Creating Amid the Thunderdome – Neil Kleid's 5 Tips for Balancing Family, Work & Creative Endeavors
Updated: Dec 10, 2021
November 18th, 2021. I’m writing from my kitchen pantry, back against the canned goods. I cannot get out. The kids are squabbling outside my door. They have taken the family room and the kitchen. I have barred the way, but cannot hold them long. Snacks. They want snacks and need me to check six different kinds of homework. I cannot get out, not if I want to hit this fifth-issue deadline. I cannot get out. They are coming.
Dramatic, to be sure, but behold the daily (and sometimes nightly) struggle of the comic book creator with a family.
Armed with a considerable workload—not to mention healthy ambitions for more—but also responsibilities to a day job, wife and kids. I’ve been spinning those good ol’ work-family-comics plates for nearly two decades…and as other creators with children, elderly parents and varied responsibilities may attest, finding the necessary, dedicated time and space to sit, think and dream never does get easier.
Sure, as creators we’re all passionate about making our comic books and graphic novels—it is an internal drive, an innate, beautiful need that we simply cannot ignore—but all of us have bills to pay. And for many of us, there is also homework to do, there are school lunches to be made, laundry to be done, doctor visits to schedule, soccer meets to attend along with many other little demands that slowly eat away the time that we might be writing, drawing, coloring or lettering. In my house, half the time I’m breaking up petty little ridiculous fights amid the brutal Thunderdome that is a house containing a thirteen-, eleven-, nine- and six-year-old. Hiding away in soundproof (sometimes!) studios and locking out the world as we build our own may work for some, but to many others—partners, parents and children alike—it also could mean shirking the responsibilities you have to the ones you love. And it’s harder to justify devoting yourself to comics—which can be a financial coin toss, and may not always put food on the table—instead of spending extra time with family, partners or on a job that could more easily (and more reliably) pay the bills and provide a work/life balance more agreeable to your supporting cast. Every minute toiling on a comic book, if that isn’t your full-time gig, becomes a necessary and precious treasure…but may be coupled with guilt, and the more demands, dependents or kids you have (this particular Author has four) the more you’ll find that you need to juggle.
But still; we make the comics. How do we do it? Even now, writing this article while staring at (possibly expired) cans of sweet corn and tomato sauce, knees brushing against seltzer bottles stacked by flavor, I can hear the familiar sounds of a pitched and heated Fortnite battle seeping through the cracks in my door, providing just another auditory obstacle to a writer attempting to string together a cohesive thought (I work best in silence; I know others listen to music or watch films or television, but that’s never been me.) The day is short and moments fleeting, so how have I been able to complete two graphic novels, half a novel, a fifteen-thousand-word prose story and seven pitches in 2021 while also managing a nine-to-five at-home day job which also channels my creative powers along with four different homework and meal schedules that begin at 3:30PM and end somewhere around 9:00PM, scattered family time, housework and laundry, shopping excursions and extracurricular activities (Soccer! Basketball! More Soccer!) which usually keep me “AFK,” as the kids put it, for most of the evening?
Frankly, my good-looking Readers, it isn’t easy.
But it is doable! As Exhibit A, allow me to share some tips and tricks I’ve learned and deployed over the years, creating comic books amid the whirling heart of a demanding, screaming, minute-gobbling Thunderdome.
(Caveat: Please remember that these are the tips and tricks that have worked for me. As Coach Beard brilliantly states in the charming and delightful Ted Lasso, “All people are different people.” What works for my situation may not work for yours. I’m sure that many of you good-looking and clever Readers are laughing at this article or scolding it because your situation may or may not be dissimilar to mine and, hey, that’s okay. You and I are different people. Your family, your job, your partners are not mine…and what works at Casa De Kleid may fail spectacularly at Tu Casa. But hey, if even any part of this helps someone out, then I will measure my article a vindicated and brilliant success.)
