Blog Archives

The Writing Life: Juggling Priorities

by Sherri Burr


Recently, I read T.D. Jakes’ book Instinct and was startled by the chapter on juggling priorities. The author discussed juggling as “giving each object just enough of a push so that all items remain suspended and none falls out of sequence.” I thought of my efforts to make time for my writing life while working full time, attending to family obligations, volunteering to help others, practicing a healthy lifestyle, and looking after my home. In short, like the readers of this column, I have a lot of balls in the air.

As writers, we type stories, edit material, shepherd work through the publishing process, market and promote the work. Depending on how many projects writers have on their desks, they could be juggling all of these. Each takes time, and yet are required to manage a successful writing career.

Writers need sustained work time. Scheduling thirty, sixty, or ninety-minute blocks to put words on paper can be helpful. If I get on a roll, I hit the timer to add another block. When I have a passion project, I can’t wait to read and write about my subject.

So how does one decide to accept other opportunities that take time away from writing and other necessary priorities related to family, work, and home? Do you say “Yes” and add another item to juggle? How do you know when your schedule has reached its saturation point?

I know I have reached schedule saturation when even the thought of taking on another commitment causes stress. Ultimately we have to say “No” to people when a “Yes” could bring all the balls crashing down.

Adding one more meeting means less time to write, and the occasion divides the day. This can lead to missed deadlines and the inability to do any work at all because of the feeling of being overwhelmed.

Within two months this year, I received four offers to join not-for-profit boards. One group met twice a month and that was a non-starter. As I contemplated another offer from a board that met once a month, I looked at my calendar and noticed that their board meeting date conflicted with a previous obligation. Even though the group offered to move the time of their meeting, I just couldn’t see how I could add another monthly commitment to my calendar. For a third board, the executive director said they met bi-monthly and communicated by email in between. That felt worse as I often struggle to read all the email that currently descends into my box. One recruiter mentioned the seriousness of the board work. As the guardian of a brother in a coma, I already make solemn decisions. Just the mere mention of the word ‘serious’ made me want to run.

I finally decided to decline all four board offers until I finished other volunteer projects or freed up time from my university job.

I believe there has to be a good reason to nod an acceptance.

I recommend writers consider saying “Yes” to those offers that bring joy, pleasure, and peace into your life. Writers must intersperse fun activities between obligations. Fun activities and passion projects feed your soul. They make life pleasurable so you can endure the serious and take delight from the prestigious.

For example, after taking several sets of golf lessons, I finally play with enough confidence to make it enjoyable. Fortunately in New Mexico many golf courses substantially discount their fees to encourage late afternoon play. With over 300 sunny days a year, I have become enthralled by the mountain views and gorgeous New Mexico skies. If given a choice between attending additional meetings and playing golf several times a week, guess which one I’ll choose.

At the end of each day, I review what I did that was gratifying. Did I type pages for my next book? Did I help someone? Did I golf in a nice surrounding? Did I see a comedy movie or watch a fascinating television show like How to Get Away with Murder?

There are things that we have to do, and then there are those we want to do. A balanced life requires juggling between both sets of undertakings. So off I go. Today’s writing is done and nine holes are calling my name.

A Short and Happy Guide to Financial Well BeingSherri Burr is the Regents’ Professor of Law at the University of New Mexico School of Law where she teaches Entertainment Law, Intellectual Property Law, and Art Law. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, Princeton University, and the Yale Law School, she has authored or co-authored 20 books, including A Short and Happy Guide to Financial Well-Being (West Academic, 2014). Sherri is also a long-time member of SouthWest Writers and a regular contributor to the organization’s newsletter SouthWest Sage.

This article was originally published in the December 2014 issue of SouthWest Sage and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

The Writing Life: Finding the Fight and the Fun in Your Work

by Sherri Burr


Recently, fortune blessed me with the opportunity to watch live tennis at a high-level tournament in Ohio. As I observed tennis star Serena Williams fight back after losing the first set to win the next two sets and claim the match, I thought about how much we writers can learn from her determination to succeed.

