Writing in Times of Transition

View of the Golden Gate Bridge shrouded in fog
Times of transition can be a little foggy. (View from the Presidio Tunnel Tops Park in San Francisco which I visited while at a teacher training this summer)

Transitions, especially big life transitions, have always been hard for me. I am someone who thrives on routine and structure. I remember when I moved to France after college, even though I was excited to go live there, I ended up freaking out in the airport waiting to board my plane. I was overcoming an infection, a complication from having my wisdom teeth removed, so I was not in a great physical state, and I felt like there was a bottomless pit in my stomach, pulling me into a whirlpool of panic. But my move could not be delayed. I was going, whether I was ready or not. Before going through security, I remember telling my mom I wasn’t sure if going to France was the right idea, and she reassured me that as soon as I got there, I would be fine. She was right.

Now that I’m a teacher, each year I struggle with the jarring transition between the end of the school year and the summer. It’s disconcerting to go from having my days filled to the brim with work to having what seemes like an endless amount of time to fill during the summer. I always have plenty of things to do during summer break, but I have to use my willpower and organizational skills to make the best use of that time without any external authority telling me what I need to prioritize. Luckily, teaching equips me well for this type of challenge. In my role as a high school English teacher, I plan and implement the entirety of the curriculum I teach. Of course, I solicit feedback from my admin, colleagues, and students, on my lessons and units, but ultimately the decision for what to teach and how to teach is mine. I definitely feel lucky to have that much freedom, since I know many teachers do not have the same autonomy, but it can be overwhelming at times. The same thing can happen when I’m working on a long writing project, such as a novel or a complex freelance job. The best way to deal with a large daunting task is to break it up into a parts, and take things one step at a time.

This past summer I had a singular goal: to finish a draft of my novel. I was awarded a Jack Hazard Fellowship by the New Literary Project, a fellowship for creative writers who teach high school. I felt honored to be chosen as part of the their inaugural cohort of fellows, but as the summer approached I felt the same gut-twisting panic that I felt before I boarded my plane to France. What if I just couldn’t hack it? I wasn’t required to finish an entire draft of the novel by the end of the summer. I just had to submit something to show that I worked on the novel, but there wasn’t a specific number of pages I needed to write. Still, I wanted to finish the draft because I knew I would feel more accomplished if I did.

I knew I had to create some sort of structure for myself in order to finish the draft. I initially planned to adhere to a strict schedule. I would wake up at a certain time, and after eating breakast, I would write for 2 hours, then take a break for exercise, etc. I won’t bore you with the details, since I don’t think I followed this plan for a single day. Almost as soon as the summer started, I caught COVID. I wasn’t able to write for a few days, and then once I was better, my partner and I were moving into a new house. By the time we were done moving, it was mid-July, and practically a month of the summer had passed.

At that point, I threw my rigid plans out the window and just focused on making sure I wrote for 500 words a day. I kept a log of how much I wrote every single day, but even then I wasn’t completely consistent. Some days I wrote 454 words, others, I wrote 2000. Through fits and starts, by continuously pursuing my goal, even if it meant waiting until 10 PM to write and then hammering my keyboard for an hour, I managed to produce a completed rough draft. I know it needs a lot of revision, but I still was proud of myself for meeting my goal.

I also accomplished another goal this summer. I was hired for a freelance writing job in which I wrote a whole online course on an unfamiliar topic: personal finance. While I did have some background knowledge on this topic, I did not consider myself a subject matter expert before I wrote the course. I gained a lot of valuable experience learning how to research a topic and write a whole course from scratch. To do this, I also had to manage my time carefully since I was working on two writing projects at once. The course had a much clearer structure than the novel, so I was able to break it down into smaller chunks and write one section at a time. After I submitted my first draft of the course, I also received feedback from my client, and I then revised it in response to their feedback. It felt very satisfying to complete the entire writing process from beginning to end on the course, and it gave me the confidence to know that I can take on similar projects in the future.

Of course, just when I had figured out my summer routines and found strategies to improve my creativity and productivity, the summer ended, and I had an abrupt transition back to teaching. I always do some planning for the school year during the summer, but this year, the end of the summer crept up on me very quickly (probably because I was so busy with writing). I felt really off-balance at the beginning of the school year, especially since this year I am teaching 3 courses (2 sections of English 9, 2 sections of English 10, and 2 sections of Creative Writing- so 6 sections total). Even though I’m repeating some material for English 9 and 10, it has felt like I’m making everything from scratch because I tweak what I do every year to improve my teaching practices and to better meet the needs of my current students.

Now that we’ve reached the end of the first quarter, I finally feel like I have some breathing room to reflect on the challenges of writing under different time constraints— whether it’s writing furiously towards a deadline with little else to occupy my thoughts or trying to squeeze in writing when I’m working a full-time teaching job. As long as I’m a teacher, summers and breaks will always be where I’m able to do my deepest, most challenging work as a writer. During the year, the thought of adding more to my plate gives me anxiety, even when it’s work that I want to do. I have to focus on smaller tasks such as editing stories I’ve written here and there, similar to weeding a garden or pruning a hedge.

I also have figured out ways to integrate my freelance writing with my full-time job when possible. I was lucky enough to become a YR Media Curriculum Fellow this year, which involves writing a curriculum tool (basically a whole unit plan or series of lessons) using resources from YR Media. YR Media (originally Youth Radio) is a journalism nonprofit that publishes articles by youth journalists. I’ve been creating a curriculum tool using some of their articles and then implementing my own curriculum plan in the classroom. As a part of the fellowship, I attended a training this summer led by Dr. Cherise McBride about using youth media to empower students. I also have been given the opportunity to collaborate with other amazing educators from the Bay Area and from around the country.

To figure out how to best use my limited creative writing time, I’ve been seeking feedback on my work from writer friends, and I even joined a new writer’s group in the past few months. Being part of a writer’s group is really helpful for keeping me accountable during periods when I don’t have much motivation to write. I also have been inspired by reading my peers’ work.

Furthermore, I’ve also been using the exercises from my own Creative Writing class to hone my writing skills. Every time my creative writing students do a writing task, I try to do the same quickwrite so I can show my work as a model or so I can have the students practice critiquing it. Seeing my students light up while writing about their most memorable meal, illustrating a zine, or worldbuilding for a short story has also been fueling my soul.

Nevertheless, it is hard for me to imagine how I can find a sustainable teaching workload that would allow me to fulfill my writing goals. Every year, teaching does come a bit more easily, at least. Now that I’m in my 4th year, I definitely have gotten better about setting boundaries around work and sticking to those boundaries. I’m hoping that after I’ve taught all 3 of the classes I’m currently teaching for at least one year, it will start to get easier.

This past August, I turned 30. I’m in a period of transition in my life, from young adulthood to middle adulthood, and I have personal goals in mind that are not related to writing or teaching or work at all. I greatly admire the people I know who have been able to maintain a career, have a family, and pursue an artistic passion at the same time, but I know all of them have had to make sacrifices. At some point, I will have to decide what is most important to me and what I need to scale back on. I am glad that after several years in the classroom, I’ve been able to progess both in my career as a writer and as a teacher. I hope I can continue forging a path that allows me to do both while also finding personal fulfillment in other areas of my life.