1. First, establish flexible office hours
Sure, this seems pretty obvious and every mom or dad out there is laughing out loud, knowing that no child, partner or parent in need will respect a closed door if said need feels absolutely critical (and aren’t they all?). So rather than setting a strict limitation of Office Hours with capitals O and H, I’ve amended the above to state “flexible office hours.” By this, I mean that sure, you can tell your family “Hey, from 10:00PM to 1:00AM Dad/Mom/Child/Whatever You Call Yourself is working and cannot be disturbed” with the understanding that only something critical—and you can work out between your loved ones, roommates, parents, children or partners the definition of “critical”—justifies disturbing those office hours. Look, if the hot water tank blows or a kid has a fever, office hours generally go straight to hell. If a soccer game was rescheduled during office hours and your partner can’t attend (or if you don’t have a partner and your kid wants to be the next Rapinoe or Ronaldo) then tonight’s office hours may have to be rescheduled or abandoned. Life happens, comic-book-making friends, and as stringent as we may want to be with placing our butts in seats, tapping or sketching away at a story, there are times where you just need to be flexible and present somewhere other than the work.
Establishing hours works both ways; not only can and should you set times where you, as a family member, are off-limits…but also times where you, as a family member, are fair game. As example: my day job work ends between 5-5:30PM, but the kids get home at 3:30PM and homework kicks in around 4:00PM. This means that while Dad is working, there’s an hour or so of overlap where, as I’m building app wireframes or QAing a website, I may have to stop and answer a question about long division or play IT support when my daughter can’t find an assignment on Google Classroom. Once Dad’s workday is done, it’s all about family—finishing homework, making dinner and prepping snacks for tomorrow, soccer carpool, laundry and so forth. Mom gets home around 7:00PM, and so we jointly spend time with the kids—and each other— watching TV, talking about our days, handling bedtime and so forth. I have two older kids now, and they don’t sleep until 10:00PM, but there’s a point where they’re studying, playing video games or hanging out alone, and so that’s when I have dinner with the wife, we spend some time, and generally cool down. My comic book office hours usually begin around 10:30-11:00PM and end around 1-1:30am depending on my workload. That gives me approximately two-to-three hours of focused, silent time and space to write whatever I’m focused on that night. Sometimes I end early, depending on my level of exhaustion. Sometimes I do more. No matter what, I usually give myself thirty-to-forty-five minutes of “cool down” time, where I’m on social media or watching television to transition from work to sleep.
Is it healthy? Probably not. Am I productive? Generally. Some nights, if my wife is home earlier, I get to start writing around 8:00 or 9:00PM and so I gain a better night’s sleep.
Look, it works for me; it may not work for you. The point being is that those dedicated night-time hours are hours my family knows I’m working and writing, and need the time and space to dream up worlds. And again, they’re flexible. Some nights you want to hang with your partner or have a date night. Some nights you need to drink with friends. And some nights are family movie nights. Remember when I said that office hours work both ways? I have a firm “No Work on Saturday Night” rule—it’s not only family time, but the one night when I get let myself just veg, hang out and do nothing. Which you absolutely need, which brings me to…
2. Sometimes it’s okay to not work
Look, we all have ambitions and these amazing stories in our head that have to get onto the physical or digital page. Every day, there are moments where I’m just breaking a story down or establishing character motivations in my head (yes, sorry to say, even during family time; the brain wants what the brain wants, to my wife’s chagrin.) And yeah, we jump on social media or see comic book announcements and our friends and peers are thrilled to talk about their new books, novels, comics, movies, and that white-hot streak of jealousy digs in and we’re worried that we aren’t writing, drawing or creating enough. Every minute doing something other than creating feels wasted, and it can be easy to get resentful and bitter, pushing away family or friends, unwilling to see movies, have dinners, play board games or spend the time we need to with others because it’s another minute not spent writing or drawing our stories.
Here’s the thing: that way lies burnout. You’re a human being — you can’t always be working. It just isn’t healthy. Earlier I mentioned that it’s probably not healthy for me to be working until 1:00-2:00 in the morning…and that’s true. My office hours are unhealthy, and I know it. That’s probably why I’ve taken on the No Saturday Night rule and do my best to find moments to breathe where and when I can get them (I’m an Orthodox Jew, and I love that for twenty-four hours, Friday at sunset to Saturday at sunset, I’m forced to shut down and turn off, spend time with family, friends or a book.)
