My Summer Adventures in Freelance Writing

Image: Raw Pixel Ltd

After my last Zoom call with students ended past June, I checked out more than I have any prior summer while teaching. I was so fatigued from a year and a half of teaching online during a pandemic that I decided that this summer I wasn’t going to think about teaching at all. Of course, that’s not really how it works. If you are teacher, you know that as much as you can promise yourself to not think about teaching, it will inevitably sneak into your life. However, I was able to not think about the logistical aspects of teaching for a while, which was a nice break. Instead of attending a bunch of teacher professional development workshops during the summer, as I have done in past years, I decided to work on developing my own professional skills, specifically my writing skills.

I consider myself a decent writer who can adapt my writing to many different purposes and audiences. I write creatively to satisfy my own desire for storytelling and craft, I blog to share my experiences or to participate in the online literary community, and I journal for myself. The role of teacher, especially English teacher, also involves a fair amount of writing— lesson plans, lesson materials, emails to parents, emails to colleagues, etc. But I didn’t actively pursue much paid professional writing before this summer. If I got paid for a funny satirical article or a short story here or there, I was pleased that someone liked my work enough to pay me for it. However, this summer I realized that I have the skills needed to make some money on the side writing professionally.

First, I took a class on Coursera called The Strategy of Content Marketing, since as a UC Davis alum, it was free. While taking that course, I realized that a lot of what I know about teaching academic writing also applies to professional writing. You’re trying to hook an audience for a specific purpose, to convince them to become your customer or to buy the product of a company you are promoting. Content marketing and copywriting employ a lot of the same techniques as classic rhetoric— convincing an audience to trust you due to your credibility, appealing to the audience’s emotions, and using logic and examples to prove your product or company is valuable (in other words, ethos, pathos, and logos). I realized that whether or not I ended up writing content marketing articles for a client, I could use what I had learned about marketing in the classroom. The high school where I teach recently formed a committee on incorporating college and career readiness skills into the classroom, so in the back of my mind while I was taking the Coursera class, I was thinking of how perfect a writing unit on marketing or advertising would be for demonstrating to my students the value of writing in the “real world.”

After I finished the Coursera class, I decided to try out my new skills by applying to freelance writing roles on Upwork, which is a platform where you can apply for all different types of freelance gigs. I soon realized that despite my previous experiences writing articles for some magazines, it was hard to stand out as a writer on that platform for general writing roles since there is so much competition. However, I noticed that there were some roles that specifically involved writing for education companies or writing educational materials. I started to apply for these positions and had some success. I also applied for some editing roles, too, because as an English teacher and as a graduate student, I’ve had a lot of experience editing other people’s writing.

Once I was able to land a few positions, I discovered that I really like writing professionally. Each gig came with its own rollercoaster of emotions, which gave me some insight into what it must be like for my students when I give them a challenging writing assignment. First, I felt elated whenever I was hired to do a particular task. Then when the client sent me the specific information on what they needed, I would start to second guess myself, feeling imposter syndrome. What if I couldn’t deliver what they wanted me to deliver? It felt scary to face the possibility of failure, even if failure only meant that I wasn’t going to be paid a relatively small amount of dollars.

 I soon discovered that a lot of companies will ask for you to do a “trial” for them if you are writing content for their website so that they can see how you do with a short assignment. Then if they like your work, they will offer you chances to continue writing for them. This way, they can test out if you are a good fit for what they need, and you can also see if you like the type of writing they want you to do. I like this system because at least you get paid a little for trying out the work even if you end up not being hired for a long-term role. This also helped ease my imposter syndrome a lot since I felt less pressure if I knew it was a trial run.

