Driving the Car at Night

Just a few hours ago I entered final grades for one of the most stressful and emotional (in both good and bad ways) semesters I’ve ever had. My students were great, and the classes themselves were often fun and invigorating. Even Freshman composition, sometimes. The problem was not with the students; it was with the institution. Budget cuts gone berserk across the university created havoc in the English department that eventually led to the loss of graduate funding for our program (though I now understand that some of that has changed), and, for me, a loss of the job I have loved and which has defined me professionally for the last eight years. Though I *am* still a senior lecturer on contract until 2013, I found out last week that the department has eliminated my post as associate MFA director. So while I am not unemployed, I am faced with a pretty big psychic shift in the coming year. I’m sad and I feel at loose ends. The job has kept me connected to the creative writing community in a very real way and I’ve taken a lot of energy from that. I am trying to look at it as a  positive thing–I got eight years of arts administration experience that I should be able to take from here and apply elsewhere–but at the moment I’m still sort of licking the wound. I will say that the response I’ve gotten from our alumni and other parts of the community has been overwhelming and supportive and just generally wonderful. That goes a long way toward helping me feel better, but even still, I’m glad I have the summer in front of me to fully acclimate to the change.

In the meantime, two major efforts going on: first, job searching. I was encouraged this spring to get two interviews in this terrible market from off-the-cuff, last-minute searches, so I am hoping that a more focused, dedicated approach once the big job list comes out in October might yield even more possibilities. It’s stressful to imagine: will I be teaching? Will I leave teaching to work in administration? Will I/should I leave academia altogether? I’ll watch the boards this summer too, just to be sure I don’t miss anything, but I imagine that unless something perfect comes up, I’ll be at Penn State for another year.

The second thing on the docket for the summer is writing. Loads of it. Because besides the above-described admin experience, it is my writing that will be my ticket to the Magical Happy Job Lands Beyond. I am making a promise to myself that I will finish a draft of the memoir by August 30th. This is completely plausible as long as I can keep faith in the project and in my own voice.

I feel like I’ve been saying this for years. Probably because I have been saying this for years. I remember the first words I wrote toward this project. They came rushing out of me until it was fifty pages and four weeks later during my MacDowell residency in 2004. I had never written so much in such a sustained, single effort in my life.  Before the kids came along, I used to say, oh, if only I had four weeks of uninterrupted time... But now it’s not even enough to have uninterrupted time (though that does help immensely); now it’s also a challenge to find the mental clarity and focus so that I can actually use that time productively. The difference between MacDowell in 2004 and VCCA in 2009 was not just the number of days in the residency. It was also that every minute of every day at VCCA, I had to choose to either push aside or indulge thoughts of my kids and the happenings at home. I had to either hide from them or invite them in and write while in their company. I did a little of both, I suppose, and while the number of pages didn’t come close to what it had been at MacDowell, I did get just a little bit further/deeper into this book that, yes, I still want to write.

This summer, my residency will be in Millheim, PA, at the home of a wonderful colleague who is loaning me some solitude while she and her family vacation. I will have one week of that glorious, elusive uninterrupted time. Besides that, I will have days at Wegmans while the kids are at school. I will drop them off and scoot over there, hoping to snag one of the only tiny booths with an outlet for my laptop. I will leave my bag there and trust the patrons in the cafe to watch it for me while I grab a coffee and an almond croissant from the bakery. I will, I’m sure, spend the first half hour to forty-five minutes screwing around online, checking Facebook and email before opening the document that contains the chapters I’ve already written. No pressure of the blank page here–I’m too far into it–but instead the pressure to keep going.  To write just the next word.

One of my favorite quotes about writing is this one by E.L. Doctorow:

Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.

It’s my favorite precisely because it breaks this enormous task down to this smallest components–words and sentences–and also because it reminds me that slow and careful is just fine. It tells me that it’s okay, it’s normal!, to feel a little terrified as I go forward.  That even when I think I know what the road looks like/what the story is about/where my career is headed, I will surely be surprised, and possibly even delighted, by where I end up.

3 thoughts on “Driving the Car at Night

  1. Nic Sebastian says:

    Best of luck with all the changes coming up for you, Sheila! Look forward to seeing where things take you next. Nic

  2. Alexandra says:

    Man, woman, I miss you! I’m sorry that things are in limbo so much these days, but I have faith in you – you will emerge from your journey a better writer, a better woman, and a better mother because you are making personal goals accomplishable! Go you!

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