Today is the first day of my fall semester. Oh, did I mention I’m also a teacher?
Which came first, you might ask? That’s easy. I was always a writer. In fact, if you count the scribbles I made in notebooks since I learned to pick up a chubby pencil for toddlers, I’ve been writing for nearly forty years.
When my family made our big move from the Midwest in the 1980s, my mom went back to school for a California teaching credential. She subbed during the day and did school work at night, on weekends and during the summer. When she was hired to teach third and fourth graders, a job she loved for more than two decades, she often brought her work home with her. After dinner, with the dishes loaded and pots drying in the rack, she spread out worksheets and teacher’s editions and a lesson planning book on the kitchen table. Sometimes I joined her there with the handwritten first drafts of my essays, the math problems that were virtually incomprehensible. It was bad enough that I had homework every night, but I couldn’t understand how my mom, an adult who presumably had other options, lived that way, night after night, year after year.
So I swore right then and there I would never become a teacher.
Fast forward to 2001, when I entered a classroom at Oakdale High School as a twenty-four-year-old who was desperately trying to look closer to thirty—i.e., an authority figure, not a contemporary of my eighteen-year-old seniors.
Fast forward again—it’s 2018, and I’ve taught eight years of high school, two years of junior high, four years at a community college, and I’m starting my fourth year at a university.
Not only did I become a teacher… I became an English teacher with a specialization in the teaching of writing. We’re a rare breed of masochists; when we escape the reading for our courses, it’s often into more reading (but this time for pleasure). When we aren’t teaching our students to write, we’re often writing ourselves. When we get together, we talk about what we’re reading, and what our students are writing. In short, we talk shop.
And we freaking love it.
In 2008, I left my full-time teaching job for a part-time teaching job and a full-time commitment as a graduate student in an MFA program. I was teaching and writing a novel, and it was busy but doable: I simply compartmentalized everything about my life. Mornings were for writing; afternoons were for teaching. I graded two nights a week and edited and revised the other nights. Early Saturday and Sunday mornings were for writing. When something happened to disrupt this plan—a dentist appointment, say, or lunch with a friend, I submitted with a sense of deep unease. Those interruptions inevitably came during writing time, and damn it, the book wasn’t going to write itself.
Fast forward again—four novels in five years. There was a sticky four months when I was teaching 18 units at two different campuses an hour apart while under a deadline for The Drowning Girls when I checked myself into a hotel around the corner from my house and a large patch of my hair actually turned white, but otherwise: doable. I’ve gotten used to the balance, which is how I’ve come to think of it—writing on one side, teaching writing on the other. Although the worlds occasionally intersect in amazing ways, I’m protective of each when I’m doing the other. I’m cautious with how I talk about my work in progress; I have a public Facebook page where I rarely mention teaching.
How in the world do you do it, Paula?
I compartmentalize. (And it’s not completely healthy.)
I’m asked pretty frequently by people who know my dual personas (or alter egos, as I sometimes think of them), if I’m going to drop teaching for writing, or vice versa. My answer is always no. Or at least: not yet. Not now. I know that I’m lucky. I’ve found not one but two things that I love. Within each profession, I’ve found a community of creative, passionate people who are forward-thinking and doers. I get to satisfy my intellectual self, the one who finds herself reading a 20-page article on teaching methodologies on a Friday night, and my creative self, who dives into this week’s new release when I’m on the treadmill.
In the Venn diagram of teaching and writing, I’m planted in the overlapping circles—and of course, I’m not alone.
Lots of teacher/writers are headed back to school in the next few weeks, if we aren’t there already. Some of us will get up early to write, or carve out time on the weekends, or late at night when the kids are in bed. Some of us will have to forego an afternoon of writing because that stack of essays (mine is an online stack, but still very real) is demanding our attention. We’ll look ahead on the calendar for those odd days off—Labor Day, Veteran’s Day, the Wednesday before and the Friday after Thanksgiving—and make big writing plans, and maybe this year we’ll even keep them.
As for me, I made decent progress on my WIP this summer, and although I’m already having separation anxiety—I’ll have long weekends, but not much writing time during the week—I guess by now I know I’m up for the challenge. My goal (official now, since I’m announcing it in writing in a public place…) is to finish that first draft by Christmas.
Which will be a relief, because the next idea is already knocking at my brain.
Paula Treick DeBoard