I imagine that my students must also feel overwhelmed at first when they encounter a writing task that they don’t know how to do. I think I can empathize with them more now in this situation because I now know what is feels like to have anxiety when approaching a new writing task. I found that it helped to see models of what the client was looking for, such as a sample article. It also helped to break down the steps of a writing task into more manageable chunks, such as creating an outline and then filling in the outline over the course of a couple days. This sometimes meant that I spent way more time on a task than would be suggested by my hourly rate, since most of the tasks I completed this summer were fixed price projects. However, if I succeeded at doing one task, the next time it was a lot easier to do a similar task. One aspect I had not considered as much about freelancing was negotiating pay, and I am still trying to determine how much money a project needs to pay to be worth my time. Ideally, I would be able to charge a high rate for writing since I have a decent amount of experience as a writer, but in practice it seems like it’s hard to find writing roles that pay well.

Some types of professional writing and editing I tried out this summer included creating reading comprehension questions for short stories, editing transcripts of a professional development podcast and turning them into articles, editing someone’s creative writing and helping them find venues to submit their work, and writing study guide materials. I found myself drawn to jobs that involved creating or editing educational content because I have expertise in that area and because it was fun to take on a different role in education than the one I usually play.

While I don’t see myself making a living solely from writing any time soon (though who knows— maybe I could in the future), trying my hand at professional writing expanded my own understanding of what kind of writing skills are necessary in the workplace. As a writing teacher, it gave me a chance to dip my toes into the “real world” of writing and allowed me to gain experience that I can share with my students. If students ask me why they need to learn a particular writing skill, I now can answer them with confidence, explaining not just why it’s important for future academic courses but also how it could help them earn money in the future. If you teach writing but have not practiced it outside of an academic context, I highly recommend giving freelance writing a spin. It will help you see how academic writing skills can transfer to other contexts, and you will be able to prove to your students the utility of writing.

6 Tips for Submitting to Lit Mags

Image credit: Julia Chandler/Libraries Taskforce

In 2021, I’ve had the incredible luck of being published in 5 literary magazines, with one more publication forthcoming. I’m a bit flabbergasted by this. The online literary scene abounds with rejection, and I’ve become accustomed to receiving a lot of it. This year may turn out to be a fluke for me, but even if I don’t get published again until next year, or several years from now, I’ve discovered some strategies for making the submission process more meaningful and less painful that I want to share.

Just a quick disclaimer: This post assumes that you are already familiar with the submission process to lit mags. If you are not already familiar, there are already some amazing articles that break down that process, including this one.

1. Find journals that match your writing style, but also cast a wide net. The biggest determinant of acceptances to lit journals is the taste of the editors at the journals. If your writing doesn’t match the taste of the editors, no matter how good it is, it won’t be accepted. Most lit mags also receive far more excellent submissions than it is possible to publish, so you should never take it personally if your writing is not accepted. If you tend to only submit to the literary giants and aren’t having much success, it might mean that you need to discover some lit journals that are not The New Yorker and The Paris Review.

There are thousands of literary journals out there, both print journals and online lit mags, waiting for you to discover them. You may need to explore to find ones that fit the niche that your writing falls into or find places that would be open to your writing, even if they are not an exact fit. The best way to know if a lit mag is a good fit for your writing is to read their previous issues. Most lit mags have at least some free content on their website, so even if you can’t read all of an issue, you can still get a sense of what they publish. Plus, you don’t need to read the issues from back to front. Two or three pieces in the genre that you’re submitting to can be enough to get a sense of what the magazine likes. That way, you can use your time efficiently and be able to discover a lot of potential places to submit. If you need help finding new publications to read and submit to, I have a blog with reviews of lit mags: Litbloom.com and I also keep a Twitter list of lit journals that are free to read.

This is a time-consuming process, but it can also be enjoyable. After all, if you are a creative writer, you probably love literature, and reading what your contemporaries are writing can be entertaining and inspiring. This method also tends to pay off. It certainly saves you time because there’s no point in submitting a fantasy story to a journal that says it doesn’t publish genre fiction. Most of my own recent acceptances have been to journals whose content I was already excited about even before my writing was accepted to them.

