The original draft of this letter was written to a long-time friend, a great teacher. Like many teachers I’ve known, she is frustrated because, though she loves teaching, she also wants to write. I hope my comments help other hard workers as they seemed to help her.
Good morning, Friend,
I got to thinking during the past couple of days about your frustration with the complications of teaching. You’re frustrated by the forms that must be filled out, the meetings to be attended, the administrators-- some of whom have never taught-- to please. And yet you love your students and the challenge of teaching; you cannot imagine short-changing them by teaching the same thing every year.
And you look at me and the fourteen books I have in print, the work I’m doing on the next book or two and think, “She’s so productive!”
Thinking, I looked up and realized I hadn’t yet removed the 2012 calender from above my computer (and you say I’m organized!) and the quote on it.
The butterfly counts not
months but moments,
and has time enough.
— Rabindranath Tagore —
From the outside, perhaps I look organized. From in here, much of my life seems to have been an agonizing stumble from one mistake to another. Occasionally I seemed to wake up and act intelligently or have a little good luck, making the right choice in between making a lot of wrong ones. I won’t go into detail; you’ve read enough of my work to see admissions of idiocy or omissions where you might assume it occurred.
When people, perhaps especially women, look at ourselves, we often see only the flaws and errors, and fail to appreciate what we have or what we’ve accomplished. I’ve had good friends, especially during the last couple of decades, who helped me see myself with a little more understanding. And as you know, writing in my journal and studying what I’ve written in my journal for years has also helped. It’s sometimes discouraging, though, to see that I’ve had the same life-changing revelation more than once: in 1965, say, again in 1978, perhaps in the late 1980s. But perhaps we need to keep learning the same lessons over and over until we really understand them.
The butterfly . . .
So let’s look at your life: you have been a diligent and creative teacher. You are sometimes impatient with administrative detail because some of these requirements seem to steal time from your real work: teaching. Your students remember you for years; when they see you after graduation they sometimes rush up to you with thanks. Or they forget to thank you but you can see the changes you have made in their lives by their attitude, their grades, the way they step out into the world.
At the end of the day, you are exhausted because you have poured so much energy into your work. You curl your lip at writing advice columns that suggest you establish a home office; you’ve had one for years and the desk is usually piled with papers to be graded. You hustle to clean house, make meals, tend to your spouse, children, pets. Sometimes you get up early to write. You may carry your journal everywhere with you and make notes.
But you want to spend entire days writing, as you imagine I must do, with nothing to think of but the next word, the next sentence.
counts not months . . .
Let’s see, where was I? I had to stop to let the dogs out, then start lunch, which reminded me I needed to put the compost bucket by the back door so I could empty it next time I go out, then let the dogs in, then turn down the heat under the spaghetti because it was boiling over, then take a load out of the dryer, fold it, and put another load in the washer.
Besides teaching, you managed to survive a difficult first marriage that might have ripped you apart or sent you into depression or alcoholism. My grandmother said that when her first husband was killed, she wanted to die but she had to live for the children. She kept on living and working and raising those kids and married again.
Her second marriage was a good one but yours wasn’t. Still, you raised your children very well; you stuck by them when they made stupid mistakes and you now have incredible grandchildren in whose lives you are closely twined in the best of ways.
Remember I’ve never had children, though I still have some ties with three out of my four stepchildren. I’ve never taken-- made-- the time to know my grandchildren or my (gulp) great-grandchild. But I know about bad marriages and divorce and widowhood.
But all the time you kept teaching, kept writing in your journals, kept writing poems. And you, like me, found a man who will support you psychologically, lovingly, in anything you choose to do. Will work his fingers to the bone to support you financially. Knows stuff the rest of us haven’t even begun to figure out and besides all this has a great sense of humor. That man will never let you down.
but moments . . .
So look at where you are now: you have had a satisfying career but you are tired of filling out the forms, arranging your life around class schedules. You currently choose to teach but you are able to arrange to do so on your own terms. You are getting respect, at last, for what you know. You can begin to let this part of your life wind down if you choose to, knowing you have accomplished a great deal. The important thing is that, as you approach what much of the world calls “retirement age,” you can choose your next adventure.
Meanwhile, as you said, you have this gigantic body of rough drafts bubbling in the pot on the back of the stove. You can smell ’em, hear the bubbles, stir once in awhile. Even if you don’t turn the heat up, the pot will continue to boil and bubble and once in awhile raise the lid and make it jingle. Sometimes you’ve snatched up a bowl, filled it and won an award for your creation.
and has time enough.
Relax. You know that a good soup has to simmer a long time, tantalizing you with its aroma.
Look at yourself: you are a woman who knows how to get what she wants. When you need a break, you’re smart enough to take one. You can enjoy strolling in the sunshine, visiting with friends, petting the dogs. When you see a pair of earrings you love, you buy them; you don’t spend too much, just enough to remind yourself you can.
Trust this woman. She’ll know when she must write. She might analyze how her time is spent and decide that she should drop this or stop doing that in order to spend that time writing.
She might decide to get up earlier on Sunday and leave the cell phone off and write. She might decide to organize all her writing so that she knows what she has and what she wants to work on next.
She might decide that the book club has deteriorated into political squabbling and stop attending meetings. Perhaps she’ll refuse the next invitation to join an organization that really really does a great deal of good for something or someone.
She might decide that every time she starts to think of how frustrating a particular situation is, she will grab the rough draft of a poem from the place she’s handily stacked or tucked them and put her mind entirely into that. She might write a poem the size of a postcard every day. She has time.
The point is, she is a mature, seasoned woman and writer. She doesn’t need to apologize for what she has done or feel inferior to anyone. She will evaluate her life and decide where to make changes to allow her the time to do the kind of writing she wants to do. She’s getting on with her life and her writing and she’s just fine, thank you. She has time enough.
Another Struggling Writer
# # #
back to top