In her essay "Still Writing" (1981), the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Anne Tyler described working in a library before she had children. After quiet days cataloging books, she would go home to work on the first of her novels. (She went on to publish twenty of them, from 1963 to the present.)
"Then," says Tyler, "our first baby came along -- an insomniac. I quit work and stayed home all day with her and walked her all night. Even if I had found the time to write, I wouldn't have had the insides. I felt drained; too much care and feeling were being drawn out of me....I enjoyed tending infants (although I've much preferred the later ages), but it was hard to be solely, continually in their company and not be able to write."
"After the children started school, I put up partitions in my mind. I would rush around in the morning braiding their hair, packing their lunches; then the second they were gone I would grow quiet and climb the stairs to my study. Sometimes a child would come home early and I would feel a little tug between the two parts of me; I'd be absent-minded and short-tempered.
"Then gradually I learned to make the transition more easily. It feels like a sort of string that I tell myself to loosen. When the children come home, I drop the string and close the study door and that's the end of it. It doesn't work perfectly, of course. There are times when it doesn't work at all: if a child is sick, for instance, I can't possibly drop the child's end of the string, and I've learned not to try. It's easier to stop writing for awhile. Or if they're home but otherwise occupied, I no longer attempt to sneak off to my study to finish that one last page; I know that instantly, as if by magic, assorted little people will be pounding on my door requiring Band-Aids, tetanus shots, and a complete summation of the facts of life.
"Last spring I bought a midget tape recorder to make notes on. I'd noticed that my best ideas came while I was running the vacuum cleaner, but I was always losing them. I thought this little recorder would help. I carried it around in my shirt pocked. But I was ignoring the partitions, is what it was; I was letting one half of my life intrude upon the other. A child would be talking about her day at school and suddenly I'd whip out the tape recorder and tell it, 'Get Morgan out of that cocktail party; he's not the type to drink.' 'Huh?' the child would say. Both halves began to seem ludicrous, unsynchronized."
After recounting the gentle grace with which her father accepts a series of upheavals, Tyler writes:
"It seems to me that the way my father lives (infinitely adapting, and looking around him with a smile to say, 'Oh! So this is where I am!') is also the way to slip gracefully through the choppy life of writing novels, plastering the dining room ceiling, and presiding at slumber parties. I have learned, bit by bit, to accept a school snow-closing as an unexpected holiday, an excuse to play seventeen rounds of Parcheesi instead of typing up a short story....What this takes, of course, is a sense of limitless time, but I'm getting that. My life is beginning to seem unusually long. And there's a danger to it: I could wind up as passive as a piece of wood on a wave. But I try to walk a middle line.
"I was standing in the schoolyard waiting for a child when another mother came up to me. 'Have you found work yet?' she asked. 'Or are you just still writing?'
"Now how am I supposed to answer that?
"I could take offense, come to think of it. Maybe the reason I didn't is that I halfway share her attitude. They're paying me for this?"
"I'm surprised to find myself a writer," Tyler concludes, "but have fitted it fairly well, I think. The only real trouble that writing has ever brought me is an occasional sense of being invaded by the outside world. Why do people imagine that writers, having chosen the most private of professions, should be any good at performing in public..? I feel I am only holding myself together by being extremely firm and decisive about what I will do and what I will not do. I will write my books and raise the children. Anything else just fritters me away. I know this makes me seem narrow; but in fact, I am narrow....
"As the outside world grows less dependable, I keep buttressing my inside world, where people go on meaning well and surprising other people with little touches of grace. There are days when I sink into my novel like a pool and emerge feeling blank and bemused and used up. Then I drift over to the schoolyard, and there's this mother wondering if I'm doing anything halfway useful yet. Am I working? Have I found a job? No, I tell her.
"I'm still just writing."
As a best-selling writer married to a physician, Tyler's world is an economically privileged one, as she'd be the first to admit -- yet it's instructive to know that even she has struggled with work/life issues, for it's tempting to think that money, or commercial success, solves everything, and of course it doesn't.
So here, dear Readers, is my question for you: Whether you have children to care for, or other family/community commitments, or a day job that pulls you away from creative work, how do you balance these things in your own life?
There is no right way or wrong way. Some artists thrive in the midst of over-full lives (the lucky creatures), while others (and I am one of them) need quiet and solitude like fish need the water and plants need the sun. Plus we change over time, as our lives change around us; thus the strategies we develop to maintain a work/life balance must change along with us. In my youth, for example, I loved the fast pace of big cities and writing at tables in noisy cafes...a work routine that is unimaginable now, quiet Country Mouse that I've since become.
Each of us must find our own creative rhythms -- and then, when we've found them, square them somehow with everything else that life, our loved ones, and our own social conscience demand of us. It's not easy. It's never easy; and I have to report, having reached the far shores of middle age, that it doesn't get any easier with time. Yet from this conflict, this tension, our art is born; our ideas are honed; our children are raised and our communities upheld. We struggle for balance: find it, lose it, find it again, a hundred times over -- while making art of our lives, as well as creating novels, paintings, and other artworks out of our lives.
During my own times of despair when health, or family, or some sudden life problem blocks the way to my desk and drawing board too often, I often think of these words from Katherine Paterson (author of Bridge to Terabethia) reflecting on her early years as a writer:
"I had no study in those days, not even a desk or file or bookcase to call mine alone....It might have happened sooner [the writing of work worthy of publication] had I had a room of my own and fewer children, but somehow I doubt it. For as I look back on what I have written, I can see that the very persons who took away my time and space are those who have given me something to say.”
She also said this, wise woman:
"If we marvel at the artist who has written a great book, we must marvel more at those people whose lives are works of art and who don't even know it, who wouldn't believe it if they were told. However hard work good writing may be, it is easier than good living."
I want to do both. And that's why balance, or hózhó, is my daily practice, my religion, my prayer.
Anne Tyler's essay can be read in full in The Writer on Her Work, edited by Janet Sternberg. The Katherine Paterson quote comes from her essay collection Gates of Excellence: On Reading and Writing Books for Children. The painting above is Lisbeth Zwerger's illustration for "The Town Mouse & The Country Mouse."