When routines fail

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The idea of calling writing a practice did not occur to me until long after I had graduated from my MFA program — a year late with a manuscript I wanted to hide in a locked file cabinet, perhaps among the credit card statements old enough to shred.

I had gone after my degree so that I could teach. I had also hoped that doing the work while living with my husband would help me develop a successful writing routine while also learning to balance the rest of life alongside it. Integrating a two-time-zone commute into our year-old marriage could not have been farther from that ideal.

D. and I had been a long-distance couple throughout college and our first jobs (separated by only one time zone but with a lot less money to spend on airfare). Yes, I could return to working in the solitude of my weeks alone and setting all aside during the weekends we traveled to see each other. But the very real challenge of figuring out how to write while living side by side was now off the table, and I wanted it back. I don't think I could have articulated why this meta-level training felt so essential to me at that time, but my instincts were telling me even then: you can’t sustain a life as a writer without creating work habits that fit into the real world.

I knew I wouldn't be able to find those habits without a forcing function — like, say, a spouse who wanted to spend time with me after his nine-to-five workday ended. I was too used to working late into the night, holing up for days on end without setting foot outdoors, eating canned chicken noodle soup twice a day and otherwise allowing my routine to be dictated by the start times of my classes. Those were my undergraduate writing years, which generated work I was truly proud of but placed very few constraints on my schedule.

During the four years that followed, in which I had teaching and editing jobs with a time card to turn in every other week, I wrote next to nothing. I’d never been able to integrate the habits of those two lives — creative work and gainful employment — and in my heart, I knew one or both would suffer in the long run if I didn’t figure out how to do it.

For the MFA, I compromised. I stayed in residence for four semesters of the program, spending every third weekend with D. (We took turns flying initially, but towards the end, my teaching and writing load shifted most of the travel burden to him.) Then I moved back home to complete what was supposed to be my final thesis year. By then, thoroughly worn down by the strain of being apart, I thought little about the challenges of the work-life balance I had wanted to address over the previous two years. I just wanted to be home. I’ll adapt, I told myself. It would be such a relief just to be together again that anything else would work itself out.

The first weeks of summer passed. I buried myself in thesis reading and set up my personal library in our home office, considering the place for each book with more deliberation than the administrators of the Dewey Decimal System. At best, it was semiproductive procrastination — poring over all those titles kept me immersed in memories of what their covers contained, how they had influenced me in my undergraduate years.

By fall, I had written one chapter, but not without fighting every sentence into submission. Even though I sat for the entire day in the same spot on the same couch I had used for writing while away, I was deepening the dent in the armrest more than I was sticking words to the page. It shouldn’t be this way, I thought. But I couldn’t see an alternative to the butt-in-chair approach. It didn’t matter whether I kept late hours or adhered to D.’s daytime schedule. (I tried both.) Something else was blocking my creative flow: my unrelenting fear. Of not finishing, of having picked the wrong path to my goal, of the unknown. It had been growing in my heart from the day I’d arrived on campus, but I didn’t — and still couldn’t — admit it.

Over that year and, when I couldn’t deliver the minimum number of pages by the spring deadline, the next, I forced the writing out. I graduated at the end of my third summer back home, feeling defeated but not even sure what succeeding meant in my mind at this juncture. There was no point in teaching if I couldn't do the thing I’d set out to teach. Or so I believed.

What aspect of your writing has been most challenging to balance with life’s other demands? (Or, what aspects of life have been most challenging to balance with your writing?) What routines have stopped working that at one time sustained your creative process? Looking back, what does that shift reveal to you about what you wanted from your practice then and what you desire from it now? Share your thoughts with me by clicking the button below.