Brandy Schillace: Balancing Academic Work and Writing Life


Brandy SchillaceRogue Scholar. ​I like the image this phrase conjures: the highway white with moonlight, the carriage rattling and banging as the driver nods in his seat…and scholarly rogues riding from shadowed enclaves, brandishing the sharpened steel of academic rigor.  It doesn’t quite work that way—but there’s a shade of truth here all the same. Academia can be both competition and battlefield. It requires enormous sacrifice of time and energy, and it steals away hours as deftly as any highwayman. In a dwindling job market, universities demand more and give less, and the PhD lucky enough to land a job finds herself frequently beleaguered. The tenure track leaves little enough time for research—and far less for creative endeavors.  How is it possible to balance a writing life in the midst of these other obligations? It’s no wonder some turn to the rogue lifestyle, with more academics seeking “alt-ac” or alternative careers. I am one of these, but of course, the world out here makes as many demands as the world in there. Whether you are an academic, an “alternative” academic, or someone with one or more careers besides your writing, the most important achievement for sane living is balance. In today’s post, I will describe the vicissitudes of that hard-fought battle and suggest strategies for winning it.

What not to do:

As I sit here, I realize that I’m as much the audience for this post as anyone. For three years, I taught as assistant professor at a state university, combining a research initiative with a 4/4 course load. To break the teaching down, that meant for each semester I had 120 students, writing 600 papers, for a total of 4800 pages of gradable material plus 150 in-office hours. I also researched and published one scholarly article per year, chaired two committees, went to conferences and wrote research grants. If this seems extraordinary, please know this is consistent at small universities all over the country. How, with so much lying at your door, can you make time to write? It was a question I asked myself regularly, and at the time, I’m afraid I went about it the wrong way.

The first mistake I made was to confuse the problem. I have too much work—I just need more time. I tried turning down a few things, but the nature of my job meant I turned down the more enjoyable aspects of my career for those least enjoyable. I then tried to give myself more time by cutting non-work items. The first to go? Sleep. I woke earlier and wrote late into the night. I then gave up social life and rest by working, researching, and writing through my weekends and holidays. On the plus side, I did get creative writing done in the midst of everything else. In fact, I finished my second novel and deconstructed the first for a major re-write. But there were terrible costs. I no longer enjoyed writing. It was hard to enjoy anything with so little sleep. And the work suffered, too. This scheme didn’t need to be re-worked. It had to be deep-sixed.

Big plans, small change

The insanity didn’t unravel until I changed careers. The plan was rather terrifying: jump ship from the tenure track, but also from English studies. I was already a medical humanities scholar, meaning I worked not only on literature but on the history of medicine and its intersection with narrative. As a result, I became the Research Associate/Guest Curator for the Dittrick Museum of Medical History. I’m also a freelance writer, reviewer, managing editor of Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry, and blogger for Inside Higher Ed, Huffington Post and the Centre for Medical Humanities, Durham (UK). I didn’t give up teaching entirely, either. So how did this new crazy life save me from the old crazy life?

It didn’t. I found myself in exactly the same position as before, stealing time from family and from my health to do impossible feats of productivity. That, my friends, is the lesson. My work-load wasn’t the problem; I was the problem. Balancing academic, work, and writing life isn’t about roguish daring and a willingness to burn the candle at both ends. It requires re-seeing, a new vision of what balance means. It also means revising our priorities. This is how we begin:

high-stakes-frontcover    1.    Letting Go of the Super-human

Visit the local fitness center on January 2nd. You need look no further for proof that we set unrealistic goals for ourselves. Sure, I’m holding down two jobs as a single parent while coaching soccer, visiting the sick, and solving world hunger. But I WILL get to this 5am strength training class three times a week. We need goals, but we have messy lives. Don’t set yourself up for disappointment.

