THE BLOG
08/12/2013 05:33 pm ET | Updated Oct 12, 2013

How Do You Balance Work and Writing?

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It's been a while since I last posted. Why? Because I started teaching one of my favorite classes at my absolute favorite school: UCLA. The class -- Freshman Summer Program -- is a bridge program that targets students from underrepresented groups. These young minds will matriculate Fall term but cut their vacation short in order to pick up some of the essentials -- skills, credits, friends -- that will give them a leg-up in the hurly-burly, the chaos, the crazy that is the perfect storm on the horizon of their mindscape.

UCLA got rid of Affirmative Action long ago. So this program represents one of the few opportunities for the university to maintain a healthy level of diversity; the strategy centers upon retention, not recruitment. My kids have been accepted because of their own merits but, quite often through no fault of their own, many arrive with gaps. This is because they may have received their educations from schools that are underfunded, from teachers that are simply putting out fires, from parents who are not as savvy as the kind of suburbanite student body that comprises the major part of the incoming class at UCLA. These young whipper-snappers, they're smart and eager to learn, so they pick things up quite quickly. And I love that they are so grateful, so appreciative. But the teaching is intensive; the interaction, taxing.

I love it. I hate it. I come home tired every evening. Unlike any normal teaching gig, this one has me waking up at 5 a.m. and not getting home until 7 p.m. Even though I often feel punch drunk, I would not give up this teaching experience for a hill of glittering, gleaming diamonds!
So this has made me meditate about a pressing question that all writers must face: How do you balance the life of a scribbler with the demands of a steady job? This is a mystery I've been trying to solve for years. Here's a case in point: the woman who hired me to teach Creative Writing in the English Department at Grinnell College hardly ever published a thing. And this allowed her to ascend to one of the uppermost ranks of academia: she became a Dean, second-in-charge, the wingman to El Senor Presidente of the College. This is not to diminish her quite substantial achievement in administration. Rather, this is to observe that she did spend many years getting an advanced degree at a prestigious Creative Writing program, only to find herself derailed. I could see her visibly wince when she would host dinners for big-wig visiting writers whom we would pay thousands of dollars to grace us with their presence. "Forgive me... I haven't come across your work... what have you written?" This is a question that would cause her to wince.

My senior colleague's office was one of those places that reflect the anal retentive cleanliness of someone who might possibly have danced a tango with certain obsessive tendencies: clean, hard surfaces; ponderous, proprietary order; every tchotchke and knick-knack virtually dustless. I was sure that there was a system to the organization of her books. "Gosh, it's so hard to get writing done during the regular term," she once remarked after a meeting in which I sat in the visitor's chair quietly wondering how much time it took to clean such a relentlessly orderly space. "How do YOU get things done?" What a question to ask a newbie -- a telling one at that.

She clearly channeled her energy into matters that commanded her immediate attention; shortly after my arrival at the department, it was announced that she would assume the Deanship; that uber-clean office would become a loaner to a series of visiting faculty members who lived their lives by stringing temporary gig after temporary gig together, like beads on a motley bracelet. Those people, they actually published -- successfully so -- but none of them had a steady job. You could see it in their eyes, in the anxious way they cozied up to me -- a person who would eventually vote about the extension of their short-term contracts.

I'm an honest person. I don't lie. I told her that it was my first semester and, frankly, I hadn't found the time to get much done in that department -- academic, creative or otherwise. I still don't have an answer to my colleague's question but I wonder if you do.

How do YOU balance work and writing?