Wednesday, October 26, 2011

One Step at a Time

This week's post is courtesy of Leslie Helakoski, a writer/illustrator and Regional Advisor with the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators.

Because I'm such a chicken, I said goodbye to my day job in stages. First, I quit my professional job to do something that didn't leave me creatively bankrupt—because what I really wanted to do was create books. Then I quit working full time at my low-pressure job and went to part-time because I was bored out of my mind—and because what I really wanted to do was create books. I quit the part-time job because my boss was getting increasingly irritated that I was always writing or researching when I should have been cleaning a shelf or some- thing—and because what I really wanted to do was create books. So fine, I finally quit. I was free to write, BUT . . . my family needed another source of income besides what my husband brought home. If I couldn't make money creating books, then I'd have to go back to a regular paycheck job.

Fear was a great motivator. For two years, I pushed myself hard from the moment my family left in the morning until suppertime and then often in the evenings and weekends as well. I couldn't relax and ate every lunch standing up in the kitchen so I could finish quickly and get back to work.

My back hurt from hours of sitting and one eye began to twitch. What? Leave my desk? But I had more to write, more to paint, more emails to answer, and author visits to schedule! I was becoming a one-dimensional workaholic. I stopped playing tennis, stopped gardening, stopped painting for myself, and stopped cleaning. (OK, I never kept a pristine house anyway.) I thought I would have more fun someday, when I caught up with things. I was working as a writer/illustrator because I thought it would be fun but I wasn't exactly happy. I needed to get some perspective. I needed to get a grip. I needed to make this work.

Staying inside day after day, especially in winter, drove me crazy but I had to stay home and write, didn't I? Didn't I? When I actually had a tremor in my hand and approached my naturopathic sister about treat- ment, she pointed out that I had to find some balance and asked what I usually did for fun. Umm . . . work?

I slowly started sneaking out to coffees with friends and going to the gym more, or visiting museums—during the day! If my husband asked how my day went, did I tell him that after three hours of work I couldn't write anymore so I spent the afternoon at the museum? No. Did I explain that after revising rhyme for a couple of hours, I had to use another part of my brain and played the cello all afternoon? No. After all, he can't leave his job when he gets overloaded at work and just take the afternoon off. Did I cover the phone to drown out the voices of friends and let him think I was at home working? Yes. I felt guilty when I stepped away from my desk. How could I rationalize taking music lessons or playing frisbee golf when I should be working?

I can conduct business all day but I cannot write all day. After a few hours, my brain is usually done. Every once in a while I have to go someplace where the people talk back and the animals don't. We all know that it's essential to step away from our writing for periods of time so that we can look at our work with fresh eyes, right? But I have an even better rationale for taking off to do something fun: play and fun help stimulate the creative thinking part of the brain that is responsible for ideas. Even Einstein said, "To stimulate creativity, one must develop the childlike inclination for play." So there.

Being at home and working on books is wonderful. I love it most of the time. But it can be isolating and stifling, not to mention tough on the back. My desk will never be completely cleared of things to do. But do I want to stay there all day, every day? I'm trying to write fun books, here. What kind of writer will I become?

I still spend plenty of time in my chair, drooling over manuscripts while my yard goes to hell and my tennis balls go flat. And sometimes, fear creeps in when I step away from my desk and I have to push away a pang of guilt. Breaking up some of my workdays keeps my mind fresh and my body moving. And guilt totally messes with the energy flow. I make a point to include play in my schedule for BALANCE and because . . . what I really really want is to be happy . . . and of course, create books.

Leslie Helakoski writes humorous picture books and sometimesbut not alwaysillustrates them. She lives in Michigan with her husband, three children, and one small white fuzz-ball of a dog. Her books include Woolbur, Big Chickens, and Fair Cow. She is currently at work revising and illustrating her seventh book, Under the Table, which will be released in the spring of 2013. She is on the web at


  1. Great post, Leslie. Interesting to see how you worked things out. Now I'm going to go take a look at your books-- I some fun play time too!

  2. I can totally relate! While I'm grateful to be able to stay home and write, I also feel guilty which leads to accepting a steady stream of volunteer jobs, which then makes me too busy to write! No need to tell you about volunteer jobs- thanks for all you do for SCBWI-MI!

  3. Fun to hear about your journey, Leslie. Thanks for sharing. I, too, had a time when I worked seven days a week, every moment I could. I felt anxious whenever I wasn't at the keyboard, but sometimes I would sit there for hours and not write at all. Thank God, I have more balance, now. Someone famous, I can't remember who, said, "Writing is all about managing the anxiety."