Listen—and take notes on this one, because It Is Important, which is why it’s in uppercase—It Is Very Okay For You Not To Write or Draw.
You can be a human being and spend time with your significant other, your children, your family, friends and colleagues. Sure, if you’re on a deadline you may want to figure out when to spend that time in order not to fall behind (I see you, editors.) But part of setting office hours is also setting Mental Health/Self-Care Hours (also in caps, because they are necessary and should be somewhat inflexible) so that you don’t turn into an exhausted wreck. If you don’t take care of yourself—physically, mentally, emotionally—then not only will you suffer, but those around you may suffer if you’re tense, lashing out, depressed or frustrated. And then, after all that, the work may suffer, as well.
So hear it now: sometimes, it’s fine to walk away. Take a nap. Have a jog. Drink some tea. Walk a dog. See a movie or call a friend. The work will be here when you get back, if you’ve organized your workload in a manageable fashion.
3. It’s all about organization
Your Author just glanced at his To-Do list for the end of 2021 and besides finishing a script, it includes:
a. Revising a graphic novel outline and penning ten pages of that outline’s script
b. Two new comic book pitch documents
c. Continuing a novel in-progress
d. and this article
Let’s also not forget that Your Author has a day job with considerable deadlines and demands, the aforementioned quartet of kids and at some point hopes to spend time with his wife, television, and bed. Oh! And both Thanksgiving and Hanukkah are next week [Editor's Note: as of the time of writing this], which means that the kids are home from school on Wednesday night straight through Monday night, followed by Hanukkah festivities to deal with and school events, which means that ye olde office hours need to be extra flexible. So…noting all of the above, how and when will the unpaid creative work get done?
Thankfully, I’m pretty good with organizing my work and time. For instance, if I know this article—which has a deadline—needs to be written, that means something without a deadline—say, the novel—does not. I also know how long it takes me to write a single page of script or, say, one thousand words of prose. Generally, the first draft of a pitch document takes me about a week, with one-to-two days of polish. On deadline, if I have to hit a date for a novel or script, I can divide word count or page numbers by the days leading to the date, divide and conquer. I’m always doing Project Math in my head, on post-its, giving Writer Neil an honest estimation of how long he’ll need to accomplish a task divided by the amount of work that needs to be done. And then I simply work through it based on which project is due first, sometimes jumping to another project for a palate cleanser.
For instance: it’s Sunday now, and once this article is finished, I need to get that graphic novel outline revision and ten pages of script done by Christmas. Pretty easy, actually—I can revise the outline in one or two nights, and then write five pages of script on a good night. This week being Thanksgiving, I can finish revising the outline by Tuesday, and then try to get five pages of script done on Wednesday, leaving the other five and any polish for early next week (I don’t plan to write over Thanksgiving weekend, devoting myself to Family Hours.) But with the first night of Hanukkah being next Monday, that may mean limited office hours which means at most I’ll be able to polish, leaving the second half of the script for next Tuesday and polish on Wednesday, maybe Thursday, bringing me to December 2nd. That leaves roughly three weeks for the pitches and any work I can manage on the novel. Usually, I set myself a goal of one thousand prose words a night for a novel; if I start digging back into that on December 3rd, and stick to that goal, I can have approximately twenty thousand words written by Christmas (I excluded Saturdays in my count), which isn’t bad. But—and here’s the fun part—if during the next week, while revising the outline and writing the script, I need a mental break from the project and have the time…I can switch gears and start writing the novel earlier…adding maybe another ten thousand words to the count if I hit my nightly prose goal. That also leaves me three weeks to finish both pitches (one week to write, a day or two to polish) and by Christmastime, I’ll have accomplished quite a bit by just managing my set time during office hours, assuming no critical disasters derail my forward motion.
Look, it’s just math. If all you have is an hour per night, get an understanding of what you can accomplish in an hour. I can usually hit one thousand prose words in an hour (raw, not edited) which means that if I work an hour a night for two to three months (Not! Including! Saturdays!) I can end up with the fully formed first draft of a novel.
