I published my first story when I was 8 years old. This is the same age as my strong-willed son, who proudly refers to himself as a mathematician. Although he is indeed proficient in math, I’m convinced he mostly does this as a way to stick it to the establishment, also known as his parents, and in particular his English professor mom. This is undoubtedly the consequence of being interested in so many things that he bounces from task to task, finding the fine art of reading and writing to be a time-consuming, slow-paced plod. I, on the other, spent my childhood reading books, writing stories, and staring at strangers as I turned their innocuous interactions into potential Nancy Drew meets Dynasty scandals. I could spend hours hidden under a blanket fort with my nose in a book or a worn-down pencil in hand. While some kids collected trading cards, I collected composition journals. At 8 years old I was certain I was just an odd child who loved dissecting sentences and independent reading time in school. It was my grandmother who thankfully explained to me that I wasn’t odd; rather, I was a writer. Later I learned I was, indeed, an odd person, but that has actually aided my writing even more.
To punctuate my newfound identity my grandmother convinced an editor of a community newspaper to feature my debut story “How the Pig Got Its Snort.” It was a medical drama set on a farm where the pigs began to snort due to untreated colds. From that moment on I was a writer, and all roads were supposed to lead to a slew of best-selling novels, a beachside writing villa and a floor-to-ceiling personal library, transforming my blanket fort into the fortress of my dreams.
As life would have it, the novels are still being written and are yet to be published. My personal library is wedged between my husband’s desk and my toddler’s trampoline. And if I squint just right, on a rare day with no L.A. fog, I can make out something that looks like the beach, which is fine by me because I have little time for villa living with the lecturing and grading load of my full-time job teaching English.
My grandmother’s prophetic claims didn’t say anything about being a professor. George Bernard Shaw, on the other hand, did assert, “those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach.” It is in this paradox that I have to reconcile: How can I be both a teacher and a writer, and how can I do them both well?
In an often-winding road to an answer, I have adopted four rules in my attempts to create some symmetry in the insanity of juggling teaching and writing:
Rule #1: Recognize and Accept There is No Such Thing as Balance
Maybe you are a morning person and dawn is the best time for your creative juices to flow. That’s great, except for that one semester where you end up teaching an 8 a.m. class and have to brave traffic and your son’s third-grade drop off all before teaching English 110. It is in this space where you must adapt and embrace the fact that your commitment to writing means nurturing that relationship in a more flexible fashion. In my case, my writing process most resembles one of those cartoon bombs from the 19th century. I have a slow-burning match cord filled with ideas that I tuck away during various times of the day. On my work commute, while waiting at my son’s drum practice, or even in my dreams, the fuse continues to burn. Eventually, it reaches the gunpowder and explodes. It’s at this time that I write feverishly. Oftentimes I’m inspired in the early morning, but I’ve learned that if that time slot isn’t available I must strive to write in whatever interval I can unearth. Same thing goes for marathon grading and there are definite weeks where one priority takes slight precedent over the other. Unlike the Shaw reference, one adage I can uphold is “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” Following those off weeks, namely finals week, where my writing takes a major back seat, when I do return to the page I often produce some of my better work. Without guilt or shame, I sit down. I greet my characters. I start again.
Rule #2: When Your Students Write You Should Write
During my first few years teaching, every spare moment of the class was spent doing something I thought was professorial. If the students were working on an activity I was going over my lecture notes. If they were taking a quiz, I was calculating grades. In retrospect, I imagine I felt those actions meant I was being a noble member of academia, but in hindsight I’ve come to realize I was engaging in a missed opportunity for experiential exchange. Now when I give my students a journal prompt I write a response as well. When they are tackling a free write, I’m circled up with them, letting my own pen wander across the page. Sometimes I share my musings, and at other times, the simple act of modeling the work of writing benefits my students and my own craft. An entire chapter of my current novel-in-progress was inspired by a free write created in my developmental English class. I will forever be grateful to the purity of that place comprised of students with raw talent and blossoming potential.
Rule #3: Ask for Help, which is Synonymous with Asking for Respect
Being a writer who teaches or a teacher who writes means I have to train those around me to respect my time, and I have to learn to ask for help when the craziness of the world comes careening down upon me.
I capitalize on my first day of class by expanding my typical day-one activities into a lengthier discussion of a writer’s life. We talk about commitment, the drafting process, overcoming writer’s block. And, we talk about respect. Respect means showing up to my office hours during our agreed upon meeting time. Respect means understanding that I have a self-imposed 24-hour window to respond to all emails and while I may reply sooner, email is not a direct pipeline to my editorial services. Respect also means I am not a personal editor. I am a professor purposed to teach, trained to comment and periodically inspired to remind students that spell check is their friend. Respect essentially means requiring students to respect my time because, after all, that time could be spent writing, raising my own little humans or squinting my eyes just right to catch a better glimpse of the beach. I repay that respect by honoring their time and by returning essays that are generous in feedback and thoughtful in delivery. I also show my respect by acknowledging the reality that writing is just as much a process for my students as it is for me; therefore, a piece of writing is sometimes deserving of a second and third, and dare I admit, fourth chance to get it just right.
With regards to my family and friends, I’ve had to compel them to consider my teaching career in no way means I’ve given up writing for a “real job.” Likewise my writing career doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy teaching (which in many ways and for many reasons, I do). Despite some social skepticism, I truly consider myself both a writer and a teacher. Maybe it’s the super powered XX chromosomes of our womanhood that allows for women to multi-task in a variety of ways. Maybe it’s a knack born out of necessity and passed down throughout history. All I know is that on any given day, I can be more than one thing. Teaching my family to embrace this truth is both a matter of respect and a springboard for reminding them that they should invest in my dreams just as much as I invest in theirs. As a result, when I have a deadline for a piece, or a breakthrough in a problematic area of my plot, or a stack of essays collated into a replica of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, I ask for help. I invite my family into my two-pronged profession, sometimes for artistic feedback, sometimes for babysitting and sometimes for cheerleading. I pride myself on being the loudest voice at my son’s soccer game, so why shouldn’t I garner a cheering squad too?
Rule #4: Make Your Own Rules
At the end of the day, when you curl into bed and try to turn down the volume of your relentless thoughts, the best advice I can give you is to make your own rules. The seedlings of my novel were crafted on hospital notepads recovered from a diaper bag years after my middle son’s surgery. My fall semester grades are typically turned in on my laptop connected to a hot spot in my husband’s truck while we travel on our annual winter trip to Yosemite. My characters and I have internal conversations in between carpools, wiping baby snot and drool and imploring my untrained dog to heel. My black-humored friends, my supportive husband, my family and even my children’s teachers know that Monday through Thursday I will be dressed in attire appropriate enough for public view. On Fridays, however, when I don’t teach, try to grade, hope to write, but sometimes end up binging on Netflix, they will likely find me in yoga pants, but not practicing yoga, or in Christmas pajamas long after the season has passed. My Friday fashion faux pas are spurred by the fact that I make my own rules, I ask for help when I need it, I write with and for my students, and I gave up on the idea of balance eight years ago when my bourgeoning mathematician was born.