2. Write a themed piece explicitly for a particular lit mag. Many journals, even if they publish “literary” writing, whether it’s fiction, or poetry, or nonfiction, have themes for some of their issues and encourage people to submit work that fits the theme. This doesn’t always work for me since I usually write stories well in advance of seeing these themed calls, but if you’re someone who gets inspired by writing prompts, this can be the motivation you need to produce something new with a publication venue in mind. Even if your piece gets rejected from the initial lit mag, you can still submit it to other publications later.

3. Keep track of encouraging rejections. One of my editor friends who runs a literary journal has reassured me several times that receiving an email that invites me to submit again, even if it is automated, is a sign that the editors liked what they saw, and really did mean that the piece just wasn’t a good fit for the magazine. If you receive an encouraging rejection, note down where you received it from. This can be a sign that the piece that you’re submitting is good enough to be accepted somewhere else, as long as you find the right place, and you should definitely submit other work to that lit mag again. Most of my acceptances have been pieces that received enough encouraging rejections to make me feel confident that they were worthy of publication. I also keep a list of magazines that I return to again and again with submissions, hoping that at some point the piece I send them will end up being a perfect fit.

4. Don’t submit until the piece is actually ready, and don’t be afraid to revise and resubmit somewhere else. Let’s face it. It’s really hard to know when a short story or a poem or an essay is really ready to be published. Sometimes we are so eager to send out our work into the world that we can’t view it an unbiased way. Other times, we get so discouraged by rejections that we are sure that something must be wrong with our work. Having a friend or community who you can turn to exchange writing is helpful for figuring out what you need to improve upon and when a piece feels “done.” But for some of us, writing never truly feels finished. At some point, you may have to just take a leap of faith. What I’ve noticed is that for some pieces, after I receive a rejection or two (or fifteen), I realize something fundamental about it needs to be revised, and I make that change. There’s nothing wrong with doing this. You just have to keep track of where you sent which version of the publication because most lit mags won’t accept resubmitted work, even if you’ve revised it.

5. Decide when it’s worth it to pay for submissions and when it’s not. In my personal experience, I have never received an acceptance for a journal that charged a submission fee. Not once. Maybe this is just a coincidence. However, it hasn’t stopped me from submitting to places that do charge for submissions, especially if those same places offer payment for publication. If you’re someone who objects to paying for submissions on principle or you simply can’t afford to submit to several lit mags a month, then just focus your attention on places with free submissions.

If, on the other hand, you have some spare change, it might be worth it to pay some submission fees. I am lucky to be able to afford to submit to places that charge for submissions, but I’m still intentional about how much I pay to submit. I set a budget for myself of $15 maximum each month in submission fees. Most places that do charge for submissions charge between $3-$5 per submission, so this means I can usually submit to 3-5 magazines per month that charge fees, as well as an unlimited number of journals with free submissions. Some contest fees can be even higher than $15, so submitting to a contest alone could wipe out my budget for a month or two.

To be cautious with your resources, only submit to venues or contests that charge fees if you feel confident that your work is worthy of publication and that it would be a good fit for the journal. I also recommend only paying for submissions if you think it’s worth giving money to that journal even if they don’t accept your work because at least that way you don’t feel like you’re throwing money down the drain.

6. Keep a lot of irons in the fire. This may be a personal preference, but I always work on several stories or personal essays at once. I like to have some stories out for submissions while I’m writing or revising others so I don’t feel as much disappointment when the inevitable rejections roll in. Instead of feeling frustrated that I have to once again revise the piece that was rejected, I can just shrug, send out new stories, and come back to revising that story eventually. This keeps my morale high because the greatest barrier to publication is becoming discouraged. If you lose hope that you will ever be published and give up on submitting, this will guarantee that you won’t be published! It’s better to pick yourself up, appreciate yourself for your hard work despite the rejections you received, and keep trying.

I hope you found these tips useful for your own writing and publication journey. If you liked my blog post, please subscribe to my blog and check out my other website, Litbloom.com, where I review online lit mags. You can also follow me on twitter at @mollywritesalot.

