Author and College of Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor Lee Martin shares how he spends his days moving between writing and teaching and how he uses his roles as creator and scholar to invigorate one another.
For those of us who write novels, at least from my perspective, it’s important to live in the world of the novel with some degree of consistency while the writing is underway. Leaving the writing for stretches of time makes it hard to sustain the momentum that writing long form narratives requires. When you teach, as I do, and when you relish the challenge of teaching young writers how to improve their craft, and when you get addicted to the verve and energy the writing workshop creates, it can become a delicate negotiation between the time spent on the two activities—the teaching and the writing—because after all there are, as we all know, only so many hours in a day.
My mornings are for writing. At least that’s what I’ll tell you if you ask that time-worn question, “When do you write?” The truth is the writing life for those of us who teach is often imperfect. Last week, I found myself able to write for two hours in the morning on some days, but maybe only fifteen or thirty minutes on other days. The reason? Outside of the preparation for the two writing workshops I’m teaching this semester, I had two book manuscripts for which I’d promised to write promotional quotes, a number of letters of recommendation to write for students and former students, emails to answer, a book club to visit and other university business that needed my attention. Like all professors, I have professional duties that have little to do with my writing or my teaching. So my mornings are for writing, except when they’re not.
I teach two writing workshops each week. Each workshop meets for a three-hour time period. Preparing to lead a workshop means encountering new texts each week—the fiction and nonfiction of my students—and marking those manuscripts with my comments and writing a summary letter to each student-writer. I usually have four or five manuscripts to prepare along with the outside reading I’ve assigned. That reading may include craft articles or essays or short stories by published authors. Each assignment is designed to invite my students to think more deeply about issues of craft. Our workshop time is spent discussing these issues and then diving deeply into the original works the students have brought to the workshop table for our consideration. We consider the intentions of these first drafts and then talk about the artistic choices the writers have made to allow their pieces to fully realize those intentions. We also spend a good deal of time talking about choices that need to be rethought or new choices that need to be made in order to allow a piece’s full exploration of its material so it can arrive at an end that will resonate with a reader. Even though I find myself making similar points from semester to semester about characterization, structure, detail, point of view and language, there’s no way I can rely on a stock script because, as I said, the texts are changing week by week and semester by semester.
Caught between my obligations to my students, to my profession and to my own writing, I try to keep to a pattern. I try to set aside the same time for the preparation, for the professional obligations, for the writing and for the teaching, knowing as Annie Dillard writes,
How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living.
There you have it: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” Even though I grumble on occasion about the time I spend away from my writing desk, I honestly can’t think of another way I’d prefer to spend my days. I try to carry the energy that springs up while teaching a workshop back into my writing space. Likewise, I try to carry what fills me during that writing time back into the workshop. It’s a symbiosis that’s sustained me for over thirty years, and one I hope to rely on for however many years more I decide to teach.