Setting a Schedule

From September through June, my life is ruled by bells and deadlines, classes and clubs, meetings and committees. And there are never enough hours in a day to complete all the prep and grading. But for the past two months, my time has been my own. I’ve finally given up teaching summer school and have been able to devote my summers to writing, painting, crocheting, golfing, visiting friends and family, and, most importantly, recuperating and regrouping from the hectic school year. In the summer, I rarely set an alarm. I might make a mental list of what I hope to get done, but if a better offer comes along, the laundry can wait till tomorrow morning. I don’t have to go out early.

But now, it’s September again. The bells are ringing for me and my gals. There are already stacks of summer reading outlines to look over. My school email inbox is overflowing with student assignments. It takes so little time to lose the carefree days of summer. How quickly one can be snowed under even as the temperature set new record highs for the month. By the time classes end and the last student leaves and the desk is cleared of the day’s detritus, the golf course may still beckon, but the shorter days and my waning energy make an evening nine nothing more than a happy memory of freer days.

Where does this leave my creativity? Quite honestly, sometimes I am just sapped, but I need to remember that switching gears is rejuvenating. I need to schedule my creative time and, this is the hard part, stick to it. Even as the school year rolls on and the paper load becomes unbearable, I need to stick to my guns and keep my “me” time, my time to write,  to paint, to create.

What will help this become a reality is to set a schedule that includes my work needs as well as my creative time. Recent calculations indicate that if I were to read and grade one essay from each of my students and spend just eight minutes on each essay, I need 18 hours and 40 minutes. Of course not every essay takes eight minutes; some take much longer. (Here’s another plea to bring back handwriting to the elementary curriculum.) On the other hand, not every homework assignment is an essay. Nonetheless, let’s say I need an average of twenty hours of grading time per week. That’s just under three hours a day if I grade every day of the week, including the weekend. Add in some time every week for planning, and I am beginning to get depressed about my writing time because it is the hardest time for me to keep sacrosanct. Writing is a solitary pursuit, and because so much of teaching load involves correcting others’ writing, sometimes it is hard to switch gears from the editor to the writer. My painting time is scheduled by the class I attend, but it is easy to say, “I need to (insert something else here) now; I’ll get to it later” during the writing time when something else comes up. For me, that something else is usually a set of papers to grade or a student who needs to stay after school to take a make up test, but it could also be a friend who needs an ear, myself who needs a nap, or a second/third freelance job I’ve taken on. I am always impressed by the stories of writers who get up at three or four in the morning regularly to write for a couple of hours before the kids wake up and the daily hustle begins. I don’t know how I would get through the rest of my day if I did that. So for now, I am focusing on a minimum of one afternoon a week that is sacred. No tests, no essays, no naps. It will hopefully not be the only time I write, but it will be a time that I only write.

Now, I’d better see to those essays.

Why Writers Must Read: A Book Review That Becomes a Meditation on Craft

Do you have a “regular” bar? The other regulars become a sort of extended dysfunctional family. You know each other well. Some know each other intimately. There’s a camaraderie that revolves around hopes and dreams, mostly dashed, and daily frustrations. This is what Rebecca Barry’s Later, at the Bar, which I recently recommended to my book club, is about. Labeled a novel in stories, she shares vignettes of various members of an unnamed Upstate New York small town. The prose flows. You feel like you know the characters as you do the regulars in your own bar. They keep making the same mistakes, again like the regulars in your own bar. They definitely drink too much, still like the regulars in your own bar. The difference, I guess, is that you leave your own bar and re-enter the real world.

My book club found it difficult to discuss. Why? I think the answer has to do with reader expectations. The label “a novel in stories” builds expectations of plot, conflict, and characterization. Later, at the Bar has only the last one. However, Barry herself describes the stories as vignettes which Merriam-Webster defines as brief descriptions or episodes. That they are. And they are well done. I did not want to stop reading (though some in my book club did), but by the end, I missed the rising action, the climax, the falling action, the resolution, the point. As a novel in stories, I expected these elements to appear to a certain extent in each story and in a larger part over the course of the whole book. They do not. Each vignette is well crafted; the characters are so well drawn, you do feel you know them. But the time shifts between stories is left unexplained. You don’t know what happened first. This is another challenge to creating a narrative arc. This leads me to wonder: what do we as writers owe to our readers? How far can we challenge their expectations without losing their support?

It is precisely because the book is labeled a novel in stories that I recommended it to the book club. I am currently writing a book that also has stories within it. I wanted to see what Barry did. I wanted to know if my book was going in the right direction. On that point, this book has made me think about my own book’s completion. I know I need to create a stronger narrative arc than what I experienced here. For me, it’s less important that the stories be able to stand alone than it is that they stand together. The small stories inform a larger one. My work still challenges readers’ expectations as there are multiple narrators and shifting time periods, but there must be (and is) a conflict, a mystery, a reason to keep reading–a larger narrative arc.

The funny thing about this book, though, is that I keep thinking about it. I lent it to my mom, and we had our own “book club discussion” while getting pedicures, and we had plenty to say! She didn’t miss the narrative arc the way I did; she felt it there in the humanity of the people. We found ourselves creating lives for them outside the novel, and hoping for them to escape the small town and bar culture they were in. The last story indicates that one character did move on; we were so happy for her. That is certainly a success for the writer. Don’t you love it when you read a book that feels so real? That even if the characters are somewhat pathetic, you still root for them? Isn’t that what we want to create–a story that lives on in the readers’ minds long after the book is closed? I know I do.

So, I take what worked, the beautiful characterization, and what didn’t, the lack of a larger story; the need for more connection between stories and clearer indications of time, back to my desk. This is why writers must read, and read widely, to enjoy a beautifully written sentence, a captivating characterization, and to learn from that which we both like and that which we do not so that we may one day bring our own work to the world.