Sunday, March 8, 2009

As the Writers Juggle...Episode #6 - Ellen Jensen Abbott

Hi, welcome to another episode of "As the Writers Juggle," in which we ask writers to share their tips on balancing work, family, and the writing life. This week's guest is Ellen Jensen Abbott, author of the soon-to-be-released fantasy novel Watersmeet and member of the Class of 2k9.

Here's what Ellen has to say about how she juggles her roles as high-school teacher, mom, and writer:

Ellen: I feel like I have at least three full-time jobs. For pay, I teach high school English at a boarding school. I have a full-time teaching load (four sections of English, two preparations), but I do not do dorm-duty, coaching or weekend duty—required of full-time faculty—which means that I am technically 80% employed. Anyone who grades English essays knows that there is rarely such thing as "part time."

Then I am the mother of two children, 9 and 12. My husband works full-time, so since I am "part-time" and have a slightly more flexible schedule, doctors' appointments, hair cuts, snow-days or sick days with the kids all fall to me. Then there's car pool, sports, piano lessons, church choir, etc. It may not sound like it, but our children are actually LESS scheduled than many of today's children. We also have a family dinner every night and try to do real hands-on parenting. Full-time job #2.

Full-time job #3: book promotion/writing. (Wait—I think that's two jobs!) My debut YA fantasy novel, Watersmeet, comes out in April 2009 (Marshall Cavendish). Of course, this is a dream come true. I started writing YA fantasy about ten years ago, submitted one MS and received a positive rejection (a term only writers seem to get!) and then wrote this one. I knew that writers were largely responsible for their own publicity, but I didn't know that in any real way. Major learning curve. I can finagle my way around the web but I really didn’t know much about blogs, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, etc—which is of course where so much book promotion now occurs. And being new to book promotion in general, I don't know which of ninety-seven directions to put my energy in.

And then there's writing. That's why I got into this, right? Because I love writing? It is a true struggle to find the time for this. The promotion stuff seems so immediately necessary. Grading papers, prepping my classes for tomorrow—also necessary. Feeding, bathing the children—pretty damn necessary. That leaves writing where? (Let's not even get into couple time! Thank goodness I'm married to a saint!)

I was hopelessly floundering in the "finding time to write" department, and even though it was killing my soul, I couldn't seem to snap out of it. Then I got a deadline. Deadlines are magic. My editor strongly suggested I get the first three chapters of my option book to her by June 1—and suddenly, I am finding more time. And—oh, God—I love it! I don't need much time. When my kids were little, I trained myself to grab what time I could. The fact is, I will never have a span of several hours on a daily basis to write—or at least not in the foreseeable future. I knew that unless I learned to write in 45-minute chunks, I would be scuttling my dreams before they got going. Don't get me wrong—I love those long chunks! But I can survive on an hour a day—or even every other day. Giving myself that bite-sized time-span is key. It doesn't work for me to say I need to write one page or 1000 words. I prefer time parameters. So when I see some time coming and feel all the different projects vying for that time, I say, "Ellen, you are just going to write for an hour. You can afford an hour." And often I do have to stop after an hour, but at least I put it in.

I know it's a cliché, but for me, writing is a lot like exercise—hard to get going and so fabulous once you get started. After a few days of writing regularly, I sit down at my computer and feel a grin spreading across my face. When my hour is up, I leave myself a note in the text to remind me where I was headed so I can jump right back in. With only an hour, I don't have time to gaze into space and try to recapture my train of thought, or reread. In fact, that's why regular writing is so important for me. It takes too much time to go back and remember who had just said what to whom. It's critical to be able to get swept into the stream of the narrative again. To go back to the exercise analogy, leaving myself those notes is like beginning a run at the top of a hill. It gives me an easy start so I'm warmed up when I start in on new ideas. I also resist revision of what I just wrote. I love revising—it's the inventing that's work—so given the choice, I'll revise—and my hour will be gone and I won't have moved forward. In first drafts, I can circle back to the first chapters twenty to thirty times trying to get them just right when what I really need to do is find out what happens to my characters later, who they become, what their challenges will be.