One hour a night, that’s all you really need. Get something done, in and around the distractions and demands. One hour, and three months later you can finish a novel.
What’s your available time like? What’s your actual time (no Saturdays, account for soccer carpool and other stuff)? How long does it take you to write, draw, ink, color or letter? Once you understand all of that, it’s a matter of plugging in the numbers and doing your best to maintain the hours, manage the work and reduce distractions while doing both.
Which leads us to two other key points:
4. The question of support
You know, it just bothers the shit out of me when an article like this might say “depend on your wife/husband/partner to help with the kids, etc,” because hey dumbass, not every parent has a wife/husband/partner. Yes, I’ll admit to being one of the many lucky enough to be married to a supportive, understanding person who knows Neil needs to write because of deadlines or the unknowable, internal drive that gives birth to his magical comic book worlds. She works late, and I cover the post-school home-front because I can…and in turn, when she’s home, if and when I need to shut my mental door and get shit done, she does the same.
But as Coach Beard said, all people are different people. Raising a kid alone, or having an ill or disabled partner, or living with an elderly or infirm parent (or two), and any number of different unique variables may not allow for the old good cop/bad cop situation when trying to establish your writing/drawing/whatever office hours. You may have less time in your day because you have no one else with whom to carry the load. Succinctly speaking, sometimes you have to do it all.
And shit, that’s hard.
Imagine juggling a day job, a child (or a few), a parent (or two!), home responsibilities, extracurriculars and also finding time to breathe, relax and unwind for your own mental health…and then layering on creating a book, comic, film, whatever in the few moments you have to spare. It sounds damn near impossible. Which is why instead of the tired, well-trod and limited statement “depend on your wife/husband/partner”…to my estimation, we may and could (again, I don’t know your life or specific situation) extend the general idea to those who depend on you for support.
Look, kids are not easy. They want your time, focus and are exceptionally impatient. Older kids want less of your time…but need more, because sometimes an older kid left to his/her/their own devices…well, disaster can lie that way, in certain cases. Elderly, infirm parents may also be the same—they need you, and in many cases are embarrassed about that fact. So when they do put demands on your time, you know they really need it. But here’s the thing about both kids and elderly parents, friends: they want to be part of your life, even if they’re not specifically saying it out loud. Yes, even teenagers. Sure, there’s going to be pushback and eye-rolls, but mostly, older kids want to be treated like adults. Younger kids want to be part of your life…and want to be treated like adults. Elderly and-or infirm parents? They want the same.
So whether or not you need the extra support, whether single or alone, one good tip I have for finding the support you need to create while also supporting one or more dependents is: let those dependents be part of your support.
My kids are amazing, but again—Thunderdome. Some days, it’s just fighting and sniping and eye-rolls and the like. But at one point or another, I have impressed upon them how important it is for me to find the time and space I need to write. Many times it’s a financial argument—“if I don’t hit this deadline, we can’t pay for x, y or z”—and other times it’s about how it can benefit them—“once I finish these pages, we’ll pop some popcorn and watch Shang-Chi.” Bringing them into the process helps make them feel like your partner in the process. Yeah, it doesn’t always work (“you better stop hitting your brother out there, or Shang-Chi is off the table and I’ll make you clean the kitchen!”), but it does make it less about something they can’t do and more about something they’ll achieve if they just help you out. I’ve had kids make comics at the table with me as I’m working on a script, bringing them into the process, and I’ve also tied my goals to theirs (“if I hit five thousand words this week, we all get Slurpees.”)
It’s harder with elderly or infirm parents, I know, especially depending on their state of mind or need. Look, sometimes they just want to talk, but others could be impending disasters. Often, they simply want to be part of your life, share in your successes, and be proud where and when they can so they can share your posts on the Facebook. But yeah, like kids, in some cases you’ll need to be flexible. Speak to them with respect and trust, make them understand how important it is for you to create—and gain the elbow room and mental space to do so—and nine times out of ten, they’ll be the support you need, often helping to remove the distractions so you can do the work…which leads to the last tip.
