On Leaving Public Education, Lifestyle Changes, and Writer’s Block

I made a big life decision in December of 2013.  I decided to go part-time at my soul-sucking teaching job– a job where I was working 80-90 hours every single week and had developed stomach issues and hair loss from stress and still was never able to keep on top of my work.  It was a job where I loved what I was doing and I loved my students, but one that I knew I couldn’t keep doing.  I also knew that making the decision to go part-time was my first step in leaving the public education system.  It was a painful decision, but necessary.

So I gave up half my classes and worked part-time that summer, too.  In late August of 2014 I moved to Istanbul, Turkey, where my soon-to-be husband had gotten a job offer.  I will (hopefully, if everything goes okay with my work visa) start working here this coming September, again teaching full-time, but with a much lighter load than what I was juggling in the US.

In the meantime, I’ve gone from being a constantly-overworked-and-stressed-out teacher to basically a stay-at-home partner.  It’s been an odd transition, one I’ve struggled with at times.  Of course, not being stressed out all the time is wonderful; having time to devote to hobbies and a social life is amazing.  Even so, it took some getting used to.  In the beginning, particularly, some days would stretch out in front of me and I’d have no idea how to fill them.  It didn’t help that the first few months I was in Istanbul were very rainy, making me feel trapped in the apartment at times and isolated in a new culture.  But eventually I hit my stride and finally I was able to truly enjoy the freedom of not working.  I signed up for Turkish classes, read for pleasure, and ended up with a social calendar that is more active than it has been since perhaps I was in college.  I can tell you this: the life of an easy, breezy expat is a world away from being a high school teacher in North Carolina.

This time off has also allowed me to get back to my first love, writing.

I decided to quit public teaching for my mental and physical health, but being able to work on my own writing again has been an amazing side benefit to leaving the system.  Before graduate school and throughout the two years of my MFA program, I was steadily producing work and slowly but regularly getting things published in literary journals, typically at the pace of two publications per year for several years.

That all screeched to a halt while I was teaching.  I didn’t have time to sit down and breathe, much less write, and because I wasn’t writing, I wasn’t submitting to journals and therefore wasn’t publishing.  The slow-but-promising trajectory of my writing was completely derailed by my schedule.  I tried to write during the summer, but I worked during summers because I needed the money, and prepared for classes in the coming year; more than anything, perhaps, I found it very difficult to switch off my teacher brain and switch on my writing brain.  To put it bluntly, I was just plain not productive writing-wise during those years, and I missed it.

When I went part-time, one of the main things I knew I wanted to do was attack my writing again.  I’ve been slowly working on a book manuscript for about four years, with 2+ of those years being total stagnation while teaching, and I’ve picked that back up.  And it’s been a productive year; I’ve reached around 40,000 usable words in the manuscript and have a plan for the rest of it, and, to my utter delight, I’ve had seven new pieces accepted for publication, five of them from the book manuscript I’m working on.  (The other two were an unrelated short story and my first creative nonfiction piece.)

A cafe writing day in Kadıköy.

A cafe writing day in Kadıköy.

Still, I struggle with thinking that I should be accomplishing more with this year off.  Being able to take a year off from working is a privilege that most people don’t have, including most writers, and who knows when I will ever get the privilege again.  I am writing a lot, but not as much as I could be; I tell myself I’m going to write every day, but miss that goal by a long shot.  Often, it will come to me in spurts, when I’ll spend a day furiously writing and then take an embarrassing amount of time before writing again.  During those off times, I try, but I just can’t get the words to come.

My friend and former colleague Laura Giovanelli wrote an article for The Washington Post recently about what it’s like to be a writing teacher who is struggling with writer’s block herself.  Laura brings up several good points about the complications of juggling your own writing projects with your teaching and how that might compromise your authority to guide your students.  However, her descriptions of the struggle with writer’s block hit even closer for me: how it should be so easy to just sit down and write, but it isn’t; how you have ideas and characters and the words should come, but they don’t sometimes.  How writers try every little trick, from getting household chores out of the way to changes of scenery to hunting down the perfect tea, in order to write, and how often it doesn’t work (but sometimes does).

Many of my Facebook friends are writers and it’s a common theme to see us discussing all the things we do instead of writing.  Of course, everything gets in the way: big things like jobs and kids, and little things like sinks of dirty dishes and laundry that needs to be folded.  The trade-off is when successes are jubilantly shared as well, when new published work gets posted, when novels are pronounced finished, when new book contracts are signed.

Because this is the truth: Writing seriously– as a lifelong passion, as a hopeful career, as something you truly invest yourself in– is a long game, a marathon rather than a sprint.  There is no way getting around it.  We all try to get around it, and some writers are much more gifted than others at sitting down and just doing the damn thing.  I think of writers like Stephen King and John Grisham, for instance, and wonder how the heck they do it– I am awed at and envious of their output.  But a lot of us aren’t, including myself.  I tend to be a slow, recursive writer who tinkers forever with each paragraph as I go.  (I remember one particular Saturday years ago where I spent eight hours writing and re-writing the same paragraph, only to delete it at the end of the day.)  I try different tricks; this year, I’ve been telling myself that I just have to sit down and write 500 words, just 500 words, even if they’re 500 crappy words, and that’s worked as well as anything.  It has produced a lot of crappy 500 words and a couple of questionable first drafts, but just as often I end up writing two or three times what I sat down to write, and I can always go back and revise those crappy first drafts.

Even with my new approach of “just get it on the page and worry about quality later,” I’m not writing as quickly as I’d like; I have a feeling that I’ll never write as quickly as I’d like, or as quickly as I think I should be.  However, while staring down writer’s block and finding a way around all those distractions and obstacles is an important part of the writing process, I think patience is an important part, too.  Not giving up even if you’re just writing a little bit here and there is just as important tricking yourself into producing mass quantities of words: it’s looking at the summit of a mountain and thinking I will get there, knowing that it will be a slow and careful-footed climb rather than a race to the top.  Both approaches have merit and each writer has to decide the best balance for themself.

And on that note, I should probably wrap up this blog post and get back to the half-finished short story I have open on my computer.  (Maybe after I finish this load of laundry, and grocery shop, and do yoga, and…)

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One thought on “On Leaving Public Education, Lifestyle Changes, and Writer’s Block

  1. You’ve done the right thing, no one ever laid on their death bed and wished they’d spent another year in a job that did make them happy.

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