In early spring, a dear friend and I walked the cobbled, hilly roads of Seattle taking turns choosing where our feet would take us. Our booted Florida feet leveled off the pier and made the giant circumference of the Ferris wheel, our eyes gazing out at the rocky shores of Puget Sound and the shadow of Mt. Rainier. We dawdled on the mossy grass beneath the Space Needle, the squeaky twitters of hummingbirds sharp in our ears. We navigated beneath the Pike Place Market to make our sticky contribution to the Gum Wall. Our matching raincoats tucked into our bags, we explored the city and split only once inside of the conference center.
Our sightseeing resulted from our attendance to the largest conference for writers and writing programs, a familiar venue for those of us who are bound to the written word. At this conference, I prioritized my time between raiding the bookfair and attending panels on maintaining the writing-while-teaching balance.
It was nine months after I earned my MFA, and I hadn’t written anything new. Sure, there was a blog post here and there, maybe a half-hearted query or two. Whatever I could squeeze in while being waist-deep into my first full-time teaching gig at a university, managing two sections of twenty-five students that cycled every month. I barely had time to also maintain my editorship at a literary journal where I contributed to design, layout, and proofreading. I was burned out and not writing.
The panels did not offer much solace.
We’ve all heard this narrative: in order to be a writer, you must write. Write every day. And while not writing, you must feel guilty about it.
I felt guilty about it.
During that same conference the prior year, I made time for a panel on about managing parenthood and novel-writing. Toward the end of the session, after tales of sneaking writing into grocery-shopping runs and investing in a secret office downtown, an attendee asked the panelists about the royal trio: “How do you manage being a mother and being a novelist and working in academia?”
The panelists looked to each other and frowned. One of them spoke up: “You don’t.”
Another clarified, “I’m sorry, I just don’t see that as being feasible. I don’t advise you trying to be all three.”
At the time, I did not take this advice to mean, “It cannot be done.” My stubborn self simply assumed, Challenge accepted.
A year later, I was ready to admit defeat.
The struggle of trying to keep writing, reading, editing, and publishing while still working in academia is very real. We may laugh at ourselves with the clever gifs of When In Academia, but at the end of the day, if we don’t do at least one writing-related thing, those of us who identify as writers feel guilty. We feel shame. We feel like frauds. And why shouldn’t we? That’s what’s expected of us, and that’s what’s said about us behind our backs.
I’d heard some whispers from former colleagues along the lines of, “She hasn’t written anything publishable since she graduated,” and “They only accepted her for that book festival because she’s cute and young, not because she has any talent.”
The first part was true—I was not writing. I pressed my lips into a tight line when I heard the second.
On my last full day in Seattle, the unseasonably good weather finally turned overcast and grey. On the way back to the conference from a trip to get soft fibers from the local yarn shop, my dear friend persuaded me to attend a special edition of Page Meets Stage with her. We sat, riveted by the panelists’ brutal honesty, their humor, and the excellence of their verse. But from Tara Hardy’s “Bone Marrow” I learned my greatest lesson:
I have been obsessed with achieving immortality through poetry,
but when I was told in no uncertain terms
that this rickety container has an actual expiration date,
I knew that immortality is bull shit[.]
Poems will happen because that is how I process life,
but I will no longer mistake them for living.
Do not mistake writing for living.
A talented friend of mine—a prolific writer—recently commented that he is a writer before he is a human. For him, nothing comes before writing. Everything is secondary. He writes every day, whenever he can, for as long as he can. I have witnessed him fall asleep while writing in a notebook. Writing is his priority, and it is clear in his dedication and the quality of his craft.
I have enormous respect for my friend and the writing standards he elevates himself to, but I cannot make the same commitment.
There are many advice columns about writing every day versus binge writing, using the pomodoro technique to improve productivity, and stopping in the middle of a thought so that you’ve got fuel for the next day’s writing. Our writing processes and techniques are all so unique that there’s even a writing process blog tour.
While this is all excellent advice for many people, it doesn’t work for all of us.
Hardy’s poem marks a paradigm shift for me: it helped me stop feeling guilty about not writing. I’d fallen into the habit of putting academia and career aspirations first, attempting to achieve that immortality that Hardy references, to the point where I’d borderline neglected my family and friends. Now I want to avoid some of the top regrets of the dying and live a more fulfilling life.
I want to be happy. I want to spend time with the people I care about. If I find time to write, excellent. That might mean waking up pre-dawn to get writing in before my students drain my energy and creativity. It might mean setting those essays aside and getting a little behind on grading so I can get a blog post done.
But if I really need that sleep, or the grading deadline looms to close, I’m not going to get upset about not getting time to write in. Stressing out about it isn’t going to solve the problem. I’ll just try again next time.
I refuse to feel guilty, and you should, too.
Leslie Salas does not write as frequently as other people tell her to, but she doesn’t let that bother her. Clearly, she’s still getting some writing done. When she does write, it’s usually in flavors of fiction, nonfiction, or graphic narrative. She spends her days grading English Composition essays. She serves on the masthead of The Florida Review and Sweet: A Literary Confection, and her work can be found in 15 Views: Vol. II (Burrow Press, 2013), The Southeast Review, and more.