Finding a Work/ Life Balance as a Teacher/ Writer (During a Pandemic)

A view from one of the many my many after-work runs that help me clear my head before writing

In the past year, I’ve had more time to develop my writing than I have ever had while working a full-time job. To be fair, I have only worked a full-time job for two prior years in my life, one as an Americorps literacy tutor and the other as a first-year teacher, and both were extremely mentally and physically demanding. So maybe this year I’ve just found breathing room that wasn’t present during those other two years. It also helps that I don’t have children to take care of, and I’ve been able to do my job remotely during this pandemic. It’s still been a difficult year, since I had to switch entirely to a different mode of teaching- distance learning- all the while coping with anxiety and grief over the toll of the pandemic. I recognize that these aren’t the best circumstances for creative output, and I am probably one of the few lucky people who has found the time and energy to produce more during this pandemic. For me, writing is an escape from the stress of my job and the difficulties of everyday life. I’ve used it as a coping mechanism, so it makes sense that I’ve leaned on it more during the pandemic.

I started this blog three years ago positing the question of whether it was possible to be both a public school teacher and a writer. At that time, I hardly knew anyone who tried to pursue both. They seemed like worlds that did not often cross, except for when my students were reading and writing themselves. However, during the past year, I’ve discovered a whole community of other teachers who write or writers who teach on places like Twitter or WordPress or among teacher acquaintances I know from the Bay Area or UC Davis. There are a lot of people who are making it work, pursuing their passion for writing while also teaching, whether it’s K-12 public education or working at private schools or colleges. Being in touch with a writing community has really helped me stay motivated to continue writing despite the difficulty of finding the time to write and the challenges of developing good enough writing to be published.

In the past year, I’ve been published 3 times online, and I have another story forthcoming in a print literary journal soon. It’s nice to receive external validation from being published online, but more important than that validation is the excitement that comes from sharing my writing with other members of the writing community. I’ve found a lot of joy this past year in reading literary magazines, whether they are new online journals or print journals I’ve had sitting in my apartment for years. It makes me feel part of a greater literary community that is having conversations about important ideas, discussing racism, capitalism, language, and culture through literature. It doesn’t matter that these pieces, whether it’s poetry, short stories, or essays, are ephemeral and won’t be widely perused by the public. As long as there is a community of readers that care about them and writers who want to create them, literary journals are relevant and important.

As I approach the end of my year teaching via distance learning, I’m looking forward to the beneficial aspects of teaching in person such as building relationships with my students and being able to cultivate a culture of learning and creativity in my classroom. But I’m also worried that I will lose some of the work/life balance I’ve had to work so hard to develop during this past year. It may take a while to adjust back to the routine of in-person teaching, and during that time I don’t think it will be easy to write. I’m just hoping that I will be able to apply some of the lessons I’ve learned during this past year about maintaining boundaries between life and work to my teaching career going forward.

First of all, I’ve gotten better at creating mental boundaries between my life and my work. I no longer dwell too much on thoughts of teaching and replay scenes from my classes in my head during my free time. Of course, some reflection is positive and necessary, but I don’t let it occupy my mind as much as a I used to because I need that time to rest. In this case, rest means turning my attention to other things that I value.

Second of all, I have also gotten better at prioritizing what I need to do for work in order to complete tasks outside of classroom teaching such as grading, lesson planning, contacting parents, and filling out paperwork more efficiently. Reading the book Onward by Elena Aguilar really helped me figure out how to make the most of my contracted hours so that I can stop working relatively soon after the school day is technically over. Of course, I still have to work outside of my contracted hours. Otherwise, I would not be able to do the things I need to do to teach well. But I have minimized the time I work on weekends and after school. I used to let teaching take over both days of my weekend, but now I limit it to Sunday, even if it means Sunday is rather stressful and rushed. To me, having a rushed Sunday is worth being able to relax on Saturday. I know not everyone feels that way or has the same work rhythm, so teachers have to figure out their own ways to make things fit into the time they have.