5. Know thyself…and thy obstacles
Damn, I just want to finish this episode of Locke and Key. Honestly, it’s been waiting for me—beckoning, like a twisted reflection in a mirror trap—and every night I promise myself I’m going to watch. But I never do. Or, oh! That stack of books sitting on my nightstand, the first of which I got for a birthday nearly six months ago. And I wonder what my friends are saying on Twitter? Also, who keeps me texting me? Is now the time to learn how to make a really good banh mi? Lord, what will I do when that video game I ordered finally shows?
Look, we can blame it on the kids or a day job, even on things we believe we have to or need to do around the house…but mostly, the things that are preventing us from sitzfleisch and getting shit done aren’t anyone or anything but us. You can set office hours, manage your time and workload, and even (the dream!) have your kids agree to calmly and quietly self-entertain for the night…but then you actually have to get the job done. And with more engaging media being created, developed and consumed than ever before, you now have to fight a second battle: one with yourself.
It’s much easier to spend hours watching television or burning through comics or books than hitting your page count. Hell, writing is hard; three seasons of Gargoyles are simply a click away. And when your kids are out in the family room watching Ratatouille or Aquaman, the urge to abandon your quiet space and join them on the couch can be…difficult to overcome. Carving out the time to create is half the battle; now you have to use it wisely. And thankfully, many of the above strategies can work to help you meet your daily or weekly goals.
Again, it depends on you and your support system. If I tell my kids we aren’t going to watch a movie until I hit my count, they’ll make sure I do it. Other times, like my children, I’ll tie leisure goals to my work ( “if I hit one thousand words, I’ll celebrate by watching Doom Patrol.”) Or alternatively, if the creating part of your life is your leisure time, work the other way (“once I finish the laundry, I get to write a thousand words.”) The key is discipline and finding a method which works for you—maybe hand off your phone so you don’t check the texts? Combine self-care and writing goals by thinking through a plot while running/swimming/meditating.
Just as assured I am that all people are different people, I can write with a certainty that distraction and excuses lurk around every corner. Know yourself, know the obstacles that prevent you from sitting down and doing the work. Make sacrifices where and if you can—maybe save the video game for Saturday night, the Night Of No Work? Read your book as a reward. What can you accomplish with the hour of television you’ve just sacrificed? Figure out what works best for you and those around you so that your office hours, the time away from family—time they would probably rather be spending with you—are being used successfully and to their fullest.
These are just a few of the ways I’ve learned to optimize the time I need to create, balancing it delicately against the time others need me. There are countless articles that might be written about managing a creative workload against a day job…and many unique tips and tricks folks like me have learned and fine-tuned while doing the same as they meet the responsibilities of a family.
Ask around, see how folks specific to your situation are handling it. Many are excelling and persevering despite demands on their time…others may be struggling or have quit because they can’t. All people are different people, remember? What works for me or her or them may not work for you. What I can say is that it’s achievable—and you can be a success, depending on how you define success—and that you’re not alone. I’m proof of that, and if you find me on social media or at a convention, I’m happy to share war stories from the front.
And speaking of the front, I have to turn my attention to my pantry door. The first child has broken through with a fraction worksheet, and the others are climbing behind, pleading for homemade nachos. The struggle continues, I’m only one man, and need to write three more pages in this script by evening.
Once more unto the breach, my comics-creating friends. My kids are coming. I’ll see you with this mini-series on the other side.
They are coming.
Neil Kleid is a Manager of UX & Product Design by day and a writer by night. His most recent and upcoming works include:
Savor, the YA culinary adventure graphic novel Kleid co-authored with John Broglia and Frank Reynoso, available now from Dark Horse
School of X, an X-Men prose anthology featuring his short story "Kid Omega Faces the Music," out December 7th from Aconyte/Marvel
Screaming for Vengeance, the official graphic novel based on Judas Priest's classic album, written by Neil Kleid and Rantz Hoseley, illustrated by Chris Mitten, Dee Cunniffe and Troy Peteri, out July 2022 from Z2 Comics