I come home from work. My dog, tail wagging ecstatically, greets me. He bows, mock-pounces at the cat, then gallops down the hallway. There ensues fifteen minutes of chasing the dog, a walk, a half-hearted attempt at exercise, an hour finishing up work/dozing off in a power nap, and cooking dinner or heating up leftovers. It is already approaching eight o’clock with an early alarm the next day. The time for writing is nearly here…and yet, the creative brain has been left with only dregs of energy. Nothing written that day. Or the next.
The oft-repeated adage for aspiring writers is that you must write every day. Religiously. Zealously. Guard that writing time like a bulldog with its last mangy bone. Having heard this over and over and over, I have felt no small amount of guilt for those days—or week(s)—gone by without having produced anything. At twenty-six, I question whether or not I am frittering away potentially productive years. My list of publications is a grass seedling likely facing another drought.
Yet something inside me resists the notion of writing daily, or at least, resists the notion that one must do it or forfeit hope of success. In part, I say this from a practical viewpoint as I am in the middle of my first year as a middle-school teacher. Personal time is a battleground with warring factions of my job and my students, personal care of myself and my family, and my writing.
In spite of this constant struggle to find time—the elusive yet essential element—I am hopeful. Hopeful that this job will be an approximation of the writer’s “dream” job. The dream, in short, resembles the improbable fantasy of writing full-time (without starving); a reality for few. However, in this first year as a teacher, I can no longer say that the fantasy of staying home all day to write is the “dream.” Here’s why.
Another time-worn piece of writerly wisdom is to write what you know. Writers such as steamboat pilot Mark Twain or Sandra Cisneros writing from her experience as a Latin American woman growing up in Chicago, prove the model. Write what you know works if you have meaningful and diverse experiences. As painful as it sometimes may be to “lose” writing time to work, my recent hope that this latest job might be the “dream” stems from three sources: a generous schedule of vacation time, constant source of experience, and the model of fellow teacher colleagues.
Several teacher-writers I met in graduate school, each older and more established than myself, shared similar struggles about finding that balance of writing time. Some confessed that they didn’t write anything new during the teaching semesters, but planned out how they would use their breaks—both the shorter ones falling over the winter holidays, and longer summer vacations. Their emphasis isn’t trying to force each day into maximum productivity; rather, to maximize those days when writing can be a priority. Teaching students also provides a wealth of interactions and anecdotes—like the student whose mother sneaks into their home bathroom on the eve of St. Patrick’s Day to dye the toilet green. I find myself reaching for my journal more and more.
To fellow new writers or the writers feeling guilty about their “lost” time prioritizing work or personal life over craft, I offer these ideas about what it means to pursue the writer’s holy grail. Perhaps the teacher-writer model can provide the practical livelihood, the experiences, and the time, even if it requires abandoning my fantasy of writing from the comfort of a well-worn couch in my pajamas.
Read Teri's short story "Little Rat-Feet."
Teri Dederer received her MFA in fiction from Bowling Green State University and currently teaches at a private school in the Bay Area. When not working or writing, she can be found hiking and relaxing on the beach with her dog, Ori.