It would help, of course, if we didn’t have as ridiculous of workloads as we do. However, I don’t let my endless to-do list of tasks rule over my time. If I complete everything I need to do to be prepared for the next day, and then some ongoing tasks, even if I have more I could do, I cut myself off. The problem with teaching is that you often feel that no matter how much you do, it’s not enough, but it’s also toxic to keep working when you need to rest. I’m getting better at stopping myself before I’m completely exhausted.

During my free time, I’ve developed routines for how to use my time after work so that I get to do the things that are important to me. I usually work out right after I finish working, then relax and help prep dinner (I’m lucky that my partner does most of the cooking). After dinner, I write. I don’t write every day, but I’ve figured out that this time is the optimal writing time for me to write on a regular basis. When I was first trying to fit writing into my schedule, I tried to block it out at 4 PM on a couple days a week on my calendar, but I just found that timing didn’t work for me. I can’t focus on writing right after I finish work. I need some time to decompress before I can turn to what is basically my second job. This is what works best for me, but everyone has their own preferences for when they feel most creative. I could never do creative work in the early morning, or even exercise early in the morning, so all of the “life” part of my work/life balance has to happen after work.

Next year, when I’m back in person I’m going to have to adjust my routine by accounting for the time it takes me to commute to and from my job. I will also lose some of my precious evening time because I will have to go to bed earlier. No more staying up until 10 PM writing for two to three hours straight because I was struck by a good idea (well I might still do this every once in a while and then just go to work sleep deprived). I don’t know if the work/ life balanced I have now is truly sustainable. I just know that it’s working for now, so I will relish it while I still can. I am hoping that once I’m back into the classroom, after an adjustment period, I’ll find a new version of work/life balance. I just hope it doesn’t take too long to achieve it and doesn’t require me to give up too much.

Hitting the Reset Button on Your Writing or Teaching

You may have noticed it’s been a couple months since my last post on this blog. As a high school teacher who also writes and blogs, I always bite off more than I can chew, and feel like I’m constantly caught in a cycle of falling behind on everything. However, I know that a lot of my students are currently trapped in cycle as well, a cycle of stress caused not by laziness but by disorientation.

Last semester I had a student who didn’t come to half the quarter of online classes, and when I finally got a hold of him, he confessed to me that he was just too afraid of how behind he had fallen to try to do any of the work. I made a plan with him to excuse him from a lot of the work he had missed so he could just jump into the class where we were instead of trying to play catch up. Ultimately, I ended up using this strategy for several students on distance learning, with mixed results. Some of them do become engaged in the class temporarily, only to fall behind and have the cycle start all over again, while others find that once they have a better idea of what is going on, they can mostly keep up. With distance learning, it’s hard to really know what is going on with the students that allows them to break out of the cycle of procrastination or keeps them trapped in it. But I’ve realized that I can at least figure out what works to help me move past it.

For me, the cycle of procrastination is like stepping into a chilly lake on a warm day. At first, it feels good to take baby steps into the water, and you enjoy the fresh feeling water on your toes and feet, but once the water reaches your ankles, and then your knees, the top half of your body feels strangely overheated while your bottom half starts to shiver and grow numb. You’re tempted to just leave the water altogether, or to ease yourself by slowing inching your way further into the lake. The best way to acclimate to the temperature of the water is just to dive in, but in the moment that feels like the last thing you want to do. Then, if you get the will to do it, you dunk your whole body into the water and find that after a few seconds, your whole body feels tingly. A few minutes later, you don’t even notice the chill of the water anymore.

I think a lot of people struggle with procrastination or with writer’s block reach the point of peak discomfort, where it seems like putting in the full effort to commit to some action will be more stressful than putting it off, so they just back away from the difficult situation rather than diving in. I’ve noticed that if I start to feel bad about not writing, instead of making a plan of attack, I will just preoccupy myself with other things to do while never letting go of that guilt that I’m not writing. I will be unfocused on what I’m actually doing while not making any of the progress I want to make. The best way to deal with this situation, I’ve found, is to try to find some sort of way to reset your swirling thoughts.

