Thursday, June 3, 2021

A Teacher Who Writes, or a Writer Who Teaches?

I began my dual career path as a teacher-who-writes twenty-six years ago, give or take.  Honestly, trying to do both meant I didn't write all that often or all that much. Teaching, especially when you're new at it, will swallow all of you, if you let it--demanding your time, your energy, and your love and leaving you depleted. Not the best recipe for a creative life. 

image source
Like most teachers who survive in the field long enough to be called veterans, I did eventually learn to set some boundaries and work on that ephemeral dream we call a "work-life-balance." 

That required being strict with myself, some compartmentalizing, and fighting off the guilt goblins barnacled to my soul. Not easy for a someone with an empathetic soul with a strong drive to help--you know, the kind of people who becomes teachers. 

But, creative life aside, it's essential to avoid burnout and make teaching a sustainable career choice. 

Failure to do so is how you win teacher of the year, but it's also how you end up quitting the career after only a few years. 

Even after I'd established some boundaries and limited how many hours a day my teaching life got, my writing life still came in fourth most of the time, after teaching, family, and community. 

Writing, after all, is solitary, just for me, and that seemed selfish. There are healthy forms of selfishness, but I was raised a lower middle class American woman in a blue collar family AND became a teacher, so finding a healthy level of selfishness and accepting the idea that self-care is not immoral . . .well, that took some time. 

Until I was in my mid-thirties or so, writing was something reserved for moments of passion or crisis--a way of processing and coping, or expressing feelings so strong they could not simply be sublimated into other kinds of work. 

image source
Then, after my second marriage when my second child was born, I had a bout of post-partum depression. I'd never dealt with the more clinical, longer-lasting side of depression, and honestly, I wasn't doing very well. I didn't understand why I wasn't happy when I "ought to be." 

Sweetman, ever observant and kind, had noticed in our courtship and marriage what a solace writing was for me. He pushed me to make regular space for it in my life, even helping me find a local critique group so I'd have a schedule. (It's like he *knows* me :P).  

It worked, at least in terms of the post-partum. As it had always been, writing was a solace and I felt so much more balanced when I gave time to my voice and my heart's truths in this way. 

And I started writing more regularly--still in fits and starts in the corners of my life, but SO much more often than I had ever done before. And my new writing community made my writing better than it had ever been before. 

I might have stayed there--a happy hobbyist--the rest of my life if not for the next moment of crisis. 

I turned 42. 

Now, as all readers of Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy know, 42 is the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. Even though turning 30 and 40 had not phased me, turning 42 did. 

image source
So far as midlife crises go, mine was mild. A haircut, some new clothes, lots of fantasizing about exotic travels. I didn't run off and join the circus, adopt up any new addictions, or take up with a younger man. 

I did, however, wallow in a feeling of dissatisfaction and low-key restless anger (mostly directed at myself) for a bit. 

That's when I decided to make a commitment to my writing life. To give it a *real* go. So, what did that mean? 

1. I stopped teaching English and become solely a Spanish teacher. Most of my jobs up to that point had been some combination of the two. The feedback load and external scrutiny for English teachers is crushing AND the literature and writing work pulls from the same energy as my writing life, so doing both was more than I could handle. 

Spanish is an elective, and at the beginning levels, where I teach, feedback on writing amounts to reading a few sentences and assessing whether the kid said what they meant to say. MUCH simpler. 

2. I laid claim to more time. We had a family meeting. By this time, my kids were older: 14 and 7, so they didn't need me at the same levels they had when they were younger. They were able to take on a little more independence, and it turned out they were willing to do so, because a happy mommy who is sometimes unavailable was preferable to a grumpy mommy, even if she was there all the time. 

Since it was hard for me to get enough separation and focus at home, I went elsewhere to write. Coffee shops, the library, the park, even just sitting in my car. When my own discipline got better, I started being able to work at home, even without an office. I shot for 250 words a day at first. 

It worked! I began to finish things, polish them, submit me, and see them accepted and published! I collected external validations like books contracts and royalties . . .even an award!  Over the next few years, I noticed the shift. 

I was now a writer-who-teaches, instead of a teacher-who-writes. 

My core identity centered around writing instead of teaching. When I met new people, I mentioned writing first. I've now written every single day for more than seven years. 

I still love teaching, and I still invest in my students and their success, but I no longer base my own feelings of success and worth on it. Too much of it is beyond my control, and making it the center of my identity was eating me. Teaching has always been both a calling and a job, but I've decided it should not also be my identity. 

Writing, on the other hand, is mine. And whether anyone ever accepts another piece of work for publication or not, I will still be a writer and I will still have all my creations, and what they have meant to me.

So, as I move into summer and shift gears into my yearly couple of months of being *just* a writer while I'm on summer hiatus from teaching, I feel a joy akin to coming home after a long journey. 

1 comment:

  1. Committing to a dream or a wish is empowering and life changing. I'm happy you were able to commit to your writing life and that the shift worked.