I wrote today’s journal pages after dark, after finishing the day’s assortment of teaching tasks and teaching prep. During the school year, so much of my time and energy is focused on teaching–on my students’ writing–I sometimes wonder how I can ever manage to find the time, energy, and inspiration to devote to my own.
Ann Patchett references this reality in the introduction to her collection of nonfiction essays, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, which I finished reading last week. Writing, Patchett observes, is a challenging career because you typically have to do something else to support yourself while doing it: like music or acting or other arts, in most cases writing requires you to have a day job. Patchett explains that when she started out as a young and aspiring writer, she tried to support herself through the two things she knew how to do–teaching and waitressing–but neither one left her enough energy to write: teaching was too intellectually exhausting, and waitressing was too physically exhausting.
For Patchett, there was a third option–writing freelance articles for magazines, which is what she did for years before experiencing commercial success as a novelist. But freelancing strikes me as being just as exhausting as either teaching or waiting tables: in addition to the effort and concentration required to research and write articles for Seventeen, Gourmet, or any of the other magazines Patchett contributed to, there is with freelancing the constant contingency of contract work. Writing is itself exhausting enough, and even more draining is the question of who will buy your next article, when exactly they will pay for it, and what you will do in the meantime, while the bills pile up without your next paycheck being anywhere in sight.
I am, in other words, too risk-averse to thrive as a freelancer, as Ann Patchett did: I would spend too much time and mental energy fretting over clients and contracts and the need to drum up business. One benefit of teaching at the college level, after all, is the fact that the college is responsible for recruiting your “customers.” But Patchett is spot-on when she notes the intellectual demands of teaching. Although there are presumably instructors out there who merely put in the hours, collect their pay, and don’t give much of a damn whether their students learn anything in their classes, I am (for better or worse) an instructor who does give a damn, my day-job at times threatening to subsume every last ounce of my energy and attention.
So how do you manage to have a creative life when your day-job consists of nurturing the intellectual lives of dozens of students, with all those lessons to plan and all those papers to grade? The short, honest answer is “I have no idea.” But part of me suspects that maintaining one’s own creative life is essential to good, quality teaching, that if your own intellectual fire isn’t kindled, you’ll never spark a fire in anyone else. When I turn off my laptop at the end of a long grading day in order to read anything other than my students, papers, I’d like to think I’m doing so for my students’ sake as much as my own.