Taking a rest before diving back into the cold lake

“Resetting” might look different for you. If meditation works, I find that meditation can be useful to clear out your intrusive alarm bells in your mind pestering you about things you haven’t completed. If that doesn’t work, you could make the purposeful choice to do something else other than your writing or the work you’re supposed to do, something active or engrossing like working out, playing a sport, putting together a puzzle, or reading, and allow yourself to get sucked into it. While you might think this would not really help your procrastination, if you stop viewing it as procrastination and instead view it as resetting your brain so that you will be refreshed to try the hard thing that you need to do later, then you can let go of the guilt you are feeling and actually enjoy this activity.

Then once you feel refreshed, you can try again by plunging headfirst into whatever you need to work on. Of course, you might find that it’s difficult, that you need to step back for a moment and create a plan. But if you start to build some momentum by doing some of the harder cognitive work first, you might find it gets easier from there. I’ve heard from many self-help books and articles that if you are tackling an overwhelming list of things to do, you should do whatever is easiest and fastest first, so that you can feel like you’ve accomplished something. While there might be some merit to this, I usually only do this on days where I just don’t have the energy to tackle larger tasks. If you feel energized and refreshed, you should do whatever you’re dreading the most first so that you can at least chip away at it or realize that it’s not so bad after all and move beyond whatever is stymying your path.

For example, during my first year of teaching, I would put off grading longer essays as long as possible until I faced the prospect of grading several dozen essays in less than a week because grades were due. I no longer let grading pile up to that point during my second year. I try to start grading longer assignments soon after they are turned in so they feel much more manageable. It would be easier to start by grading warm ups which I just check off for completion, but I actually leave my warm ups to be graded later because they take so little effort.

In the past year, I’ve played a lot of rounds of golf. I already had a set of clubs from when I was in high school, and since golf has been once of the only available outdoor sports this past year, I’ve taken it up again. Relearning how to golf has reminded me that starting every decision fresh while letting go of the decisions you’ve taken before it is the key to having a growth mindset. It is what allows you to have a positive attitude despite failure. It might seem overly naïve to think that if you’re playing badly, as long as you really concentrate and focus on your next stroke, you’ll start to play better. But if you take this approach, you will find that you can more easily shrug off your mistakes and stay focused on each shot.

This approach applies to teaching and writing as well. Temporarily forgetting whatever went wrong the day before and trying again sometimes seems like the only way to stay sane when you’re a new teacher, or a teacher adapting to new circumstances such as distance learning. Your internet cuts out during a class? Fix it, and move on without dwelling on it. If you completely bomb a lesson, try to understand what went wrong, but don’t let it affect how you greet the next period of students. Of course it’s hard to do this. Being able to let go of your mistakes is also a skill you have to practice.

When I’m writing, I usually find the biggest mistake I have to let go of is the fact that I didn’t write as much or as often as I wanted to in the previous week or month. Procrastination is also a form of baggage. The more you dwell on your inability to get past it, the heavier it gets. While I do try to keep track of how many days in a row I meet my goals, whether they are writing, meditating, or eating well, I try not to beat myself up anymore for not doing “enough” of a certain thing. In the end it doesn’t matter if I haven’t picked up a pen in several days or opened a file of a story I’ve been working on. If I open it up today and work on it today, that is all I can control in this moment.

The hardest task I’ve taken on in the past year is attempting to write a novel, so naturally that is where I’ve struggled with the most procrastination. A year ago, at the start of the pandemic, I had not worked on my novel very much and only had about 30 pages written. Eventually, about a month into the lockdown, I realized that I was in a very privileged situation of having more time to write while still working. Of course, I wasn’t free from anxiety from the pandemic. I was lucky to be able to work from home, but I was still in constant fear of people I loved getting the virus. I completely understood why many people have declared that they don’t need to be productive during such a turbulent time, that surviving is enough. Still, I was able to use writing as a way to keep my mind off the pandemic, so I devoted myself to my novel.