Just as tennis players face the constant threat of losing points, games, sets and matches, we writers often confront rejection. Author Gregg Levoy (This Business of Writing) once told a SouthWest Writers audience that if you are not constantly receiving rejection letters, you are operating too far into your comfort zone. I initially thought this harsh as no one wants to receive rejection letters. But his larger point resonated. If you constantly put out work that gets accepted, perhaps you are not challenging yourself to go to the next level. Are there higher levels of publications that you have not submitted to for fear of rejection? This is like the tennis player who only plays players who are worse than they are. Where’s the test? Where’s the opportunity?

By daring ourselves to query top book and magazine publishers, we increase our risk of rejection but we potentially set ourselves up for great rewards. Tennis players know that if they want to win the big tournaments, the Grand Slam events, they have to constantly improve their games. This requires honest assessments of weaknesses and strengths. Do they have an accurate serve, which allows them to claim free points? Or a weak serve that leads to double faults? Do they have a lightning-accurate forehand, or one that constantly sails long? Is their backhand hit with power, or does it soft-land on the other side of the net and permit the opponent to hit a punishing return?

For writers, do we write articles with humor, or do our attempts fall flat? To predict an audience’s reaction requires test driving the material. This is where critique groups that require writers to read their submissions can be absolutely critical to writer success. As you deliver your words out loud, you can obtain an instant reaction as to whether the material is hitting the intended emotional cues. If your critique group members react by laughing out loud or crying, then you know you are hitting the right level. If there is no reaction, then you know you have to go back to the drawing board.

This is why I prefer critique groups whose members read the material compared to those who pre-send the material by email and then discuss it when the group meets. In the former, you can instantly see the reaction. In the latter, the person might tell you they found something funny but you won’t know how funny. Were they falling out of their seat with laughter or did a bemused look cross their brow?

Similarly in tennis, a speed gun measures the serve. Players don’t have to guess how fast a serve was, they know. After Croatian player Marin Cilic won the 2014 US Open, he was interviewed about his suspension for four months during 2013 for having a banned substance in his urine tests. Cilic used the time to practice his serve and to work on finding the enjoyment in his game. Others might have spent the four months in “woe is me” mode. Instead, Cilic used it as an opportunity to improve.

When life gives an opportunity to remove ourselves from the normal and reassess, take it as a golden opportunity to improve. Examine weaknesses and strengths. Find the fun in your work. That’s where long-run success lies. That’s where the willingness to fight in difficult moments arises. At the Ohio tournament, Serena Williams battled from a set down to win the semi-final match against Caroline Wozniacki. She won her next match in straight sets and the U.S. Open for the sixth time by beating the same opponent in the finals. Williams took note of her earlier struggles and improved her game.

For writers, progress can come from reading and writing daily, as well as signing up for writing courses. When writing is fun, abandoning your life’s work never enters your mind. You commit to fight until the last letter is struck on your keyboard. Writers don’t retire; the ideas keep flowing until they take their last breath. Challenge yourself to submit to different publishers. The successes may surprise and amaze you.

A Short and Happy Guide to Financial Well BeingSherri Burr is the Regents’ Professor of Law at the University of New Mexico School of Law where she teaches Entertainment Law, Intellectual Property Law, and Art Law. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, Princeton University, and the Yale Law School, she has authored or co-authored 20 books, including A Short and Happy Guide to Financial Well-Being (West Academic, 2014). Sherri is also a long-time member of SouthWest Writers and a regular contributor to the organization’s newsletter SouthWest Sage.

This article was originally published in the October 2014 issue of SouthWest Sage and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

The Late-Blooming Writer

by Olive Balla

Olive Balla245You’re over fifty, your kids are raised, your relationships are simple, you’ve learned most of life’s lessons firsthand, and now you want to write. Welcome. Welcome to the ranks of Late-Blooming Writers. As one of the aforementioned, I’ll share some of the bits and pieces of information gleaned along my path toward publication.

