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.

On Writing and Teaching During a Pandemic

My cat, Lady Sybil, has been a constant source of inspiration and comfort during this turbulent time.

One of my 2020 goals for the year was to post more to this blog. I know, I know, it’s August, but in my defense, for the first few months, I was very absorbed in my first year of teaching, and then a pandemic happened. After really struggling with time management and burnout my first semester as a teacher, I felt like I had just hit my stride when the pandemic hit. I had stopped working as late and had started taking care of myself more. I had developed strong relationships with my students, made major progress with classroom management, and was engaging my students in rigorous learning by incorporating social justice topics into my teaching. Then everything was put on hold. I’ve written more about this sudden transition to distance learning as I’ve reflected on the experience of the past 4 months. In fact, I wrote a whole essay on this topic, which I still hope to have published. That’s one reason it took me so long to return to this blog. I wanted to amplify the story of ending my first year of teaching in a pandemic on a different platform, but thus far I haven’t had much success with my submissions. I’m still hoping I will be able to get my essay on being a first year teacher in this turbulent time published before the end of the summer, but if that doesn’t happen, I will publish it here.

I’ve realized that trying to write timely articles and pitch them to places that pay writers money takes a lot of patience. It can be frustrating to submit something you think is timely only to be told it’s not quite the right fit, or that the publication has already received too many submissions on a similar topic. I have a lot of respect for people who are freelance writers for a living since they must have to hustle constantly to survive on pitched pieces. Many freelancers have been seriously impacted by the plunging economy, since the loss of advertising revenue is causing many magazines to cut back on publishing articles and paying writers. I feel especially grateful right now to have a job where I can earn a steady paycheck with health insurance.

 This fall, I will be teaching at a new high school, after my contract was not renewed at my previous school due to budget cuts. It broke my heart to leave the school where I was first hired, where I had spent a whole year getting to know my students, colleagues, and the community. I knew all along I had been hired on a temporary contract, but no one at the school ever treated me as temporary. At this point, I’ve come to terms with having to change jobs. It took 11 interviews over zoom to find a new teaching position, but I managed to find a job at a school not far from where I live that has a very tight knit community and where I have a lot of control over the curriculum I teach. I am excited to work there, although I am a bit daunted by the prospect of figuring out how to navigate distance learning with students I’ve never met before. I still have a few more weeks to plan for this strange new school year. Since my county is on the California state watchlist, we will start in distance learning, and we will eventually return to the classroom for hybrid classes once the state says it is safe to do so. I feel fairly confident in the county and state’s ability to determine what a safe classroom environment looks like because I live an area that has maintained strict restrictions throughout this entire pandemic. I just hope all the safety precautions will be enough.

I have been really privileged to be able to use the time I’ve been sheltered in place at home to work on writing, and I know that many people who have been directly affected by the virus or by the economic consequences of the shutdowns have not had the same opportunity. It took me a while before I could get back into writing even though I was staying at home all the time. At first, I was overwhelmed by the demands of distance learning, and I was too anxious to do anything in my free time but watch TV, read a bit, and listen to podcasts. Now, in the last few weeks of the summer, I’ve gotten into the habit of writing almost every day, sometimes for several hours. It’s a luxury I know I won’t be able to maintain once the school year starts in earnest, but I’m hoping that at the very least I can carve out the forty minutes or so I would have spent commuting if I were working on campus to devote to personal writing.

One of the positive experiences I’ve had during quarantine is having the time to participate in writing communities, whether they are online or in my neighborhood. A few weeks into quarantine, I saw a flyer about a new literary journal in my city started by a neighbor. I submitted to it and had the opportunity to be published in it. It wasn’t a prestigious journal, but it was nice to contribute to a community project and feel connected to the other writers in my city.