At first, I dipped my toes into it by planning out the chapters, writing character backstories, doing research. Then I realized that I just needed to start writing, even if much of what I wrote would never make it into the final draft. I have taken this approach to writing before while doing NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), and I wasn’t satisfied with the results. Nevertheless, I tried to just let it out, because I believed in this story, and I knew I would not feel satisfied until it was on paper. I’m a major reviser, so I just have to keep telling myself that whatever I end up with on my first draft can be made better on the next.

My novel has come in fits and starts. I will go months without touching it, and then for several weeks I’ll find myself glued to my keyboard late into the night. Whenever I get stuck with writing it, I just try to make sure I take a break, reset, and then mentally brace myself for the challenge of writing it and push myself to do it. I accept that this doesn’t happen every day, and that it’s OK for me to work on only when I find the energy for it. It seems like an enormous task, but viewing every writing session as its own hurdle, I’ve managed to make a lot of progress.

This week, I reached 150 pages. I can’t vouch for the quality of what I’ve written, but I do feel like I have developed a better understanding of how to draft a novel from this experience. I’m not done with it yet. I am only halfway through the story I have in my head. Yet, I have confidence now that I will be able to keep at it until I reach its conclusion as long as I continue to do what I’ve been doing: keep diving into the cold water, swimming, and then taking a break to reset, again and again for however long it takes.

Applying Lessons in Writer Resilience to Teaching Online

Image Credit: Alan Levine

On the last day of the fall Zoom semester of 2020 (or should I say “doom semester?”), I burst into tears. Despite my best efforts to reach many of my students, I had to give out far more failing grades than I am used to doing. I knew it wasn’t my completely fault. After all, there is a pandemic going on, my students are struggling to learn online, and I don’t even know what their learning environment at home is like since most of them don’t feel comfortable turning their camera on. Still, I felt responsible, and with every F I entered into the grading system, I felt like more of a failure as a teacher.

After a few days of letting myself wallow in my feelings, and a week or so of resting over the holidays, I picked myself up, wiped the slate clean, and moved forward with my plans for the next semester. I came back to online teaching this past week with vigor and energy, trying to project the hope to my students that this Zoom semester will be better.

Throughout this pandemic, I have needed to find coping strategies to deal with the unprecedented challenges I’m facing as a teacher. I’ve realized that many of the strategies I use to remain resilient draw upon my years of a experience as an “emerging writer.” As someone who has been attempting to write and submit work for publication for almost a decade, I have experienced plenty of rejection and failure. The stakes are much lower that they are for teaching, because having one short story published here or there is not going to make or break my writing career (then again one student failing will not make or break my teaching career either- but it could be devastating for that student). But I think from these smaller failures, I’ve had plenty of time to practice the experience of being thwarted in my goals, which has helped me see the bigger picture when it comes to distance learning. So here are some of the ways being a writer has helped me remain positive at my high school teaching job even while trying to teach under the current undesirable circumstances.

  1. Celebrate the small successes, and don’t be discouraged by rejection. I’ve dealt with a lot of rejection as a writer since unless you already have connections in the writing world or are just a literary genius, the odds are against you. Whenever I do have a story accepted or an article published, I celebrate, no matter how “minor” of an accomplishment it might feel like. I was published in a local zine this past summer, and despite the fact that it’s not a well-known publication, I still felt proud to see my work in print. When it comes to teaching, I celebrate the moments where I can reach a student who I haven’t been able to make a connection with. Last semester, I had a student who responded to me with nothing but negativity. After I asked if she was OK for probably the hundredth time and pestered her about doing the work, she told me that she appreciated that I cared. Of course, that kind of breakthrough does not have the finality that publication has. I still have to cultivate a relationship with that student going forward. But it gave me something positive to cling to, which I really needed.

