The Writing Life: On Guilt and Balance

It was 67 degrees in Atlanta—a freakishly warm early February day, even for a city whose nickname begins with the word “hot.” I spent half the afternoon wringing my hands over whether I should go out and enjoy the day, or work on one of many items on my to-do list. The choice, it seemed, came down to miserable productivity or pleasurable guilt. Ultimately, I split the difference and took my laptop out to the patio.

My to-do list is like that interior hallway from Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves: it grows, inexplicably and paradoxically, larger than the structure that’s supposed to hold it. Each time I think I’ve regained control of the list, it somehow expands into a deeper, darker abyss. According to the laws of physics, my finite life shouldn’t possibly be able to contain it.

As a fiction writer, MFA student, teacher, editor, and violinist, I’ve spent many years among artists and academics. By now, I know hundreds of them. Not one of us seems to experience total satisfaction with our ability to fully commit to art, work, and life simultaneously. We all strive for balance, yet each of us fails uniquely at achieving it.

My writing students often ask for advice on balance, apparently operating under the assumption that I’ve made progress in that area. If they’re anything like I was as an undergrad, they assume that because I’m qualified to be their teacher, I must have found The Answers. The first-years in particular express that they feel pulled in too many directions: classes, organizations, friends, family, romance, and whatever else they’re interested in. (Side Note: I try my best to avoid learning what “whatever else” incorporates, in order to maintain professional distance.) Though I wistfully recall that period in my own life during these conversations—a time which seems so much simpler in retrospect—I try to give students a smidgen of hope. I tell them that there’s a learning curve, that college will not feel so overwhelming in a couple of years. I leave out the part about how, as soon as they get a grip on their current commitments, new ones will likely pile on.

Other students ask me about combating procrastination, a problem that is often linked to the balance conundrum. I usually reply with the same form-letter response: “Good luck with that, and when you figure it out, let me know.” Then, I tell one of many, many egregious procrastination stories from my own personal history. (There are enough to choose from that I could tell a different one to every course section for the rest of my teaching career.) I hope to convey that none of us is alone in this, even though working against procrastination urges can be one of the loneliest experiences a writer has.

But procrastination is only a small part of the discussion on balance. It’s easy to tell someone to “just stop” procrastinating, but difficult to live up to when completing one task inevitably means putting dozens of others on the back burner. Procrastination is also a matter of perspective and priorities. An artist with one or more day jobs likely approaches projects differently than one without; an academic with children at home must find creative ways to carve out time for work; an editor whose livelihood depends on the publications (s)he works on prioritizes those projects differently than one with other income sources. We all have our own challenges and, likely, guilt when we fail to conquer the world in spite of them.

This blog post is one illustration of my own lifelong struggle. As I sat on my patio and began to work on it, I felt guilty about all the other things I wasn’t doing: grading papers, vacuuming, working on my thesis, going to the post office, preparing my annual teaching portfolio, exercising, responding to emails. I could go on, but these were among the top you-should-do-this-sometime-this-week items. My guilt in these moments is such that I might as well do something completely unproductive, like read Twitter fights or try to get just about anywhere in Atlanta traffic.

Nevertheless, I’m finishing this post—if not for any other reason, then for the fact that it’s almost two years in the making. I originally pitched the idea to write about balance and the writer’s life in 2014 to Jenny Brown, our Editor-in-Chief at the time. After getting the green light I thought, I’ll write that piece about balance as soon as I get back from that trip abroad, present at that conference, teach that summer class, finish that first novel draft, move to that new apartment, and plan fall courses. Jenny graduated last May.

When current Editor-in-Chief Stephanie Devine took over, I pitched the same idea—because, naturally, I hadn’t even started the piece. When Stephanie gave me the green light I thought, I’ll write that piece about balance as soon as I get back from vacation, plan fall courses, take the GRE, pass comprehensive exams, finish putting together issue 9.1, and present at that conference. You probably already know how that worked out.

One day in February 2016 I woke up and thought, I’ll write that piece about balance as soon as I…But I realized that as soon as I…would never go away. Instead, I made a cup of coffee and wrote it at last. I’m striking this item off that exponentially-expanding list in spite of all my guilt and embarrassment over leaving it there all this time, even though the irony of waiting this long to meditate on the topic is so stark I might as well be a character in a Coen Brothers movie. As I tell my students, there’s nothing to do but to write through it. Or, as the finger-wagging scolds might say, to “just” write through it.

Next up, wrestle with my novel. For once, as soon as I…can wait.

Kelly Neal is an MFA candidate in Fiction at GSU and the current Production Editor at New South. Her work has appeared in Canyon Voices and The Avatar Review

Photo by Courtney Dirks

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