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).


Deep apologies Terri, but I'm going completely off piste here, because I've just heard on the radio that a new space craft is about to be unveiled. Apparently it's tiny and will sail into deep space on sunbeams! Isn't that wonderful? It's like a fairy boat dancing on photons! No wonder artists and writers (and indeed those brilliant scientists who make fairy ships) dedicate our lives to the wonders of the worlds and beyond! The sacrifices that are made are worth it when poems are written,pictures are painted and tiny space ships ride the photonic seas into the depths of the universe! Anyway I thought I'd also post the following space-themed poem:

(Garden pond)

The moon lies as deep in this pool
as it sits high above it.
The physics of reflection
means that the endless ever of space
can be held in the finite
depth of this shallow stoup.

Galaxies and nebulae
are within my restricted reach,
a mere finger dabble deep,
though they rise
light years above me.

And beyond even that,
higher above
and deeper within,
In the living soup
of this pool’s fertile silt,
beyond the deepest depths,
of space

is a hint of…

On sunbeams! I love it when life resembles a fantasy novel (since too often these days the news seems to be drawn from the horror genre instead).

Thank you for gifting us with this wondeful poem.

So much to think of here, and so much lushness in your photos. Thank you.

I love this post. It's very interesting in terms of how different forms of work act on our lives. I started writing while working for a book packager/agent years ago in the mass paperback market end of things. I ended up writing a few historical romances and horror novels myself, as well as lots of work for said agent. Whatever she needed me to do. It was quick work, demanding, and I loved it because I had three small sons, and I could stay home and work while I watched the boys grow up. I also had money for shoes and those sorts of things. It was a very democratic way of writing and very social. Nothing about it was really personal, although in some ways, all work is personal. Later I went back to school and played in my garden. When I came to writing full time again, I wanted to write fantasy. There was always that constant pull to do short stories. I still have people tell me that the way to build a career is to write short stories, but I am a novel person. I like that way of life. I like the solitude though I do admit, I've made some mistakes. Novel writing is lonely and sometimes unforgiving work.

I am so thrilled to hear you are working on a novel!

I am just coming into this realm of hopeful book-making, but I have long dealt with this bit: "Do you find that friends, especially intimates, resent your need for privacy..."

Ah yes. Yes.

Thanks again for your thoughts, Terri. They are always comforting and thought-provoking to read.

I love this poem, Stuart. Especially that second stanza! Gave me chills!

This post hits home for me, as I struggle with my own creativity. This is the life that chose me and I cannot turn my back on it. The "real world" stifles me. I need the long silences where those voices come and tell me their stories--even if it means turning my back on acceptable community and careers.

Hi Terri

when I chose to leave New York State and pursue a new life and relationship in Southern California, I was confronting both challenge and risk. I had always been a private person (with no children of my own) and worked at home conducting a small computer service while also writing. This sort of independence and privacy was very conducive to composing works of poetry and prose.

So when I came here and also agreed to become a step mom to a 14 year girl, I was in unchartered territory. New responsibilities, vulnerabilities and other demands, as wife, home-maker and mother
intersected with those of woman, writer and dreamer. I had to make sacrifices and give time to both a partner and a maturing child. Like the wonderful writers you have presented here, it was see-sawing between goal and guilt, want and need. What I did learn was to embrace the situation and grow from it emotionally and literarily. Its problems and those of others in my immediate presence, inspired and yet frustrated me. Writing was not always convenient or easy to manage/access. But I did find that writing helped preserve my sanity and vent my anguish, worries, doubts and love for two people who became the most vital persons in my life. Poetry helped me to confront myself and my feelings as well as reach beyond my own insecurities and sense of failure.

I choose this path and writing gave me the courage to follow and
define it. I watched my step daughter emerge from the awkward/painful stages of adolescence into a young, creative woman. Getting there, of course, was never easy; but along the way, I did take solace in poetry. I allowed it to express not only what I felt but also sensed and learned. One of the first poems I had published in 2006, in an online magazine" was about being very protective toward my daughter and watching how this played out in a park. That poem also enabled me to discover my maternal instincts and deepening love for a child that had become like my own. Anyway here's the poem; and it exists because I choose this path and permitted the things I found there to cast their shadows into my writing.

Somewhere In A Park

My daughter rides the swing, hoisting her body high
as the evergreen’s middle branches
where a sparrow tilts his head and teeters
on the edge of shade, the sun waiting
to illuminate his song.

I watch my child jump, flinging
her angular shape into air.
For a few seconds, she’s exposed to raw light,
the glare a white clove of garlic
warding off the pain she has felt
when confronting crowds or open space.

Soon she lands, her shadow marking
two o’clock in the sand. This is
the fourteenth hour, the fourteenth year
of her life. Now she is gleeful

twisting blonde hair in-between
fingertips that have untangled
a swing chain and the strong linkage
of nerves.

The sparrow must have sung but still
I want to draw a circle around her soul
keeping out the darker voices
0f a cold wind and crow.

©2006 by Wendy Howe

Again, just such a marvelous and interesting post.

Hi Stuart

Yes, it is a wonder and marvel when such a vehicle can be launched/operated by or through "sunbeams". It attests to the limitless possibility/magic of the human mind. And so,
in its own shining way, your poem demonstrates how the genius of imagination can make the impossibly distant tangible, reflective in our immediate presence.

