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Corny Musings on Work/Life Balance

All writers have to learn the art of life balance, especially writers who are not ready to quit their day jobs, and especially-especially writers with young families. Let me tell you how it is, as the mom who finished a book when my daughter went to kindergarten (just like I always said I would) and who gardens with decorative vegetables (having given up on my home design Pinterest board and also my goals of growing organic produce that can actually feed my family).

Pictured below is our decorative corn plant. A local farmer has explained to us that it cannot grow actual corn due to its lack of fertilization partners, but it is reaching for the stars nevertheless. Cornspiration!

Also pictured: my beloved electric car, which can go no more than 70 miles round-trip on the best of days; a street sign that symbolizes how sometimes you have to slow down or stop and wait--so deep, man; my recycling and garbage bins with a utility company that uses the garbage stink gas to create electricity--also mega poetical; the interplay of light and shadow on the grime patina of my siding.

a portrait of my life in a moment of balance

We writers and other artists, entrepreneurs, and self-employed workers have to be our own bosses. We set our own hours, hold our own professional boundaries, and manage our own risks. But that's not all. We also have to figure out how to not lose our everlovin' minds through the inevitable frustrations, delays, obstacles, and unforeseen sacrifices that come along with messy, unpredictable, and slow processes like raising kids and writing books.

As my friend Emily Duffelmeyer writes in an article for Pinhole Press,
You can have it all (work life and mom life). But the small print is that you cannot have things just the way you want.

One skill that is really hard but always worth it for me is to learn to accept every disappointment as an opportunity for learning, growth, innovation, or just a funny story. (I sincerely believe that a life measured in funny stories is one well lived.)

This is essential, because no matter how hard we work at our craft and no matter how wisely and progressively we parent, there are many system dynamics that are beyond our control.

Sometimes that works out in our favor. Sometimes we find freedom, beauty, and inspiration in the chaos. That is the nature of art and living things.

In the photo above, a flower in the foreground wilts while the rose of sharon in the background sends forth its first bloom. I never know exactly when either of those things will happen, but I do know that they will happen--just like my daughter's growth and illnesses, achievements and failures, sweet moments and meltdowns.

And writing and marketing novels is no less of a long-distance mindgame.

I finished a novel when my daughter went to kindergarten, just like I said I would. But I haven't sold it. I've rewritten it several times. I've sent out about 25 queries total on its various iterations. I've attracted the interest of two awesome, top-tier agents. Each of them held the book in consideration for months before declining with kind and helpful rejections.

I rewrote the book again, fixing errors and strengthening the main character's arc and voice. But then, my last round of queries on the book's latest and greatest revision resulted in a slew of immediate form rejections. Around the same time, I noticed that some of the authors and agents whose careers I follow started finding difficulty in selling longish, fairy-tale-ish fantasy novels. I got the sense that I had narrowly missed a spike in demand for that sort of thing, which has since fizzled. So I shelved my finished work, The Grove of Thorismud.

That doesn't mean I've given up on it or that I won't ever query it again. But I have made the decision, while I can--that is, while I am still without a contract that holds me to official deadlines--to stop here and work on one novel at a time.

My new work in progress is in a different genre, historical fiction, which is one of my favorites to read. I'm having a great deal of fun researching and writing it, and I remind myself that I wouldn't be having all this fun right now if I had not made the decision to shelve my fantasy book for the time being.

Nor would I be enjoying the wonders of this amazing decorative corn plant if I had completed the design of my front garden bed and not left a space where my daughter could plunk in the seedling she started during her last days of kindergarten.

There is a freedom in work left unfinished and dreams deferred--a space where we can wait and see, discover the unexpected, savor simple joys, and be present for those fleeting moments that can't wait.

Creative career goals usually can wait and often benefit from experiences that, shall we say, provide opportunities to develop resilience. As Emily writes,
Slow and steady wins the race, right?

Maybe not the rat race, but is that really the goal here? I suspect that for those of us who chose, when we were first becoming our adult selves, to prioritize love and family and wandering explorations of humanity and beauty and art, that's a big, resounding NOPE.

 Let's return to my decorative corn plant. Look at how tall and proud she has grown despite all of her life's limitations and setbacks.. She didn't get to choose where she was planted. She lives in a barren corner of concrete and asphalt, isolated from other corn plants who might have fertilized her. Is this the life she envisioned for herself when she was planted in a paper cup of soil in Ms. B's kindergarten class?

What grain of ambition has driven her to redirect all of her energy into the height of her stalk and the glory of her leaves after being told that she can never bear fruit?

What inner strength must she have drawn upon to create a new purpose for her life after that farmer declared that she could never--


Um, congratulations, Ms. Single Lady!

Apparently Mama Corn has not accepted the advice of the farmer or awaited the services of a nearby partner. She has gotten down with her bad self... or colluded with a well-traveled bee... or prayed real hard... and there you have it.

As the character Ian Malcolm says in Jurassic Park,
Life finds a way.

And the circumstances do not have to be ideal for us to reach for the sky, bear fruit (of a living or creative nature), and seize the life we must have from the limited circumstances we find ourselves cornered within.

But remember, getting frustrated does not mean we cannot be grateful too. There's no shame in pushing against our boundaries, succumbing to those moments when we collapse in a soggy pile, or accepting help and support from others. Ms. Corn here has needed to be rescued several times from the ravages of storms and is now supported by a couple lengths of twine keeping her from falling over.

We can't help feeling frustrated sometimes, so don't waste any time feeling guilty about that. It happens to everyone who goes about doing hard stuff. We can have it all, though we can't generally have it the way we envision it when we start out. And that is the corny truth.


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