It’s Saturday morning, and I’m futzing around in the carriage house where I now live: listening to music, doing a load of laundry, making a pot of chicken soup for the week (new book idea: Chicken Soup for the Weak), thinking about whether or not I should try to edit a chapter of the new novel or critique student stories this afternoon.
I have a hard time balancing teaching and writing. Each satisfy some deep part of me, and I tend to be pretty hardcore kamikaze about both. When I’m finishing a novel (all two that I’ve finished!), I become obsessive and bleary-eyed, stationing myself in front of my computer twelve hours a day, thinking about the book whenever I’m not actually working on it. (Supposedly James Thurber’s wife once approached him at a cocktail party and whispered, “Stop writing!”) During the final throws of writing Soft Place, there was one day when I spent seven hours in front of my computer, then put on a black dress and raced to a funeral. (Racing to a funeral. If that doesn’t describe the state of our modern, crazy busyness, I don’t know what does.) Immediately afterwards I returned home and sat in front of my computer again, incorporating a part of the beautiful eulogy into the text.
Clearly, this is not the most balanced approach to writing, or to life. But how do you achieve balance with something as all-consuming as writing or teaching? I’m a very good teacher. Each semester on my student evaluations at Emory someone writes “Best class I’ve ever had.” I won a teaching award at one of the private schools where I taught. But teaching is not just about cult of personality. I “earn” my dynamic classes by putting hours into preparing for them. My classes are choreographed. The more prepared I am, the better I know my end of the dance, the looser I can be during the actual class, the more I can change directions depending on what each student brings to the floor. But I don’t think I could dance so easily if I didn’t know my steps very, very well. And knowing them, preparing, takes a lot of time. I don’t really know any way around it. Betsy Lerner argues that writers aren’t supposed to be balanced people, and I wonder if the same applies for teachers.
Then again, I know there are times I over prepare, turning into a squirrel wildly gathering acorns when there’s already a winter’s worth stockpiled away. I should pay attention to when I start to over-prepare. It probably means I should be turning back to the novel. It probably means I’m avoiding writing a difficult or painful scene. You have to create space for your writer self. She’s not just going to show up. To borrow from Alice Munro, you have to woo her. (Alice Munro says she writes to woo “distant parts of myself.”)
I love that. The times when I am alone but least lonely are when I’m writing, and I suppose this speaks to the Munro quote. You the person meet You the author, and the two of You explore life together. It’s a communion of sorts, that you then package together and hope people will purchase from their local indie bookstore, Target, B&N, or Amazon…
On the subject of being alone: I got divorced a little over a month ago, after having separated from my husband nine months earlier. I was in New York over the summer, when I was first separated. At the time I was very careful not to write about my private life on this blog. It was too raw and fresh, and I wanted to protect my (now ex) husband’s privacy, and the privacy of our dissolving marriage. But looking back on all of those blog entries I wrote about cooking in my tiny NYC kitchen, I see them as clues I was planting about that period of my life, the time I mothered myself through the shock of separation, splitting into two selves, really: the hurt girl and the nurturer who could take care of her with grilled cheese sandwiches, tomato soup, homemade desserts. I even had a visual image for the nurturer. I thought of her as an uber-confident 1940′s housewife, a polka-dot kerchief wrapped around her curls, the type of woman who could wring the neck of a chicken for that night’s dinner, who makes sure there are three vegetables on the dinner plate, centered with a piece of protein. Who wants to know about a boy’s background and intentions before she’ll let you go out with him. Someone stalwart and kind.
She is the kind of woman I hope to be growing into, minus the kerchief and the dead chicken. And, I suppose, the retro pre-feminist leanings.
It occurs to me that I am writing about a lot of split selves. Maybe I come up with these separate selves to fight off loneliness, which is such a fundamental part of divorce. And the annoying truth is, if you run too hard from the loneliness, you won’t learn the lessons your divorce has to teach you. (And God are there many.) I’m trying to get comfortable with loneliness, to invite it in and let it hang out a while. Serve it a bowl of chicken soup. It’s like that country song, “Hello, Heartbreak. I’ve been expecting you.”
One of the lessons of divorce: There’s a lot of community among those who have fallen. We’re no longer so sure of our past assumptions. We’re no longer so quick to dole out advice or judgment. We have–in some way or another–failed, and the failure makes our hearts more tender. And yet you also develop a tougher exterior. You are hurt, and you are vulnerable, and you absolutely cannot allow people to hurt you gratuitously anymore. And so you speak up for yourself more often. You start saying things like, “I absolutely do not have the band width to tolerate this.” Most likely, some of your friends and family begin to think of you as a real pain in the ass, but they also respect you more. You begin to understand that it’s better to be respected then to have an all-consuming need to be viewed as nice and sweet and lovely at all times.
Honestly, you begin to re-evaluate everything.