Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Life Without Handrails

I don’t have good balance.

On Mother’s Day, I tripped on a surprisingly dry and neatly edged Seattle sidewalk and sprained my ankle. On my honeymoon on St. Thomas last month, there was unfortunate rock-slippage and a skinned shin when my more agile husband made hopping a jagged, surf-drenched incline from one beach to another seem like a good idea. (He was unscathed, but chivalrous—hiding his laughter behind concerned clucks.)

In perhaps the most embarrassing of all falls, last week during my MFA residency I was so excited about the ice cream that I was taking back to my room that I failed to notice that the steps at Friendly’s were covered in a solid sheet of slickness. If James Cameron filmed a sequel to Avatar, and the main characters were a purple-y bruise color instead of blue, my back could be an extra in crowd shots. All for the love of a Butterfinger sundae.

I wish I could tell you that this was some physical problem that has to do with my inner ear or two left feet, but I am an unbalanced person in non-physical areas as well. If I get a boxed set of Northern Exposure, I watch all the episodes, hour after hour, night after night, until they are done. If I start a puzzle I stay up for two days until it is finished. If someone hands me a box of Marshmallow Peeps—the four-across-five-down tray of snowmen—I eat them all until I’m sick.

This is also how I write.

Yesterday I returned to work after a sabbatical, during which my professional objective was to write (and write and write) and my personal one was to plan a wedding. It was glorious. I’ve never had time to write when I wasn’t interrupted by something else, worthwhile or lame. Other writers carve out swatches of time, write on a schedule, and know intuitively how to protect their craft, but I can’t juggle and have never had prioritizing skills. When I write, it is to a deadline, and I have to stay away from the office, stay away from other people, stay up all night until the work is done.

And yes, the wedding planning did sometimes get more attention than the personal essays I was working on, but there was all that delicious time, and in the end, I chalked up all floral, musical, and sartorial interruptions as fodder for future writing projects. I was so blissfully busy doing all that writing and planning that I barely noticed that I wasn’t doing my day job.

Until yesterday.

I opened the door to my dusty office and discovered how ill prepared I was for the inbox full of student concerns and early excuses, the textbook snafu that left one of my syllabi worthless, the online grading system that I have never completely grasped, the lack of student literary journal that was supposed to have gone to the printer while I was away, the loud office atmosphere, the closed campus café, the politics, and the time I can waste with my conflicting concerns about the blinds in my office: do I raise them and let in the Vitamin D, or do I pull them down and keep my groovy artwork from fading?

The most difficult, most annoying thing about returning to a job that I really do like, was the sudden, sharp realization that I couldn’t write when I wanted. If I had a brilliant thought or sudden inspiration, I couldn’t drop what I was doing and pick up a pen. And because I have that problem with balance, there was no time squirreled away later in the day for doing it either. There was just posting and emailing and preparing and then, finally, a coma-like sleep.

Oh, how I envy those writers who can make and adhere to a schedule. The ones who do not trip over an unexpected dinner invitation, or slip onto the sofa, lying prostrate in front of back-to-back episodes of Hoarders, or crash against an eleventh hour work deadline. (The organized writer in my head doesn’t even have an eleventh hour on her clock.)

And so, twenty days into the new year, I’m giving up envy. I’m resolved that in 2010 I will either learn how to become a balanced writer (a balanced person, really) or how to accept that I am not one, and do it without guilt and without a sense that someone else is doing it better than I am.

I’ll report back from the field.


  1. Love the new blog project! And how sweet of you to put mine in your blogroll. Looking forward to following along as you get it going here.

    I hope you find the balance you need in 2010. I'm still searching for mine! After you find it, could you send a little my way?

  2. I remember reading that Julia Glass wrote "Three Junes" in tiny snippets of time between her day freelancing job editing medical journals and the time her two tiny kids got back from daycare. Like editing medical journals all day, grabbing 40 minutes to work on the novel, and then switch to Mom mode. HOW??

  3. I think somewhere along the line, I slid down the handrails of life with a plastic sled... balance? Should you find it, email me some, por favor!

  4. You would simple hate the free time I have both at work and at home and how diligently I avoid writing which I should be doing.