photo credit: Jill Moore
Earlier this summer, the Clockhouse Writers Conference (CWC) at Goddard College hosted a keynote session on balance and writing. This is part two in a three-part series of essays by the keynote panelists.
by Sam Sherman
Striving for balance in writing? Just considering the topic had me a little unbalanced—there are so many possibilities for interpretation. “Striving”—well, okay, I get that, but it sounds like hard work. “Balance” in anything to my mind is a fleeting and elusive ideal. But it’s the “in Writing” part that really tangled my thoughts.
I’ve been thinking about this talk since last winter, but did I sit down to write it in January? No. February? Uh-uh. Did I take it on as a task for Spring? Nope. I sat down and started pounding the keys to make these words on Friday. And I kept coming back to the keyboard through the weekend. Is that because I produce better on deadline? (I don’t mean quality here, I just mean getting the job done.) Sadly, that’s a bad habit left over from my newspaper days, but that’s not truly the reason I didn’t get started on this until late in the game. It was a matter of striving for balance in writing. So, with that realization I decided that for this talk, I will define “in writing” as meaning “in my writing life or in my endeavors as a writer.” That’s where the challenge comes in for me: there are multiple endeavors. More about those in a minute.
I’ve been visiting my physical therapist lately for some work on my shoulder, and the other day I was watching an older gent doing some exercises. One involved standing on a foam block, first on both feet, then on just one, then on the other. The squishiness underfoot meant that his body had to keep readjusting to maintain balance. And that was a perfect illustration: balance isn’t a static state (at least not for living, breathing things). With objects, once you get them to balance, they will stay balanced until some outside force messes with the equilibrium. But with us, with our attention and inattention, our breathing and twitching and such, our muscles have to keep readjusting constantly to preserve balance—think of a tightrope walker tilting a bit to one side and then the other, or just try standing on one foot and remaining as still as possible. (Now try it with your eyes closed and really mess with your head.) Even highly trained individuals—I’m thinking of the scene with the stork pose in the original Karate Kid movie as an illustration here—individuals who may seem to be still and balanced are actually making minute muscular adjustments to hold that pose.
So perhaps balanced for humans is getting close enough to that state of equilibrium so that our adjustments are so small that they aren’t noticeable to others, and if we’re really good, maybe they aren’t even noticeable to ourselves. But the fact remains that balance is a constant adjustment, an ongoing process of gaining, losing and regaining equilibrium. And the state of being balanced is the whole of that, the gaining and the losing, so that we don’t dwell on just the losing part.
In my writing life I’m not so much like the karate master in crane pose. I’m more like a beginning tightrope walker, listing far to one side, standing upright for the briefest of moments before overcompensating and leaning far to the other side. There’s no chance that my balance will be taken for a steady state—it’s unbalance at least 75% of the time. But I’m working on it.
This spring the balancing act has been more frantic than usual. Last year at this time I decided I’d had my fill of corporate life and left my job—perhaps not the brightest thing to do in a bad economy but necessary for my survival in a deeper sense than economics. I gave myself the rest of 2009 to play, embrace “funemployment” as someone called it (and I thought that was perfect), and then once 2010 rolled around, I would figure out what was next for gainful work. Decision-making isn’t as simple as yes, this, no, not that, especially when it comes to work. Did I want to find a full-time job working as a writer? Did I want to go back to teaching writing? Did I want to find a different sort of job and keep my writing separate from the paid work? Each of these scenarios would require a different sort of balancing act.
Research and inspiration are two pieces of my decision-making process, so I participated in a few seminars and volunteered at the Newburyport Literary Festival. Oh, yeah, and I had committed to helping coordinate Clockhouse. All of this networking and learning and inquiring is important, but obviously it cuts into writing time. The time these activities take has to be added into the mix of managing projects, and I already had multiple projects to manage.
I had started one a year ago: reprinting a book I’d had published in 2001 that was out of print. The rights had reverted to me, so I decided on self-publishing, and that required finding a good company to work with. I had tried to do this last summer, but the print-on-demand company I had initiated contact with turned out to be a haven for stupid people, and I didn’t want to trust my book to them, so come 2010 I was back at square one.
Another project on the table was a novel that I started in Novermber for National Novel Writing Month. A third project came to life when I applied for a writer-in-residence position at the Boston Public Library; their associates’ group sponsors a residency each year for a writer of children’s or young adult literature, and that seemed like the perfect context for me to pursue a story idea I had had in my mental file for years. Well, I didn’t get the residency, but now the YA novel is on my radar.
Finally, one of my thoughts when I left my corporate job was that I would like to work as a travel writer. I started a blog last fall in order to have some pieces to show potential publishers, concentrating in large part on visiting historic writers’ homes. I would put together a day trip with a literary destination, an interesting place to eat, and some other fun thing, and then take along a friend. So I got to write about a bunch of my favorite things: books and authors, history, travel, food, and doing fun stuff with people I like. As my next step toward becoming a travel writer I entered a contest on a travel website. Didn’t win, but I got a runner-up prize that awarded me a month-long freelance contract, and when the month was over, the editor contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in becoming a regular contributor. So I’m now the New England regional writer, and I publish ten stories a month on the site. With that one professional credit for my travel-writing resume, I’m now looking for more.
This is where the balance comes in. I can’t pursue any one of these projects to the exclusion of the others. And I can’t write to the exclusion of the other activities—communicating with editors, looking for travel destinations to visit, researching printing companies, writing proposals and filling out applications—that are part of keeping these projects alive. It starts to feel like spinning plates while walking on a tightrope, and I am definitely not that athletic.
So at this moment this is where I stand, however unsteadily: I have made a list of all my destinations for my July travel stories, and I’ve also successfully pitched the idea to the editor for doing an additional five stories about my upcoming trip to Utah, but haven’t expanded my paid travel writing work to any other outlets yet. I have made all the arrangements for reprinting my book, but I have only talked to one local bookseller about carrying it. I haven’t finished the first draft of my National Novel Writing Month novel (although I did hit the month’s goal of 50 thousand words), but I’m planning on working on that this week. I haven’t moved ahead with the young adult project, but I did get the name of an agent who works with young adult and first-time novelists when I volunteered at the literary festival. And I decided to keep my options open for a regular paying gig: just before I headed to Vermont I applied for both teaching and writing jobs, but I have no idea what the response will be. The successes and struggles keep me teetering on that tightrope.
Like I said, balance for me is certainly not a steady state, and it is really unbalance at least 75% of the time. But I’m working on it. I am maintaining my footing on the tightrope. Would it be easier if I didn’t find myself tilting precariously off-center so often, feeling half a breath away from falling? Definitely. But each awkward step, each wobbling recovery is still forward progress. I haven’t fallen. Neither have I quit the act and climbed down to earth and planted my feet firmly on the ground. I’ve still got my head in the clouds, still tempting fate, still flirting with disaster. Did you ever notice that there seem to be plenty of metaphors for embracing unpredictability? Living the writing life is like writing itself, you just have to keep doing it, and you can’t help but get better with practice. So I keep working on my balancing act and hoping that someday I’ll be ready for the Big Top.
Sam Sherman is a freelance writer who lives near Boston. Aside from her travel writing, she blogs at My American Studies.