I’m a writer, dammit! I don’t do budgets.
I spend my money until it runs low, and then I drink cheaper wine.
But this year I started a three-year term as chair of the Creative Writing department at the University of Texas in El Paso. Suddenly I have to not only understand budgets but schedules and reports and I must sit in endless meetings, often leaving with no more information that with what I arrived.
It’s a real job, and for someone who spent the last 17 years as a writer and faculty member, basically going to campus for classes and office hours, I’m suddenly developing and using skills I never had before, or had but were hidden.
It’s a demanding job.
When my colleagues at the University heard I was going to serve as chair, they respond with, “Oh, I’m really sorry!”
Especially if they’ve done the job before.
This past summer I posted a picture on Facebook of a book I was reading called The Department Chair Primer, and I wrote about how I wanted to be prepared for the job.
My Facebook friend, the writer Maxine Chernoff, chair of Creative Writing at San Francisco State, wrote the comment: “Nothing prepares you.”
When I tell my family that I’m department chair, they say, Congratulations!
Like it’s a good thing.
I’m only in my second week, but so far, I think the congratulation is more accurate.
Believe it or not, I love the job.
This doesn’t mean I want to do it for more than three years or that I have administrative ambitions, but during the three years I serve, I’m going to enjoy every moment.
The most amazing aspect of the job is the additional human interaction required on a daily basis, much more than when I was writing at home all day.
I’m talking to people everyday, in English and Spanish, and I am usually the first person someone goes to if they have a problem. This human interaction requires using a part of my brain that I wasn’t using so much before I became chair, so I know it’s mentally healthy.
And also, no significant amount of success can happen without human interaction.
It’s how we get what we want out of life.
Even if my goal is to spend the rest of my life in a house by a river writing and reading and eating good food in the evenings, human interaction is required to negotiate the use of the land, the use of clean water, electricity, food.
Being department chair requires much more interaction than what I had when I was more troglodyte-like. (That’s hard to say. Troglodyte-like).
I love the interaction.
I love talking to people.
I guess what I’m learning about myself, is I love people.
Of course, there are some difficult people, but I am seeking to understand them, and in doing so I have to be aware that in their personal narratives, I’m the difficult one.
I suppose the most important question for a writer who decides to be department chair, is: Will it take me away from my writing?
Believe it or not, No.
I am a more productive writer as department chair than I was before, as if the structure of the day contributes to my productivity
Here’s some guidelines I follow, that keep me in my creative space. They may not work for everyone.
DON’T ANSWER EMAIL BEFORE 11 AM
In our house, we get up early enough to provide me with at least three hours every morning for creative writing time.
And yes, there is this voice occasionally telling me to attend to department business, but I have rejected that voice, and I don’t start my human interaction until 11 AM.
At first it was hard for me NOT to check email.
I know there are people who can not check email for days, and I admire them. Not checking email is difficult.
In the past, I would check first thing in the morning, and even if I didn’t read the emails completely, even if I said, “I’ll get to them later,” I saw who they were from, and thoughts of what the email could be about lingered and affected my creative energy.
I would be imagining what the email said, not what my characters were doing.
EXERCISE EVERY MORNING.
It’s important that I run in the morning, because I rarely honor my commitment to run after I get home or in the evening.
But if I do it first thing in the morning, right after my coffee.
It gives me more creative energy in the morning, and I write more.
And it gives me energy all day.
It gives me physical energy, and I feel good.
THINK OF EACH DAY AS A CREATIVE ACT.
Any fiction writer knows that we are often surprised by what happens in our work. It can be no other way. Flannery O’Connor says if the writer isn’t surprised by what happens in a story, the reader won’t to be.
Everything I do out there in the field of human interaction is part of a narrative, a story, and I’m the writer, even when I’m surprised by what happens.
I love the surprises of the days, the twists and turns in the plots.
When I go into any kind of meeting or as I’m walking down the hall, I am existing not only physically, but creatively, looking around a landscape and often lingering just because.
DON’T BE IN A HURRY.
A few years ago I sold my car, because I wanted to see what it was like to not have one living in El Paso, a modern city built for cars.
I took the bus everywhere or I walked, and the biggest surprise of all was how much more time I had.
You would think I would have less time, because I can’t just get in the car and drive, but it gave me more time, more creative time. More time to observe. More time to think.
There is a similar concept in being department chair.
You would think I would have less time, but if I’m not in a hurry, if I don’t think everything needs to be done exactly now and I don’t start thinking about the other things that need to be done, I see how much time there is in a moment.
There is no hurry.
Things will get done.
You move too fast!
Slowing down also means that you’ll always have time to look somebody in the eyes and try to understand them. Slowing down gives you time, makes it yours, as opposed to time being something theoretical, a number on the wall that tells you to move along.
Every single person that I encounter, students, faculty, administrators, janitors and campus police, are the protagonist of their own narrative, one they’re writing, whether they’re conscious of it or not.
And like all character-led plots, they are directed by desire.
Desire is a beautiful thing. It’s what keeps us growing and expanding, and I don’t think there’s anybody out there, even the biggest asshole in the world, who is not driven by desire.
Misdirected desire might be creepy, but focused desire is admirable.
I want to be able to understand what people want.
I want to know their stories.
And then, after three years of being a chair, I’m going to write about it.
Maybe it’ll be a novel called, When I Was a Chair.