2. Have patience. This goes with my first point because you have to wait to see the results of all of your efforts, whether it is the hard work you put into revising a manuscript or the continual nurturing of connections with students. I am a slow writer, and I also usually have to rewrite or revise stories and essays at least a dozen times before I feel satisfied with them. It has taken me years to write a story, and years after that to place it in a journal. Still, as long as I have all the gears in motion, with some stories in the works, some out for submission, and some brewing in my head, I know that I will eventually see some success with publication. I know that it is twice as hard for students to learn right now, so if I see that they make progress over the course of the year, even if it is progress that I expected to only take one semester, I will still count it as a success. Since I teach 9th and 10th grade at a small school, I will probably see most of my current 9th grade students next year in the classroom (hopefully in person), and perhaps at that point, I may start to see the results of my efforts from all this past year come to fruition. I have heard from more experienced teachers that it can takes years sometimes to reap the results of the work you put in, that teaching really becomes the most rewarding once you see how your students are doing in five to ten years. As a second year teacher, I just have to be patient enough to get to that point in my profession.

3. Find a community with others who are pursuing the same goals. I’ve found some of the best encouragement in my writing from my friends who have taken workshops with me and from strangers I met on the internet who are friendly and want to help others succeed. I’ve also received some of the best teaching tips and advice from my teaching colleagues from my credential program or from educational leaders I follow on Twitter. During this pandemic, I’ve had both teaching buddies and writing buddies who I text and share ideas with on a regular basis. They have helped me feel less alone in the ventures of writing and teaching, which are both very isolating even in normal times.

4. Look for models in mentors. See what they are doing, and try it out yourself. Writing allows you to have mentors who you have never met or even corresponded with. I view my favorite authors who inspire me to keep writing as mentors, while I also keep in touch with professors who have helped me personally improve my writing. In graduate school, my professor Yiyun Li told me that one of the best ways to work on your writing is to emulate the style of another writer– not with the goal of having that work published, but just as practice, since trying on other writer’s styles can help you develop your own style. I think this also applies to teaching. By imitating the style of a mentor teacher you may admire, even if it is just for a day, you may be able to experiment with your own teaching style and decide whether the way a mentor or a colleague teaches feels natural to you. You may decide it is not how you want to teach and switch directions, even mid-lesson, but it can help clarify what is working in your teaching and what is not working. I used this technique during my student teaching, and now that I am teaching online, one actual advantage is that I can experiment a bit more than I was comfortable doing in-person. I hope this experimentation allows me to return to the physical classroom as a more dynamic teacher who is more assured in my own teaching style.

5. It’s OK to take breaks and come back to things later. Well, of course, you can’t leave your class during the middle of a zoom meeting or a class period, but if you need to take your prep time to meditate or take a walk instead of grading, you can. With writing, I’m the type of person who needs a long time to mull over a draft before returning to it. I usually work on one thing for a couple weeks, put it down for a couple months while I’m working on something else, and then return to it. Teaching can’t replicate this same fluctuating rhythm, but you can break up grading with planning, if one makes you happier than the other. One way humans learn well is through spaced repetition, where you practice a skill or memorize information in a systematic way in which you focus mostly on the newest ideas or skills and occasionally on the older ideas and skills to reinforce them in your mind. With teaching, I don’t always have time to fit in vocabulary every week, but I know that if I come back to the same words with my students after a week, and then revisit the same words after a month, it might feel inconsistent but it might actually stick in their minds better that way. I give myself permission to not get to everything done in every lesson every week knowing that my students will benefit more if we go deeper into fewer concepts while circling back to the same ideas a few weeks later.

Being an English teacher and a writer means that I’m constantly thinking about how to help my students become better at writing while also keeping my own writing on the backburner in my head. I was worried that the pandemic would make balancing these two identities even more challenging, but I’ve been lucky that they’ve been able to reinforce one another. For both writing and teaching, resilience is essential to keep going, especially when we’re in a global pandemic. So, if you are a teacher or a writer, or both, I hope you are able to take some time to take care of yourself so that you can bounce back from whatever challenges you are currently facing, or even just muddle through them.

By the way, here’s an essay I wrote that was published in McSweeney’s recently, in case you need a good laugh.