How do you balance writing, teaching and all the other things you do? In short: how DO you do it?
First of all, for context, let me say that I am the type of person who could never do one thing only. No matter how much I protest (weakly) that I have too much to do, the fact is that I thrive on activity and challenge. So I am constantly taking on new ventures, thinking up new projects, saying yes to everything, and then figuring out how to do it all.
So, that said, how do I balance it all?
My main activities are writing (and this entails a variety of projects and genres), teaching creative writing, manuscript evaluation and editing, and various other interests and pursuits which include lectures, readings, consulting, and promotional tours. I tend to think of these activities as falling into three categories: 1) the writing; 2) the teaching; and 3) everything else. Two of these categories are linked to time slots, which themselves create a good balance: September to December, I teach creative writing half-time at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, and January to September, I consider my writing months. Of course, there’s a whole life and a lot of travel to fit into those same twelve months.
In practical terms: during my four-month semester, I devote all my energy to teaching. I have a full load – four courses – and that pretty well takes up all my head space. However, I usually find time to do peripheral activities while I’m teaching. For example, I might evaluate a couple of manuscripts, give readings, or help fundraise for a writerly cause. I don’t try to write, because I want to have all my energies fresh for students who I very much enjoy teaching and mentoring.
During the rest of the year, which I consider my writing time, I have to really discipline myself to remain sitting at my desk. When working on a novel, I give myself a three-page a day minimum, and this works very well for me. Once I’m done my three pages, I can go do something else. Meantime, three pages a day, five days a week for, say, six months (notice I’ve realistically reduced the writing period by two months) would produce three-hundred and sixty pages of something that might approximate a draft. I consider reading and research part of my writing day, and if I have nothing to write, I still sit at my desk and read and research and make notes (at least three pages of them).
Of course, I rarely focus only on one writing project (unless I’m at the editing stage). I might be writing a novel, but I’m also fitting in a story here, a couple of poems there, a travel piece, and a lot of research about everything.
The main thing I DO, I think, is to prioritize everything – often with lists that I take great pleasure ripping up when complete. That way, everything gets done when it’s due. What works for me is to focus on something for many hours at a stretch. I can easily work from 7:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. if I’m engaged in something. I don’t like to leave things unfinished. I have an intuitive sense about how long a project will take – and this is simply experience, I’m sure – so I complete projects to deadlines. (Don’t you love that word “deadline”? It’s either 'a guideline on the bed of a printing press, beyond which text will not print'; or a line drawn around a military prison during the Civil War, beyond which soldiers were authorized to shoot escaping prisoners.) When I think of deadlines, I prefer the implied threat of the latter, though text that will not print is almost as intimidating. And if I don’t have a deadline, I draw one, so that nothing will escape.
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