Finding a place to write is another problem. While my family understands that one of my jobs is writing, it is very confusing for them to see me at home. If I'm there, why can't I help with math homework? Oooh and aaah over a new drawing? Throw in that load of laundry or empty the dishwasher? I used to write on the dining room table, thinking that it would help to be in the midst of things. I'm not sure why I thought that was a good idea—it was just frustrating for all of us. It helps somewhat when I go behind a closed door, but really its better when I leave the house. I love Panera: good food, good background music, free Wifi, English breakfast tea, fireplace—so I usually head there. I also live across the street from a university library which works for me, too, but tea is critical and the librarians frown at that!

In terms of housework, my family has a cleaning session every weekend. My husband and I both like things relatively neat and clean so unfortunately "letting the housework go" does not really work for us. (I once heard Donna Jo Napoli say the following: "You can eat off my kitchen floor…(pause, pause)…for weeks and weeks without going hungry!" I aspire to this but it seems a constitutional impossibility.) We had to let our housekeeper go to save money so we instituted the family cleaning. One week, we do the upstairs, next week the downstairs. We each pick a room to do and go to it. If someone finishes their room first, they go help someone else. We can stop after two hours, even if we're not done, but we usually finish all we set out to do in an hour and a half. The kids grumble far less than you might think. They feel good about pitching in for the family well-being, and they have learned how to clean. We do need to rotate rooms so that the nine-year old doesn't do the same room week after week (!), but my twelve-year-old out-cleans me most of the time. And my husband should open a service.

In exchange for keeping up with the cleaning, I've given up exercise. I love exercise—as you can tell from above, I was an avid runner—but as so many authors on your site have said, something has to give! A hip injury took me out of running and I never found another sport that I feel the same way about. Still, I know how important exercise is. I have not given it up forever. I just realized that beating myself up daily for not exercising was not good either. So, for now, I don't exercise. And I'm okay with that.

I have two hobbies: I knit and I ski. I knit during faculty meeting or on car rides (to skiing!) so I don't knit much, but I love working with yarn. I seem to knit baby gifts almost exclusively these days. (I'm 43! When will my friends stop having babies?) Skiing is something we do as a family—every weekend that we can. (And as we live in PA, this is no mean feat!) The skiing is a struggle; almost every Friday night I decide there is no way I can do it. Too much work! But we've made this commitment and it is so good for the family, that I grit my teeth and go—and love it. I'm away from my computer, my desk, my ungraded papers. I'm in the fresh air with my kids and in a beautiful setting. I come back refreshed and ready to face the next week. And the ski season only lasts for thee and a half months, so it works.

So that's how I am currently making it work—only it doesn't work that well. My epiphany about this came one weekend when my daughter and I were walking out of square dance at her school. I had been loathe to go—I could have been writing!—but she was so excited about it, I agreed. And it was really fun. I'm a pretty extroverted person so I can throw myself into those kinds of things. As we were walking out, she said, "Mommy, you're so much fun when you're not working—but you have to work all the time!" Knife in the belly. The next morning, my husband stormed out of the house to pick up our son at some event. As he left, I asked him what was wrong and he said, "I hate our schedule!" As I stood in the shower—where I get all my best epiphanies—I thought over my options. It had always seemed so muddy before, but suddenly, with perfect clarity I said: "I have to quit my job." In the end, we decided it was best to cut my teaching responsibilities in half—but this will still require some significant lifestyle changes, the most significant being that my children will have to change schools. The switch will be challenging for them, but it's clear to me that we will all gain by having me available for the family in a real way. (I'm not going back to cleaning the house by myself, though!) Thankfully, no one ever suggested that I should give up my writing.

Now the challenge is to get to June—when I can cut back—and then to September when the kids face the reality of a new school. They'll be some bumps, but I continue to feel that this is the right thing to do—for my family, for my marriage and for my books.

Thanks, Ellen! Readers, be sure to check out Ellen's blog, especially this great post about the power of living in the story world of our favorite books.

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