On the Dangers of Teaching and Writing at the Same Time
How Christina Lynch Found a Way to Make It Work
When I was hired for a tenure-track English professor position, a colleague said to me, “You’ll never write another word.” I was slightly offended, since I had at that point been writing professionally for almost thirty years. Teaching was a third career for me, after journalism and television writing, and one that seemed a good fit for a professional writer turning her hand to novels. Fridays off, summers off—what could go wrong?
I soon understood what he meant. Teaching composition and critical thinking to a hundred students each semester is an all-consuming endeavor. The student body at our rural California community college is an eclectic mix: in any given classroom, I had students still in high school getting college credit, veterans back from Iraq and Afghanistan transitioning to civilian life, foster youth living on their own for the first time, parents of small children working a full time job, parents of small children working two full time jobs, second language learners, and full-time 4.0 students preparing to transfer to places like Berkeley and UCLA.
The first year was overwhelming as I struggled to support and prepare all of them to excel in academic writing, but more pointedly, to put themselves, their ideas, their hopes, their insights, into words on the page—with a properly formatted Works Cited page, of course. Each student was required by our course outline to produce 6,000 words in formal essays. That meant about four shorter writing assignments in and out of class each week to prepare them for those longer essays.
On average, and with no teaching assistant, I was reading about a million words of student writing each semester, much of which was far from coherent and required clear, helpful feedback to get there. Forget Fridays off—I was working eighteen hours a day, seven days a week, and still falling behind. And the stakes were so much higher than I had imagined; these students were not just names in a gradebook—they were people, most of them living below the poverty line, who desperately needed to know what I was teaching them.If you are a writer contemplating teaching, or a teacher contemplating writing, please don’t think the two are mutually exclusive.
But huge obstacles kept coming between us—their kids were sick, they got evicted, their parents got deported, they had to work a last-minute double shift, they had undiagnosed dyslexia/depression/bipolar disorder. I quickly realized they were not in any way less intelligent or less motivated than the people I went to school with at Harvard. They just had less money.
The careers they were aiming towards were things our community really needed: nurses, teachers, firefighters, farmers. If I could just help them get there, the world actually would be a better place. When choosing between another Sunday spent grading or spent writing, I started asking myself whether any piece of fiction I composed would really have the same impact as helping others find their voices and change their lives.
At that time, I was working on my third novel, which had dual protagonists and was set in Italy in 1956. It required careful research and total focus. As my first semester teaching full time built to a climactic Mt. Everest of ungraded essays, I had panicked conversations with a grad school pal, a veteran teacher and writer. He asked, “Are you spending more time grading their work than they spent writing it?” Yes. “Are you giving them more feedback than they can take in?” Yes. “Are you working on your novel?” No.
Somehow, I managed to claw my way through the semester, finish the novel, and survive—barely. Over the eight years since then I have helped about two thousand people write with purpose, support their arguments with documented research, and objectively analyze the arguments of others. Besides freshman comp and critical thinking, I’ve taught Women in Lit, World Lit (or as I call it, “Two Hundred Countries, Four Thousand Years”), and one semester of Creative Writing. I still have no teaching assistant, and I read every word my students write (though admittedly I do skim some assignments).
What’s also important is that I have finished and sold two more novels to a major publisher, and have a third underway. I finally managed to find the balance between teaching and writing that allows me to do my best work in both careers. What’s my secret? Being willing to sacrifice things other than my writing (or being a good teacher). I don’t travel as much as I used to: I stay home and work. I don’t allow myself much goofing off time.
I’m often really tired at the end of the day and so I’m not up on the latest shows or podcasts (or, sadly, books). I never clean my house (spiders’ paradise, tumbleweeds of dog hair). Errands come after writing and grading, if they get done at all (“Sorry—I have cheese but I’m out of crackers.”). I’m single, and I’m not sure whether that was a choice or the side effect of no free time (or maybe the state of my car scared them off). Within the limits of the hours available, I try to be a good friend and a good pet owner. I try (mostly unsuccessfully) to exercise.
But… the good moments make the sacrifices feel worth it. At the end of the semester I get notes from students telling me how I changed their lives. Sounds cliched, and yet it never gets old. I tell them their writing matters (even in the age of Chat GPT), and I mean it. That means my own writing matters, too. This week I have a novel coming out—it was five years in the making and at one point my publisher asked me to move it back a hundred years in time. I agreed, and I’m very proud of the finished product.
It’s an optimistic story of a young woman making her way in the world with moxie and brio, except the world she’s living in is Mussolini’s Italy on its way to war. In writing her story, I tried to calm my own fears about the world we’re living in now, and I looked to the words of women from the past to help me. Just the kind of thing I encourage my students to do.
If you are a writer contemplating teaching, or a teacher contemplating writing, please don’t think the two are mutually exclusive. If you’re doing both and feeling overwhelmed, hang in there. My colleague was well-meaning but wrong; you can teach and write. You need to recognize the value in both, and accept that you probably won’t excel in both on the same day. And there are other things you won’t excel in at all—but you will raise some champion spiders and some really enormous dust bunnies.
Sally Brady’s Italian Adventure by Christina Lynch is available from St. Martin’s Press, an imprint of Macmillan, Inc.