I’ve also been working on some shorter pieces which I have had the chance to share with a group of peers who joined me in a DIY online writing workshop that I organized this summer. I have really enjoyed the experience of interacting with fellow writers in an informal workshop setting. I have participated in writing groups before, but this was the first time I tried to create one that replicated the format of a workshop. There is something invigorating and inspiring about spending time in the company of other writers, whether it’s virtually or in person. When I first thought of holding an online workshop, I imagined creating a community similar to the ones I found in workshops in college and grad school. While it’s not quite the same, in some ways it’s better because there’s no pressure to impress a professor or to compete with the people in your workshop. I have more thoughts on creating a writing workshop with friends, but I will save them for another blog post or article once my group has wrapped up its last meeting.

The other main writing project I’ve been tackling is writing the novel that I’ve wanted to write since I was fourteen. It’s loosely based on my grandmother’s life growing up in the Ming Quong orphanage in Oakland. To write this story, I’ve had to do a lot of research, and I’ve been teaching myself how to do it as I go. I’ve mostly only read secondary sources, although I did have a chance to talk to my grandmother once before she died about her childhood, and the stories she told me in that conversation have become integral to the book’s plot. A couple years ago, I also interviewed Nona Mock Wyman, who wrote a memoir called Chopstick Childhood about growing up in the Ming Quong Home in Los Gatos (there were several homes for Chinese girls and women started by Presbyterian Missionaries throughout the Bay Area in the early twentieth century). I’ve also been reading The White Devil’s Daughter by Julia Flynn Siler which has given me excellent background knowledge on context in which these missionary homes were founded. Siler’s book has enlightened me to the repugnant history of sex trafficking of Chinese women in San Francisco Chinatown, which I never learned about in any history class in school.

On a side note, I’ve been expanding my understanding of systemic racism and the legacy of white supremacy in this country in order to be able to better enact anti-racism as a teacher and as a white-passing mixed-race ally.  I’ve found a lot of food for thought in Siler’s book. While it focuses on the experiences of women in the Chinese American community and does not address anti-black racism, I saw a lot of parallels in the book to the recent media coverage of widespread misuses of power by police across the country that have been highlighted by the Black Lives Matter protests. For example, in the late 19th century the police in San Francisco blatantly beat Chinese people in the street with little to no provocation while at the same time tacitly accepting bribes to allow brothels to continue to operate. The missionaries often operated separately from the police because if the police were involved, they might have tipped off the brothels and prevented the missionaries from rescuing trafficked women. Crazy stuff.

Anyway, I’ve realized that writing a novel is something I can do on my own, even though it feels like a daunting process. So far I’ve written about 24,000 words, over half of which I’ve been able to write since March. The hardest part of writing a novel when you are not part of a program or a fellowship is that you just have to believe in the power of your own storytelling without any outside validation. I know that the quality of my writing is probably not up to snuff since I can’t stop to second guess whether every sentence I write is warranted. Instead, I just plunge ahead, crossing my fingers that whatever I produce on the first draft will be salvageable, that I’ll be able to revise to make it good. It may never see the light of day, but I’m determined to finish this novel, even if it takes me several years. The legacy of my family history is one of the main reasons I wanted to become a writer in the first place. My grandmother never went to college, and she hardly talked about her life, the hardships she experienced or the joys. I am determined to tell a version of her story, a version very much mediated by my own literary interests and my own personal experiences. I don’t know if she would recognize herself in it, but I hope that if I am able to finish it and one day get it published, at least one of my readers will connect to her life through my writing.

Reflection on a decade of writing (and about 4 months of teaching)

As the decade comes to an end, I thought it would be fitting to reflect on my personal journey as a writer and a teacher. I haven’t posted a blog post in many, many months, partially because I simply haven’t had time to write and partially because when I’ve had time to write I’ve prioritized other types of writing, such as creative writing or journal writing, that are not visible to people. It’s hard to write about struggle on a public platform, so I haven’t been documenting every anguished feeling I’ve had about the challenges of teaching for everyone to see.