Galaxies and nebulae
are within my restricted reach,
a mere finger dabble deep,
though they rise
light years above me.

I think the title and the employment of the "moon's reflection in the pool" to illustrate the "physics of reflection" is brilliant and very effective.

I enjoyed this!
Thank you,

What a thrill. To mix magic and science is to make many dreams come true. I think most
of us have, at night, looked up in wonder at what is endless. Endless? How can that be.
The human brain demands hints, at least, and joy like this poem, ever and ever.

A rich poem with all the ifs and whats of watching a child''s kaleidoscope of feelings.
Before we had children my young husband and young me discussed we would like to have them and if not, we could adopt. Of course that never happened. Anyway, there is a lot of love in this poem.

Terri, I very much liked your husband's 'comedia is a way of life.' For many years I had that goal and
wished I could have that and be a writer, too. It has come to this: I majored in Drama, and did have many
theatrical joys, acting, directing, costuming and it all came together in 3 years of family and friends in
our Greenwich Players mystery plays at the early Rennaissance Faire in Northern California. But I could
not escape needing to write. It is my stronger will. I do write about actors, jesters, bards and one
unpublished novel has long version of traveling actors. Sort of having my cake and eating it too.

Thank you Terri, Phyllis, Wendy and Edith for commenting on my poem. I've always had a fascination for mirrors; I remember as a child I used to take a mirror and hold it so that it reflected the sky and then walk around with it. The sense that I was walking through clouds was wonderful! You could say I was a 'Sky-Walker' long before Star Wars came along.

As for the tiny photon gathering space craft...I've been talking to a friend of mine who knows about them and she says that the Japanese have also launched such crafts and that they actually have sails that used the techniques of origami to fold them away when not in use! Wonderful; Science, art and poetry in perfect synthesis.

A beautiful poem, Wendy, and I can really relate to this, having also become the full-time mother of a teenager when I married my husband (a situation that wasn't anticipated beforehand for a variety of reasons I won't go into here in a public forum). For someone who'd spent many years being single and child-free, and who had long-established work rhythms based on those conditions, the change came as something of a shock. Incredibly challenging, but also heart-expanding and worthwhile, and now I can't even imagine life without our daughter.

Some day, if you and I are ever in the same place, let's sit down over a cup of tea or good British ale and compare notes. It would be lovely to talk to another writer who had a similar experience.

My split has always been between writing and visual art, and although writing is dominant, painters and sculptors have a way of sneaking into everything I write....

Thank you so much for these thoughtful comments, everyone. I love hearing about your experiences in the trenches of making art. I learn from these kinds of discussions, and it keeps me going myself.

Cynthia, your words remind me of these from Anais Nin:

"I believe one writes because one has to create a world in which one can live. I could not live in any of the worlds offered to me — the world of my parents, the world of war, the world of politics. I had to create a world of my own, like a climate, a country, an atmosphere in which I could breathe, reign, and recreate myself when destroyed by living. That, I believe, is the reason for every work of art."

I did that kind of work-for-hire writing for book packagers too, back when I was in my Twenties. (The books were published under pseudonyms, usually a "house name," written to a "house style," and I'm not admitting what they were, except to say that one of the series is quite well known.) It taught me to write quickly, and gave me money when I needed it...but it was also a bit of a grind. No desire to do it again, that's for sure.

I'm glad you've been able to move on to the work of your heart.

Hi Terri

thanks so much for the kind words on my poem and for sharing your similar experience! I sincerely appreciate!!

And yes, it would be so lovely, if we are ever in the same place, to sit down over ale or tea and compare notes. It would be both enlightening and comforting to talk with another writer and woman who has been through a similar experience.

Again, thank you!!
Take care

Hi Phyllis

Your kind words and thoughts on this poem and subject are so much appreciated! You perceive what I was hoping to convey in this piece and I'm glad it resonates with you. I also appreciate your sharing your own perspective and experience!!

Again, thanks so much!!
Take care

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

And committing to a new series of books is inviting a cast of characters to take up residence in my home. I have a sense of shifting furniture and clearing out spaces. Even the garden is pointing out spaces for new plantings.

Thank you, Terri, for creating this congenial community. I treasure the companionship.

"Committing to a new series of books is inviting a cast of characters to take up residence in my home. I have a sense of shifting furniture and clearing out spaces."

I love that!

And I, too, treasure this community and the congeniality of our discusseions -- particularly as so many other places on the Internet seem to be full of people shouting at each other.

That lushness comes from a lot of rain, Kelly! Since Tilly and I take our rambles on sunny days or between rain showers, I may be guilty of giving a misleading impression of Dartmoor weather....

I'm not sure whether your comment was meant for me or Melinda, but if for me, yes -- slowly, slowly, way too slowly (due to health and other issues), but yes!

Terri, Thank you for this compelling post and to everyone else for the commentary as well! As I stand on the cusp of empty nesthood, I have the opportunity to put my work at the forefront of things for the first time ever, as unlike many artists, family and community arrived in my life before the art did. I had marriage and children before having the courage to own the title of Artist and so have always had the juggle to navigate. I wouldn't have chosen differently, as my life is rich for all it's complexities, but I look forward to deeper levels of working in the new chapter ahead. As always, your posts are a beacon of light on the path. Many, many thanks!

It was the same for the painter Jeanie Tomanek. She started painting later in life, after raising her family, and has been creating wonders ever since:

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