Our move to Virginia from Boston about five months ago has had a hugely positive effect on my writing. That’s no slight to Boston, a creative city with a long literary history, that I do miss dearly. However, now that I’ve had some distance from the move, I’ve had a chance to reflect on the factors that have made a huge difference in my ability to regularly put words to page. I’ve discovered that specific mental patterns and habits have led to more creativity, and my hope is that others can find ways to carve out spaces in their lives for these ways of thinking as well.
I’ve had a non-standard career.
In 2012, after six years as an aerospace research engineer in the Mojave Desert of California, I resigned from cubicle life in order to make a direct impact in science education. I spent five years teaching physics and engineering at a Title-1, urban public high school in Boston, and don’t regret the decision — the experience was profoundly shaping on my character, and I hope I left behind an impact and new STEM programs of lasting value. In April, I returned to the world of research engineering, this time at a facility in Tidewater region of southern, coastal Virginia.
The Teaching Effect cuts both ways.
I have to give credit to Boston. I was living in the city when my first short stories were accepted for publication (Remembering Turinam and The Parched Lands), and for the release of my first novel, Red Soil Through Our Fingers. These were largely the product of my training year in teaching and the first two summers that followed — when the dream of the “teacher summer” was a real thing and I was able to write full-time if I chose to for two months out of the year. Sounds pretty great!
But teaching, especially in a high-needs environment, is a career that can and will demand infinite mental, emotional, and physical investment. When I first entered teaching, I had criticism for those who left urban teaching for lower-pressure suburban districts or private schools. Now, five years later, I’ve left the profession entirely, largely due to burnout. It wasn’t that I couldn’t keep teaching — it was that it was becoming harder and harder to find the time to do the things I loved. Even the coveted summers rapidly became filled with curriculum development, training, mandatory re-certifications, and endless new initiatives to try to stop the bleeding of students (and therefore dollars) to flashy, commoditized charter schools. By the time I left, I was averaging 12 hours of work per school day.
But it’s not just time — it’s how you think in that time.
Sure, it would have been possible to scale back somewhat. I didn’t have to take leadership positions at my school for example, nor did I have to spend so much time innovating on my curriculum every year or mentoring new teachers. But there was a deeper problem than just minutes in the day: mindset during those minutes.
Teaching — good teaching — requires constant meticulous attention to detail, emotional engagement, active monitoring of 4-6 waves of 30+ teenagers at a time, confrontation, de-escalation, emotional and social support, and individualized attention to diverse learning needs. Sometimes you, even get to use the bathroom. It’s a high-stress, high attention-to-detail, immediate here-and-now, and concrete mode of thinking. In fact, a mode of thinking that is completely antithetical to how I do my best creative work. And daily repetition provides pretty strong conditioning — by my fifth year of teaching, I found that, even during school breaks, I was unable to fully revert out of the teaching mentality. This mindset shift had a severe, negative impact on my writing and other big-picture interests like music, art, and philosophy.
Returning to a default state of broad, multi-disciplinary, reflective thinking has jump-started my writing again.
Between the publication of Red Soil Through Our Fingers in January of 2016 and my move to Virginia in April of 2017 (16 months), I produced roughly 3,000 words of new writing and made modest revisions to an existing short story. It took me about until July to decompress and adjust to the new career and location. Then, things really took off… in just the past two months, I’ve produced over 20,000 words of new writing and made significant progress on a short story revision! In addition, I have a growing list of ideas of what to write about next. The difference has been profound, and I’ve felt it in far more than just my word count; I’m a much saner, fitter, happier person as well, with time to explore, exercise, and socialize far more frequently than before.
Lifestyle changes can make a huge difference in your creative endeavors.
I’d be willing to bet that the changes in my work and life were probably much larger than most people experience in a typical career. And I should add that I know plenty of teachers who manage to carve out creative time in their lives — in fact, two members of my writer critique circle are teachers and produce great writing. You don’t have to (and may not even be able to) completely change your line of work and location to encourage a better creative mindset. Think about what changes you can make to expand your mental horizons and pull your focus from the day-to-day grind upward to the realm of ideas:
- journaling more to increase time spent thinking and writing reflectively
- visiting local art museums and attending performing arts productions
- getting out of the gym to exercise, by running / hiking / biking outdoors, playing an outdoor sport, or engaging in a social physical activity like dance
- READING WHAT YOU LOVE
- traveling and exploring new places, even if they are pockets of your own city or neighborhood
- learning something new, especially if it promotes big-picture thinking (try Crash Course Philosophy or PBS Space Time on YouTube!)
- join a writer circle, a book club, or a discussion group that lets you explore, dissect, and constructively debate ideas with peers
Investing in your “internal intellectual capital” and your mental well-being can result in major benefits for your creative work over time, and many small changes can add up!