Like many writers, I’ve been drawn to the process as long as I can remember. I was the preschooler stapling together picture books made from construction paper; the middle schooler who found herself scribbling in her notebook long after bedtime; the cafe-haunting, poetry-writing adolescent. Even so, when the time came for me to take the leap from student to career, I was terrified. As a young woman saddled with student loans that were close to triple the expected yearly salary of a recent graduate with a liberal arts degree, I decided that I needed a profession that would allow me to secure a job quickly, anytime, anywhere. A creative life, to my mind, did not fit the bill, and I put my love of writing on the back burner.
Flash forward ten years and I found myself balancing a demanding working life with my role as the mother of two young children. Writing, my lifeline to sanity, felt like a luxury I couldn’t afford. Yet without a creative outlet, I began to slide into depression. I felt numb, cut off from myself and my loved ones. I had unintentionally closed the door to my true self.
The choice to enroll in a low-residency MFA program felt like coming home. But now, a year after graduation, I’m juggling three balls---writing, career, and parenting. I can’t afford to drop any of them. I know I’m not alone in this, that there are many writers out there asking these questions. How do we nurture ourselves and grow as writers while attending to family and a day job that is necessary to our family’s financial survival? How do we avoid dropping the ball?
Since receiving my MFA a year ago, the balance has been, admittedly, elusive. There are times when one part of life demands precedence. But there are three tools I’ve found to keep me as close to that balance as I can come:
I wish I could say I’m the type of person who can make and keep goals privately. I’m not. Once the deadlines of my MFA program were no longer hanging over my head, it was too easy to let other commitments eat into my writing time, particularly the parts of my life I’d neglected while I was on the fast track towards graduation. I was making progress on my novel, but at a much slower pace than I’d hoped. As an experiment, I decided to give myself false deadlines. Meeting with a trusted friend and fellow-writer each month, I set my monthly goals over coffee. Even though I know my friend isn’t going to judge me or (gasp!) give me a bad grade, it’s working. Saying my monthly goal out loud, to another person, is perfect motivation.
In addition to these monthly writing dates, a group chat with several friends from my MFA cohort gives me a place to reach out for support and commiseration at any time.
This is a place for quick questions, book recommendations, airing the disappointment of the inevitable declines, and celebrating successes both large and small. By keeping in touch, encouraging, and challenging one another, we keep each other in the game. Writing may be a solitary act, but to go it alone feels impossible. And not nearly as much fun.
Blurring the Lines
It’s Sunday morning, and once again, I’m sitting across a cafe table from another person who is just as deeply absorbed in their writing as I am. This morning, my twelve-year-old son is my partner in this endeavor. We’ve spent hours together on our weekly writing dates, sometimes discussing plot and genre, other times hard at work, each in our own world as we sit across from one another. My son loves to write and create, just as I did at his age. I hope that, unlike me, he’ll never feel the need to put his creativity on the back burner, and I hope it’s not too late for me to model the value of prioritizing all kinds of self-expression. I cherish this time spent with family, blurring the lines between one part of my life and the other, living a creative life together.
I’ve decided in this new year, 2019, I’m going to do without the resolutions. I’m rejecting the idea that change is immediate, overnight, spurred by the calendar. Instead, I’ll focus on moving forward on the path I’ve already put myself on, treading the path of habit and intention, deepening the grooves, closing the distance between writing and the rest of life. I know I can’t have it all, all the time, but in my recalibrations I’ll continue to come closer and closer to balance.
Read Melissa’s short story After.
Melissa Benton Barker’s fiction has appeared in Entropy, LadyLibertyLit, Wigleaf, Necessary Fiction, and elsewhere. She is a Best of the Net nominee, and is the former managing editor of Lunch Ticket. Melissa lives with her family in Ohio.