I’ve only been teaching for 4 months as a full-time high school English teacher, and it’s been the most challenging job I’ve ever had. I don’t always love it, but I can see the value in sticking with it, and I hope that over time I will grow as a teacher so that I become more skilled at it. Right now, it’s mostly a struggle to survive each week, each day, each month, while trying to do the best job I can for my current students. I also have realized that as a first-year teacher it’s nearly impossible to strike a work-life balance. I tend to stay at work later than I should because I know if I don’t continue to plan, grade, or finish other responsibilities, I will regret it the next day. However, this eats into my personal time to relax, work out, and, most of all, write, so I’m trying to limit how much I work since I know that I need to have down time in order to stay healthy, mentally and physically.

Of course, by the time I do stop working, I hardly feel like writing. An idea might strike me, but I just don’t have the mental energy to explore it. I might jot down ideas here or there, but in order to really get into writing, I need to spend time easing into it by journaling or freewriting until I get into actually creating something that I feel has potential. I find that I lack the time for the full process, so in the past year I’ve written bits here and bits there, but nothing that has coalesced together. This is probably not a problem limited to people who work in education. I imagine that it’s a challenge for anyone working a full-time job who is also pursuing writing as their passion on the side.

I haven’t yet figured out how to set aside time for writing on a regular basis. I am absolutely NOT a morning person, and I don’t think I would be able to get myself up earlier than I already do for my job in order to write or exercise, despite people’s unhelpful suggestions that I make this a routine. It seems like my only opportunities to write are weekends or breaks, though I spend a lot of my “days off” working on grading and lesson planning. I know that I just have to squeeze in writing where I can for now and hope that as I improve as a teacher, I will become more efficient, which will allow me to carve out more time for writing, which for me is a definitively sprawling, disorganized process that I don’t want to restrict.

Despite the fact that I’ve barely written creatively this year, I am grateful that some of the seeds of my writing that I have planted over the years are coming to fruition. This year, I was published for the first time in two books, one a textbook on writing for college students, and the other an anthology of writing published by my alma mater, UCLA. My writing career may be progressing slowly, especially since my writing production has slowed to a crawl, but I’ve still come a long way since I was a senior in high school, ten years ago.

One of my first forays into the world of creative writing occurred when I attended the California State Summer School for the Arts (CSSSA) at CalArts in Valencia, the summer before my senior year. That summer, my teachers gave me tools to work on my writing that I continue to use to this day, and gave me the inspiration to keep writing through thick and thin. Since then, I wrote a play, helped produce it, attended creative writing workshops in college where I was fully converted into a short story writer, attended graduate school for creative writing, where I wrote a short story collection as my thesis but then also discovered creative nonfiction essays, and accumulated a handful of publications.

Along the way, I’ve been buoyed by privilege. I have had many opportunities others have not due to growing up in a upper middle class family, and I know that my path in life has been paved much more smoothly than others. Still the advantages I’ve had are only one part of the equation. I’ve also had to work hard on my writing to improve it and send it out places. I know that not everyone has the time, connections, or know how to do the same. One of the reasons I became a teacher in the first place is that I wasn’t satisfied with just letting my privilege lead me to an “easy” career. I wanted to use my privilege to break down educational barriers for others. How much I am actually able to impact my students for the better, at this point, is up for debate. But I’m trying at least.

So, here I am, ten years later, back in a high school classroom, but this time as a teacher. I don’t get the opportunity to teach creative writing that often in my current position, but I may have more chances to do so in the future. When I showed my students my first two book publications, I felt really proud. However, I didn’t just show them my published essays to have bragging rights. I did it because it was a way of connecting with them on a human level. They understood from what I showed them and discussed with them that writing is my passion, something that I do whether I get paid for it or not because I find it meaningful. While not all of them consider themselves writers or even enjoy writing, all my students are passionate about something. I want to be a role model for them, to demonstrate that you don’t have to be swallowed up by your day job, no matter how valuable that job is to society. I love teaching, but I don’t want to do it at the expense of my personal values. Maybe I’m asking for too much, especially under our ruthless capitalist system, but I’m hoping to prove in the next decade that it’s possible to have a career as a public school teacher while also writing for my own sake.