked for you?
Ah, sorry folks, this week got away from me. We went out on Sunday with some friends to a local brewery in Chapel Hill/Carborro (the excellent Steel String), and had a bit too much fun. Monday was all about hangover triage and I've been playing catch-up ever since. Don't you hate that? I'm not even a drinker, but man, when I do, I pay. Hard.
What especially bugs me is that I had an idea for a blog post and I had been writing it in my head all week in anticipation of Sunday, only to get off-track. Rather than speed write that post, I thought it would be better to save it for this coming Sunday, and in the meantime leave you writers with a time-hack.
Time is by far the most precious commodity in my life. It's one of the main reasons I'm leaving my job and expanding my editing business. I'm really excited to use those 2.5 hours a day I normally spend commuting to write instead.
But since I'm not planning on making the big career change until early summer, I'm still looking for better ways to hack my time. (For more time hacks, check out my earlier posts on canceling my gym membership and a quick weekday noodle soup that is a standard meal in my household.)
Today's time hack is all about writing. Establishing a daily writing habit is so key, but what happens when life interrupts and nibbles away at your precious hour? That's what happened to me this morning. I sat down to write, only to discover my dog had been sick overnight. So instead of writing, I cleaned up the mess and made her some rice to help settle her stomach. By the time that was finished, most of my writing hour was over and I needed to get ready for work.
So what do I do when I lose my writing hour? I find a quiet moment during the work day, you know, those odd little fifteen or thirty minutes between meetings or experiments, and I write myself an email. And in that email I write whatever it was I was going to write that morning. Or sometimes, I'll write a small scene for a later chapter of my work-in-progress (WIP).
Then I send myself the email and the writing is automatically saved in my gmail account, ready to be cut and pasted back into the WIP whenever I can get back to my normal pre-dawn writing routine. It's a nice break to the workday (take your breaks, they make you more productive overall), and it keeps my writing streak intact. It doesn't have to be linear, it doesn't have to be a work of art, but it's still good practice and a good use of your lunch break or downtime during the work day. And no, I don't feel guilty for doing this. I think it keeps me sane and happy.
Do you have a writing time-hack? Care to share?
Lately, whenever I’m reading a book, slush-reading, or working on my novel, I’ve been struck by this idea that in order to be good writers we have to unlearn practically everything we were taught in grade school about creative writing.
If you google "writing tips," one of the most common pieces of advice you'll find is to avoid dialogue tags. You should write "he said" or "she said," instead of "he growled," "he railed," "she whispered," etc. You keep the tag simple so it doesn’t distract from the story.
But when I was in the fourth grade, our teacher taped a large cartoon speech bubble to the classroom wall and on it she wrote, “Instead of Said.” Our lesson that day was to come up with dozens of goofy dialogue tags (e.g. bellowed, fumed, screeched, roared, etc.) to add to the speech bubble. We were encouraged to use those tags in our creative writing exercises throughout the year.
It’s no wonder then that when I slush-read, I see people using excessive numbers of these same phrases in their short stories. They’d been taught to in elementary school, just like I had! To be honest, I don’t think I stopped using bad dialogue tags until I read Stephen King’s thoughts on the subject in his excellent book, On Writing. But it’s funny, even now when I should know better, I still find myself trying to use words “instead of said” when I’m writing dialogue. The habit is hard to break.
And there are so many other ways well-intentioned elementary school teachers managed to turn us into bad writers, or at the very least, establish some very bad writing habits.
When my fifth grade teacher taught us to “show, don’t tell,” she never really explained what that meant. If you take that phrase literally, it’s becomes impossible to explain what a character is thinking. It’s hard to show thoughts. Instead, you get stuck describing scenes purely in terms of spatial physics. Stories get hyper-linear and boring because you’re showing every single thing that happens in excessive detail.
“Show, don't tell” has also created my biggest pet-peeve when I slush-read, which is excessive descriptions of body language; the tilt of a head, a shiver, clenched stomachs, pounding hearts, etc. It gets purple, distracting, and cliché fast. But how are you supposed to explain to the reader how a character is feeling if you're only allowed to "show" and never "tell."
Sometimes, I think it's better to just say your character was frightened as opposed to going into a paragraph long description about the character's bodily functions. Or use dialogue to your advantage. Or trust that the reader will know that under those circumstances anyone would be scared (trusting the reader is a massively undervalued skill in creative writing).
The truth is, “show, don’t tell,” is a gross over-simplification. You have to do both. You want to show as much as possible, but some things just have to be told to the reader. For a great explanation about “showing” and “telling” check out this brilliant blog-post by Emily Lowery.
