Patience and Courage: Finding the Balance between Teaching and Writing

I can count the days: seventy-seven. This is a very long time to go without writing a single sentence that has nothing to do with confirming a meeting over email, reminding my husband via text message to add chocolate-covered pretzels to our grocery list, or scribbling on a pink Post-It, Ploughshares blog!!! It is no wonder that seventy-seven days ago is also around the time when I started my teaching job in Boston Public Schools. Five days a week I teach English Language Arts to one hundred seventh and eighth graders.

I have taught before; I have been a teacher for almost ten years in public schools, after-school programs, non-profits, and universities. So, theoretically, I should have known this was going to happen, this…drought. I should have known to accept the fact that I would have my personal essay manuscripts abandoned on the corner of my desk, folders labeled “story ideas” completely smothered by student work written in bubbly middle school handwriting—sometimes written in orange gel pen—and that my beloved laptop might gather dust (in addition to my dozens of drafts for essays and stories and oh yeah, my novel).

Am I being bleak? Probably. I love teaching. I love how one day last week my student Angel, fourteen, sat slouched in the back of the classroom with his hood on, immersed in the pages of Drown (a book I had given him essentially to challenge his claim that all books sucked), laughing so hard that tears filled his eyes.

Many people, including my students, think that teachers have it easy—our day stops at 3 PM, we don’t work in the summer. Last Friday an eighth grader overheard me whisper, “TGIF.” Then he asked sarcastically if I was going to run home after school and read a book. I wanted to shout, I WISH. Endless meetings, grading, lesson planning, parent communication, in addition to life stuff—dog walking, laundry, food shopping, bill paying, email, cooking, cleaning, calling the landlord about the dishwasher, calling the mechanic about the rattling noise in my Ford’s engine, going to the dentist, going to the gym, updating my voter registration, whatever it is that given day—it all slices away at the precious minutes left in each twenty-four hour period for working on my novel.

Not that I’m not working at all on my writing. I am blog writing, reviewing manuscripts, sending out submissions, and I am in a writer’s group that meets every other Sunday night. Is the proportion of what a writer I know calls “ass in the chair” time to that of… “ass out of the chair” time different now that I am teaching so much? Yes. Is it easier for me to complain about this fact than to do something about it? Perhaps.

A few weeks ago, when I was feeling particularly deflated, I emailed a mentor and friend, Askold Melnyczuk. He replied: 

Here’s a little bit from Beckett about working inside tight schedules (he wrote it in a letter to a young French poet):

“…nothing is more hostile to poetry than a ‘professional literary milieu…If you must write, you should do it in the face of all opposition. It was in the night, exhausted & sick after ten hours at the Berlitz School that Joyce wrote Ulysses. Do not spend too much more time on culture & reading, these are traps. When everything conspires to make the thing impossible, when you are tired, worried, with no time, or money, it is then that things get done….So, patience & courage.”

The creative process is a mysterious one. Some days, weeks, months, I feel I am writing by filling the well. I don’t underestimate this point. Dreaming, note taking, talking through the knots of a manuscript while walking the dog, all are writing to me. It makes the “ass in the chair” time that much more productive, that is, when I finally reach it. What I can do better: get up earlier, go to bed later, leave the dishes in the sink, learn to write in smaller increments, RSVP no.

Truth is, I have been writing my whole life and I know I will continue to write for the rest of my life. Artists never retire. Storytellers, at least this one, can’t imagine a life without sharing her stories.

Patience and courage worked for Joyce. Here’s hoping it can work for me, too.

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About Jennifer De Leon

Jennifer De Leon is the winner of the 2011 Fourth Genre Michael Steinberg Essay Prize. Her stories have appeared in Ploughshares, Ms., Briar Cliff Review, Poets & Writers, Guernica, The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2010, and elsewhere. She has published author interviews in Granta and Agni, and she has been awarded scholarships and residencies from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Hedgebrook, Macondo, and others. The editor of the anthology, Wise Latina: Writers on Higher Education (University of Nebraska Press, 2013), she is also working on a memoir and a novel.
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4 Responses to Patience and Courage: Finding the Balance between Teaching and Writing

  1. Jennifer, I can definitely relate to this. Right now I am supposed to be working on a short story competition, but I checked my email and saw Ploughshares and well…here I am. I, too, am a teacher-learning specialist, writing workshop, tutor, as well as a homeschooling mom. Between book promotion, blogging, answering emails, reading, researching, and entering competitions, I haven’t made time to work on the novel I began this summer. However, I have learned that much of our business is a result of perfectionism which is also masked as procrastination. I recently wrote a blog post on this topic where I reviewed an extremely helpful book that is putting me back on track. Carpe diem!

  2. Yes, Jenn, well said. I know just how you feel. Whenever I congratulate myself that things have settled down to just the right amount of ass-in-the-chair time, something happens to knock me out of the chair and into the world, and before long I can’t find my way back. It’s gotten so I can’t read interviews with writers who leave their house in the morning and go to some study across town or in the woods or even up in the attic, and write from 9 to 4, and then emerge for a drink. I can’t do that–or won’t do it–when would I take my grandson to feed the ducks?

  3. Bill Carson says:

    First off, if you want to write, you will find the time. And it sounds like teaching is a way for you to pay those bills–which is fine–but ask yourself, are you a writer who’s teaching or vice versa? If the former, then your students are getting the short end of the stick. Take a sabbatical and write what you need to. Every writer has “life stuff.” Every teacher has them too, and the great ones put students first. Glad to hear the students in your class get your attention and you care, but not sure where the “courage” piece fits in.

  4. Ally Denton says:

    Thank you for this post. It was just the inspiration or rather, the kick in the ass I needed.