Monday, October 11, 2010

The Well-Balanced Plate: Poetry and Multi-Tasking

The Well-Balanced Plate: Poetry and Multi-Tasking
by Scott Owens

Reprinted from NC Writers’ Network News
Fall 2010 Issue, September 2010

Most days that title is a lie. When I teach young writers I encourage them to maintain balance in their lives, to not obsess on writing to the detriment of relationships or finances. I even offer them advice on how to do it, how to set up schedules that permit appropriate levels of attention for all of one’s needs as a person and a poet. In truth, however, schedules rarely work the way their drawn up, and the impetus for writing, just as the need for the relationships and money, is not easily contained. So the usual truth is that most poets lead lives that are recklessly unbalanced.

Today, however, I had a moment of acute self-recognition as I drove in to school with a backpack full of 75 freshman composition essays in the seat beside me, a box full of copies of my new book of poems, and 3 toddler carseats spread across the middle row of my minivan. And I have to admit I felt a sense of pride in who I have become.

I have plenty of friends with young children. Some of them don’t work, and none of them write poetry. I often envy their ability to concentrate on raising those children. It’s not so much the time they have with them. In fact, I’ve been able to manipulate my schedule such that I probably have as much time with Sawyer as they have with their children. It’s more the ability to focus on what is properly their number one priority, to not feel distracted by vocation or avocation, to always know what duty deserves their unmitigated attention, to be able to readily set aside any distraction and divert to the whim of the 4-year-old.

I also have plenty of friends who are teachers but do not have children and do not write poetry, although some have children or write poetry. I often envy them as well. I often fear they are probably better teachers than I. I feel certain they don’t carry around essays for days on end looking for moments between obligations to review and score one or two at a time. And I’m even more certain that they have the opportunity to read more current scholarship than one is likely to find in the new issues of Cricket or Stone Soup.

And then there is the admittedly much smaller group that I probably sometimes envy more than any other, those friends who have managed somehow to construct lives that allow them to be simply poets, no children, no professional obligations outside of what they do in the world of poetry. I imagine they spend hours every day reading Poetry, Paris Review, Georgia Review, scouring the pages of Poets & Writers for exotic residencies and publication opportunities, and reading widely from a variety of new collections of poetry which they receive at no cost because they have the time to write reviews of the ones they like. And, of course, I imagine they have the freedom from other responsibilities necessary to stop whenever a line, image, or idea occurs to them and start the process of writing that new poem, or to hunker down with two fingers of scotch and hammer out the revision they know a poem has been needing, or to vanish for half a day in the real or virtual daydream world that sometimes seems necessary to allow a poem to go from vague intimation to concrete, clear, and thoroughly-explored experience.

I am certain these descriptions of the lives I imagine my friends enjoy are horribly, unfairly, and almost comically exaggerated, but feelings of envy and frustration are perhaps inevitable when one realizes he had a new poem floating around in his head that has been unfortunately lost to the banter of three toddlers in a weekly afternoon playdate, or that he could get through this pile of essays if only he didn’t have to stop every five minutes to answer yet another question about the source of rain, or that the fear he has that he’s not giving his children what they need and that his parenting is horribly inadequate would go away if he could just make the desire to write poetry and the need to plan the next day’s classes disappear.

That is the mental and emotional state of conflictedness and distraction that I exist in most of the time. I’ve learned to accept the low-level discomfort that being there creates. But on this particular morning, surrounded by the concrete evidence, by the imagery the poet within me would say, of who I am, I felt instead a satisfied sense of self-knowledge, even perhaps of clear purpose. There have been periods in my life when I was poet and teacher, but not parent. There have also been times when I was parent and teacher but not poet. And there were a couple of years when Sawyer was an infant that I was parent and poet but not teacher. During all of those periods, I knew that something was missing. I could not have told anyone why, but I knew that I felt incomplete.

Please don’t think that I’m putting forth any sort of sanctimonious argument that this is what everyone needs or should be doing. And please don’t think that I’m patting myself on the back for being the great male multi-tasker or anything like that. All I’m saying is that for me, parenting and teaching feed my poet; teaching and writing help me know how to parent; and writing and parenting make me a better teacher. And I do suspect that such complementarity does or would help others feel greater satisfaction as well. Most of the time I’m not exactly cognizant of the way these three areas of obligation work to create one whole person, but on this particular morning I felt a sort of epiphany that this triple existence, while frequently exhausting, is always a source of some level of pride, an endless source of motivation, and a means of feeling complete. Ultimately, I understood in that moment that this is the life I’ve wanted and despite other moments of doubt, guilt, and simple exhaustion, I wouldn’t have it any other way.


  1. This is a great essay not because you have shown us the way but because you like who you are. Every writer has to juggle events, and those events do provide material to write about and opportunity to lose poems in so doing. I have been a teacher and a parent of small children but did not write poems at those times. Your doing so is kind of remarkable but hardly unbelievable. And I am so not envious. But if you think I sit reading journals all day, you should follow me around. LOL

  2. Between laughter and choking up as I read this, I wonder how I made it through three quarters of my life. I was parent and teacher too, a poet only occasionally and usually when so beset with emotional chaos it seemed the only way to survive. You really are to be congratulated for finding "who you are" so soon! I can't imagine being so successful at any one thing, let alone three at once. Bravo! And further congratulations for being so awake to life that you know when you're happy at the time you are happy. That takes talent all of its own, I think.