In grade school, how many of you were taught the “Elements” of a story? Setting, Character, Conflict, Resolution, and maybe Theme? Probably all of us. It’s not that those aren’t real elements of a story, but it’s how they’re taught, like literal instructions on how to write a story. Step one: establish the setting. Step two: describe the characters. Step three: create conflict (things got a little vague when we got to this step). Step four: somehow, the conflict resolves itself and ends. If you were a “good” writer, you were the kid in class who could get all the way to Resolution, but I think 99% of us got stuck at Setting and Character.
The problem with this way of teaching writing is that it artificially divides the story into discrete components. It makes us believe that the “right way” to start a story is to begin with a physical description of the setting in hyper-descriptive language (because according to my teacher, good writing was descriptive writing, with lots and lots of adjectives). Then if you managed to get past your multi-paged description about the weather, only then did you get to Character, and you described them, in lots and lots of detail; their raven black hair, their almond eyes, their five-foot two-inch height, and their clothes, you could not skip their clothes.
It’s only when you’re older and you read good books do you realize that most authors spend as little time and detail on the Setting and Character as they can get away with. What did Holden Caulfield look like? I have no idea and frankly, I don't need to know.
When you divide stories into neat little elements and then teach your students to “show” us those elements using hyper-descriptive language, it gets really hard to know anything about the character beyond their physical appearance, even if that may be the least important part about them.
And Conflict? This seemed to be my teacher’s least valued part of the story. She wanted adjectives, lots of adjectives. Conflict and plot were secondary to the mechanics of the language she was trying to teach us. In retrospect, I can see that she was trying to get us comfortable with reading and writing more than she was actually trying to teach us how to build a good story (though you could make the argument that you’ll never be much of a writer, creative or otherwise, if you have no feel for storytelling).
But when everything you know about writing stories can be traced back “rules” you learned in the third-grade, well, it’s no wonder we struggle to write a decent short story or novel. It’s hard enough as it is, but it’s even harder when you’ve been taught a lot of bad habits.
So a funny thing happened to me on Friday.
I sort of accidentally told my boss that I would be leaving the lab in July.
Of course, it came out super awkwardly. That's when my contract ends anyway and it had been my understanding that it would be not be renewed due to lack of funding. So this was not exactly new information for my boss, but I don't think he knew I was making other plans to expand my scientific editing business.
He and I had a research update meeting on Friday and during that meeting he suggested I submit an abstract to a conference that's taking place at the end of July, which brought up question about my contract, which made him ask about my plans.
Instead of pulling my shoulders back, looking him in the eye, and telling him about my editing business, I did the classic female thing: I looked at the floor, made myself small in the chair, and stuttered as I tried to explain myself. I don't want to beat myself up about it now. I had no idea we were going to talk about my contract during that meeting, but regardless, I wish I had handled it differently. I wish I had been more confident.
It just felt weird, like I was breaking up with him and trying not to let him down too hard. I also felt a little defensive and embarrassed to tell him about my business. People in my profession don't quit academia to start a businesses. They look for employment, they don't make employment. They go into industry or a national lab. These are the two accepted routes out of academia. So I felt vulnerable telling him that I was doing neither of those things.
To be fair, his reaction was great. He seemed to like the idea. He asked me what I charged to edit a manuscript and then encouraged me to charge more. I think his point was simply, value yourself, which is always good advice.
So there it is. It's one thing to anonymously declare to the internet your intentions to leave your job, but when your boss knows you're not coming back, then shit just got real. I texted my husband afterwards and he wrote back, "Good for you! Big step :) I'm excited!"
Which I am too! It is exciting. This is something I've been thinking about doing for a while, and now it's really happening. For real reals. There's no backing down. Even if I had wanted to (which I don't), I could never go back to my boss and ask for another year now. Not after I told him I wanted to leave the group.
So it's really happening and I couldn't be happier!
A few weeks ago, I mentioned that I was having a minor problem finding a comfortable place to read at home. I think I may have found my solution...
My husband's home office! I'm not ashamed to say my husband has a better sense of style than I do. We met in an art class eons ago, so one of the first things I learned about him was that he had a great aesthetic sense.
It's a little hard to see in that photo, but it's a cozy room with great light that's decorated with his tin soldiers and natural science finds (turtle shells, deer skulls, sharks teeth etc.). We pushed our guest bed back into the corner, so it's nice and nookish, perfect for reading, especially because the cats also like the use it as a sunning spot.
So there you go, one reading nook without resorting to Pinterest madness. Isn't it funny to discover what you already have in your house and hadn't even thought to use?
Writer, editor, scientist.