First, set a goal. Want to write meaningful poetry? Want to knock out a bestselling novel? Write down what you want to make happen. And then put it someplace where you’ll see it. Often. Next, stretch your brain-muscle. A good way to do that is to meditate. Thousands of pages of research indicate that meditating a few minutes a day will change the actual physical make-up of your brain. So will Sudoku, or jigsaw and crossword puzzles. And you’ll need to grow a tough skin. Not the kind that insulates you from the world, or squeezes the juice from your sensitivities. But the kind that allows the slings and arrows of rejection to roll harmlessly off as you do the trial and error thing to find your Writer’s Voice.

Then you’ll need to bone up on the basic rules of grammar and the elements of style. Strunk and White offers a small but priceless treasure trove of style tidbits. Besides learning the difference between showing and telling, you’ll need to use strong verbs, stay away from passive voice, and use few, if any, adjectives or adverbs. Oh, and you would be wise to eschew any iteration of the verb “to be.” You get the idea. Just as with any craft, you must first learn the rules, beginning with the basics.

Pitfall number one: Writer Entitlement. It’s an interesting but recurring phenomenon in wannabe writers, that their opinions about their own writing skills outshine the reality. I’ve read this in countless articles and blogs, so there must be something to it. We’ve always been told how well we write, so we figure our success is assured. However, none of us have been born with the Consummate Writer Gene already firmly installed. The kind of writing that gets published requires hard work and focused attention, followed by vigorous, time-consuming (often painful) revision.

Pitfall number two: Memoirs. Once you’ve generated dozens of chapters of the novel you can’t quite finish, after writing several essays and short stories, and once you’re absolutely certain you’ve reached the apex of writing competency, you’ll find yourself considering the possibility of writing your memoirs. Some would say it’s never too early to chronicle your life experiences. But unless your aim is to produce something solely for the historical value it might have to your family, it seems to me a better idea to put a memoir on hold—at least until after your first book is published. Although your life has doubtless resembled a roller coaster in its hairpin curves and surprising twists and turns, it’s tough to sell a memoir until someone, somewhere, knows your name. That is, unless you dated someone famous and decide to write a kiss-and-tell. Note: Just a suggestion, but if you want to write your memoirs as revenge for a lifetime of wrongs, you might consider finding a good attorney to cover your back. Libel suits can be expensive indulgences.

Pitfall number three: You believe the only-partially-true statement that all one has to do to achieve publication is to write. A lot. But the sad truth is it takes much more than cranking out ream upon ream of verbiage to make one’s way into the semi-rarified strata of published writer. Unless writers have occasion to be catapulted into the focus of the national news media, they must learn the ropes of the publishing industry, subscribe to various writers’ magazines and e-zines (or better yet, start one), join critique groups, build an extensive platform, and basically eat, drink and sleep writing. The key is to never stop learning and revising yourself.

Pitfall number four: You fear time is against you. Late bloomers often fall victim to this downward spiral of thought. You grow more and more impatient as the days, weeks, and months go by and your folder of rejections thickens. But hang in there. The process will not be hurried. Google writers who were published after the age of fifty and revel in the knowledge that you’re not alone.

The good news is that hundreds of books have been written on the subject of writing. Everything from workbooks to software is available. Pick one and get started. You’re on the ground floor, so there’s nowhere to go but up. Good luck. And as Tiny Tim said, “God bless us every one.”

AnArmAndALeg72Olive Balla, author of suspense novel An Arm and a Leg, is mother of 3, grandmother to 13, great-grandmother of 4, a retired educator, and part-time professional musician. Having been everything from secretary at a used car dealership, a university student, and a high school Spanish teacher, Balla states her characters are, in part, amalgamations of people she’s met. Living with her husband Victor in the Albuquerque area, she spends her spare time in a small woodworking shop designing and building everything from breadboxes and wine racks, to a porch bench. Visit her website at:

This article was originally published in the January 2013 issue of SouthWest Sage and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

Sign Up for Elerts  Stay Connected

SWW YouTube Videos

Search Posts


More information about SWW Programs can be found on WhoFish.