Still writing
A little touch of grace

The choices we make, the paths we follow


As we discuss issues of creative work/life balance, another aspect of the subject to consider is the way that different kinds of kinds of creative work demand different things from us; the choices we make regarding art forms, mediums, and even one project or commission over another, affect our lives in different ways.

Each of my own three endeavors (writing, editing, and painting), for example, requires a different work/life rhythm. Writing demands the most focus, the longest hours of solitary concentration, and though it's the vocation that makes me happiest, it's also the one, admittedly, that conflicts the most with full participation in domestic, parental, and community life. Editing is somewhat easier to pick up and put down when the rest of life becomes demanding, while art-making (which requires more physical energy) is the most impacted by the ups and downs of health ... The mouse and Alice by Arthur Rackhamthus depending on which of these three I am focused on, the way I approach my work/life balance must change. Likewise, the late American author and activist Toni Cade Bambera once compared the writing of her short stories and novels:

"I am currently working on a novel [The Salt Eaters], though my druthers as writer, reader, and teacher is the short story. The short story makes a modest appeal for your attention, slips up on your blind side and wrassles you to the mat before you know what's grabbed you. That appeals to my temperament. But of course it is not too shrewd to be a short story writer when the publishing industry, book reviewers, critics, and teachers of literature are all geared up for the novel.

"Before this, I'd never fully appreciated before the concern so many people express over women writers' work habits -- how do you juggle the demands of motherhood, etc.? Do you find that friends, especially intimates, resent your need for privacy, etc.? Is it possible to wrench yourself away from active involvement for the lonely business of writing?

Pathway 2

"Writing had never been so central an activity in my life before. Besides, a short story is fairly portable. I could narrate the basic outline while driving to the farmer's market, work out the dialogue while waiting for the airlines to answer the phone, draft a rough sketch of the central scene while overseeing my daughter's carrot cake, write the first version in the middle of the night, edit while the laundry takes a spin, and make copies while running off some rally flyers. But now, the novel has taken me out of action for frequent and lengthy periods. Other than readings and the occasional lecture, I seem unfit for any other kind of work. I cannot knock out a terse and pithy office memo any more. And my relationships, I'm sure, have suffered because I am so distracted, preoccupied, and distant.

"The short story," she concludes, "is a piece of work. The novel is a way of life."

Pathway 3

My husband says something similar about the difference between Commedia dell'Arte and other forms of theatre, speaking as the co-founder of a troupe of traveling players who crossed the length and breadth of Europe for the better part of twenty years. (Yes, I married a man straight out of Shakespeare play.) Acting, he tells drama students, is both an art form and a job, but Commedia is a way of life.

Pathway 4

Lest previous posts have given the impression it is only women, or women with children, who struggle with issues of work/life balance, here's Barry Lopez's response when asked if his work had required sacrifice. The research for such books as Arctic Dreams often took him far from home for extended periods, and his answer to the question is poignantly candid:

"Choosing the life I did, I've lost some things that from time to time cause me the deepest kind of anguish. Foremost among those are my social relations with other people. No one is comfortable exploring this topic with a stranger, but the truth is, if you're devoted to your work your family is going to pay a price. How you cope with that -- opting for the work or opting to maintain the long-term stability of a marriage, a family -- is a singular measure of character.

Pathway 5

"I've lived in this house for almost thirty-four years, but I know relatively few people here. I'm not involved in the fabric of day-to-day life on the McKenzie River, in part because my work is not local. My life is not working in the woods. If it were, I'd be logging every day with people whose lives I shared and whom I went to church with. I don't have that. I've chosen to do work that takes me a long way away. And when I come home, what I really crave is privacy.

"I've chosen a life that has made it impossible or very difficult for me to remain fully engaged in the life of a family. As a consequence, there have been times in my life when I've been very lonely.

Pathway 6 copy

"I can't look at paying this price, though, as having made a sacrifice. Because you choose one thing, you don't get another. I miss the pleasures of daily human contact and company. I'm in close touch with a community of people spread all over the country, all over the world, but I don't see them every day. I love my work. It's the good I have to offer. I don't regret what I've done, but I have gone through times when I wondered what it would have been like if I had chosen community over being the kind of outrider that I am. If I had chosen a monastery or a community of people to stay with, if I had chosen a conventional family life where I married somebody and had children. But those were choices I did not make."

Pathway 7

And yet Lopez is wise enough, self-aware enough, to honor the choice he's made instead:

"My sense of self-worth comes from meeting my own expectations, and from an acknowledgment from strangers that the work I have done has been useful to them. I am as ordinary as the next fellow, so an award or formal recognition gives me a sense of accomplishment, but you can't really get a sense of self-worth out of an award, an honorary doctorate, or something like that. Self-worth comes from the acknowledgment of other people, a letter from a stranger, unsolicited, that says your work has meant something.

"I see my life in a very traditional way. I live in a modern era, but my sense of obligation and responsibility is traditional. You use your gift to help people achieve what they're trying to do, to go where their imaginations are leading them."

Indeed. And that -- not awards, not commercial success, as nice and as helpful as those things may be -- is what makes it's all worthwhile.

Pathway 8

Pathway 9The Toni Cade Bambera quote is from The Writer on Her Work, edited by Janet Sternberg. The Barry Lopez quote is from an interview in Michigan Quarterly Review, Fall 2005. (You can read it here.) The poem in the picture captions is from Circles on the Water by Marge Piercy. The drawing is "The Mouse and Alice" by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939).