Saturday, September 15, 2012

Ranking Life

Being of an organized turn of mind, I've always found it easy to categorize things.  Picking favorites and arranging things from most to least appreciated is actually a process I enjoy, and it even helped me quite a lot when I was younger.  I got through college based on this ability to divide up my homework, start with the worst assignment and then finish with the best and easiest (since this is me we’re talking about, my reading for literature class was always last).

I'm of the Napoleonic mindset: good at marshaling my troops!
Once I started working full-time, however, I began to realize that my old approach didn't quite work. 

I got serious about writing in my junior year of college, plunging boldly into my first novel.  It was pretty easy to fit the new undertaking into the best-to-worst list which I keep in my head.  I’d charge through all my less agreeable homework, so as to leave myself plenty of time – almost every day – to get some writing done. 

Now I shall take a blatant tangent to ask:  does anyone else feel like college is simultaneously the most inactive and the most stressful time we all go through?  It’s curiously unreal, since we’re just learning how to be, not yet being.  Due to having no place yet, we feel constantly on edge about the future.  On the other hand, we aren't necessarily that active; often our schedules feature huge gaps of free time and leisure.  I think college is an essential period, but it’s still a strange part of life. 

College student caterpillar trundles lazily towards adulthood!
Anyway, after I graduated and started my first job, I realized just how unrealistic the college schedule is.  Suddenly I was working all day, with deadlines to meet and time-sheets to fill out if I wanted to get paid.  Even though I still considered writing my best-beloved pastime, suddenly it was impossible to include it every day.  I remember being astonished because I started The Art of Dying in college and finished 10 chapters in two semesters (9 months basically), but then it took me 7 months to finish the final 3 chapters, just because now I had to devote so much time to work.

Therefore, ever since realizing that work necessarily slows the pace of writing, I’ve been attempting to create a balance between the two.  Alternately I feel content or panicky or cranky or depressed or despairing or excited or pleased or industrious or harried, due to succeeding or failing at the balance.  Maybe sometimes I feel all of those things at once!  Writers and artists are quite good at complicated reactions to things, after all. 

Currently if I gave you a short list of my activities from most to least loved, I’d have:
1)      Interacting with people
2)      Writing
3)      Cooking
4)      Teaching
5)      Exercise
6)      Class Preparations
7)      Grading (notice it’s last, of course – who can love grading…not me!)

On the other hand, based on the fact that I get paid for teaching, class preps and grading, on my actual to-do list, those three things have to take absolute precedence.  After all, there’s no excuse for shirking duties when you receive money to perform them. 

So what allows me to compromise between my ideal list and my real obligation to work for the salary I’m paid?  Actually, it’s the fact that the number one element in my life is not writing but human interactions. 

Everything should connect and work together!
I know that artists and writers always have the temptation to become totally absorbed in their work.  It’s a reasonable temptation, since art is so satisfying.  While you create your product, you also somehow recreate yourself – a beautiful reality. 

However, what is art, and how can it be worthwhile, if you don’t build it on experience?  And what better way to gain experience than by interacting with those endlessly fascinating and intricately-minded creatures who we are? 

Therefore, one of the things that helps me when I feel the tension between being a writer and a teacher is to remember that above either of these things is my interest in other people, and my desire to interact with and learn from them.  Then I realize that both teaching and writing satisfy that interest, since in the former I work with my students and in the latter I tell stories of what I’ve learned from others. 

This realization may not ease the tension entirely, but at least it soothes me and reminds me that I’m never wasting my time.  After all, teaching satisfies my desire for good relationships with people, and then those relationships provide eventual fodder for writing.  It’s a healthy cycle. 

So, my advice when you’re feeling completely torn between two important occupations – especially if one of them is your art – is to look for some common element between the two.  Once you find the connection, after all, it’s hard to remain convinced the two undertakings are really tearing you apart.  Secretly, in fact, they may be working together to improve your skills in both.  


  1. I agree. If I hadn't started working as a school librarian, I'd never have become a YA author. Writers don't live in hermetically sealed bubbles. Their experiences inform what they write.

  2. Interesting how life can be, perhaps divided into 'occupations' - While not gainfully employed at the moment I am still greatly occupied by caring for a young family member, on top of 'household' duties. Volunteering, as well as other distractions, perhaps less occupational. :) The common element is 'life.' Which hopefully is the 'glue' helping to keep everything together. As I look around the room...I think I need to be less attached to a keyboard and more attracted to the items that need picking when I do have some 'free' time I can devote it without guilt to the joy of whatever craft I choose to employ.

    Have a great week.