Not long after the publication of my first novel, I was interviewed by a reporter who asked me what it was like to balance being a writer with being a musician. I told the reporter that having two jobs I loved was an embarrassment of riches. I said it was as if I was holding a plate of cherry pie in one hand and a plate of chocolate cake in the other. At the time, I honestly believed I had figured out a way to have my cake and eat pie, too. Shortly after that interview, though, I learned that carrying a plate in each hand means you can't hold a fork. With nearly every bite, dessert gets thrown all over the place.
I like balance. I always have. When I was a child, I produced endless watercolor paintings of the same house: a two-story, center-entrance colonial with four evenly spaced windows, each of which was underlined by a windowbox that contained a single red tulip. I churned out pictures of that house from ages five to seven, in spite of the fact that I lived in a suburban neighborhood composed entirely of split-levels and ranch houses. I just couldn't resist the colonial's perfect symmetry. When I was given an aquarium for Christmas, I immediately set about saving my allowance in order to buy a second one and stock it with the same number of swordtails, fancy guppies, and tetras, so the mantle upon which the identical aquariums sat would be balanced.
Luckily, I was born in an era before kids like me were prescribed drugs to get us to draw with age appropriate sloppiness or to agree to dress in mismatched socks without a fight. My parents responded to my peculiarities by giving me a cello. This was a stroke of genius. So much of classical music, and virtually all of the music we learn as young musicians, is based upon the notion that harmonic imbalance must be resolved. What could be more ideal for the mildly, or greatly, obsessive-compulsive child?
I built a career of playing and teaching the cello. After several years, I managed to find a combination of the two things that provided me with a modest income along with artistic and intellectual satisfaction.
Then I wrote a novel and blew all that lovely balance straight to hell.
I tried to make my new writing career fit into my life the same way I had made teaching and performing work together. I imagined this new configuration as a triad, three notes working together in harmony. Sometimes the triad would be inverted, so that teaching or playing the cello or writing would be on top. One note might even briefly go silent. But my balance-loving mind envisioned the three aspects of my life eventually fitting into an isosceles triangle of career fulfillment.
That naïve plan died when I found myself traveling to various meetings, sales conferences, and other events that, as a first time novelist, I'd had no idea existed. After a couple of months of rescheduling or cancelling my students' lessons, my triad lost a note. A music teacher who can't show up regularly is no teacher at all. I handed in my notice at the college where I taught and ended my teaching career at the end of that semester.
Although I loved teaching, I decided to see this development as a blessing in disguise. Anyone who has ever obsessively painted center entrance colonials or employed a tape measure to arrange a pair of aquariums on a mantle can tell you that it's easier to balance two things than three. I looked at my calendar and designed a schedule for myself that more or less evenly divided my time between writing and performing music.
Again, the real world refused to conform to my new configuration. Sometimes writing demanded more hours than my plan allotted it during a given week, and sometimes a gig would prove to be infinitely more challenging than I'd anticipated. Gigs kept coming up on dates when I was scheduled to be out of town or during weeks when a deadline loomed. My fantastical notion of two balanced dessert plates that would each get my full attention at alternating times didn't take into account the fact that both writing and music require daily attention, and that they both punish you if you ignore them for very long. I also neglected to make allowances for the fact that nothing makes my brain work faster or more smoothly than music. Playing the cello clears out the fog that often envelops my thinking. After a rehearsal or performance, writing always feels easier. Music wasn't something that I could separate from my literary life; it was a necessary feature of it.
About a year after answering that interview question about balancing my musical and literary lives, I faced one of those periods when playing the cello and writing refused to make room for each other. For several nights in a row, after getting home from performing concerts, I stayed up until the early hours of the morning in order to meet a writing deadline. Sweating out words on too little sleep wasn't the most efficient or fun approach. But that week, in addition to working through a thorny plotline, I figured out something about myself.
I am never going to achieve anything that even vaguely resembles balance. Ranch houses won't become colonials. Some of the fish in the aquarium will breed freely and wildly and some will eat each other. What I can achieve, though, is joy. I can celebrate the unmitigated pleasure of being able to communicate with others through the written word as long as readers will continue to come along for the ride. I can go on making music as long as good musicians are willing to play with me. This is, I have learned, a very messy way to live. But juggling plates of cherry pie and chocolate cake and trying to take big bites of each as they speed by is never going to be neat or balanced, just joyous.