What this meant for me: I have four different jobs, and I couldn’t give 100% of time four ways. On the other hand, I could give 100% of my effort to each block of time. I take longer to build museum exhibits, but they are high quality when complete. I don’t turn papers back to my as quickly, but they are fairly and thoughtfully graded. You get the idea. And here’s the funny thing: no one noticed that I had slowed down. Why? Because no one else expected me to be super-human.  When I set realistic goals for me work and academic life, I had more time to devote to writing… but of course, I needed to set realistic goals there, too.

    2.    Making Peace with the Calendar

I love lists. They help organize my brain (a churning nebulous of colliding continents filled to brimming with eight libraries, three mountain ranges, two complete navies, junks bottles, horn-blowers, cavaliers, a fencing team, anatomical specimens, tea-biscuits, and a card catalog run by a kangaroo with an eye-twitch and perfect recall.) In many respects, the calendar is just another list, and we can make it work for us—or have it run rough-shod over us. If the latter has happened to you, it’s time to fight back.

What this meant for me: I now schedule time for everything, even relaxation. When the hour strikes, I drop what I am doing and move on. Is it academic research time? Then I research. Is it writing time? Then I write. Code switching is hard, I’ll give you that. Sometimes it takes a while to get my mind running in the right channel. But if you write at the same time every week, it becomes part of who you are.

    3.    Deciding to Be Well

The last item really relates to the first two. I wasn’t exaggerating when I said I schedule relaxation. Self-help books often ask us to break routines, but in my experience, most of us have a harder time making them. Recently, I started yoga on Monday evenings with a friend who will be apt to keep me “honest.” It has the added benefit of being at 5pm, so I have to leave work on time. Could I get through a few more files on the forensic exhibit in the hour I am sacrificing? Maybe. Or maybe I would spin my wheels from exhaustion and then go home and crash in front of Midsummer Murders. So I take the hour and go to yoga instead.

Let go. Make peace. Be well. Academics already know how to hustle. It’s harder for us to know when not to. Instead of focusing on the top of that mountain (a mountain unlikely to get smaller year to year), look at the path you’re on. What you did today was enough. You may not write that research book in record time, or grade those essays before the sun sets, or complete the other half-dozen (million) tasks you thought you should have. The point it: you are doing it. You are a writer in addition to being everything else—and that’s something most people just talk about.

Welcome, rogues. We dare to stand apart. Let us dare to live balanced, healthy lives, too.


Author, historian, and adventurer at the intersection, Brandy Schillace spends her time in the mist-shrouded alleyways between literature and medicine. Taking a cue from Edward Gorey and John Bellairs, she writes Gothic fiction with a medical twist. Her first series, The Jacob Maresbeth Chronicles, will be out spring 2014 with Cooperative Trade. Dr. Schillace is research associate at the Dittrick Museum of Medical History, managing editor of Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry, book reviewer for the Huffington Post, and chief editor for the Fiction Reboot and Daily Dose blog. She helps develop medical humanities curriculum for the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College and teaches for Case Western Reserve University’s SAGES program. Her non-fiction book, Death’s Summer Coat: What the History of Death and Dying can Tell us about Life and Living, will be released in 2015 with Elliott and Thompson.

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15 comments to Brandy Schillace: Balancing Academic Work and Writing Life

  • I suddenly feel like I’m not doing nearly all the stuff I could (should?) be doing. Where’s my museum? My book? I’m an academic at a small university, and while I teach a 4-4 (though it usually is a 5-5), we aren’t required to publish an article a year. But I hear you on all the other stuff. Committees, student stuff outside of class (research, study abroad), and my heavens the grading. (I usually have about 70-80 students a semester). I had to learn the glorious benefit of saying “no.” Just “no.” A colleague asked if I wanted to start a writing group for students. “No.” Too much of my time (and there are other reasons that I think its bad–first being we’ve got an amazing group of profs with actual MFAs and training in teaching fiction writing. I have neither). I want to spend time with my husband. With my friends. And those things are important (even if I never get academic credit for them. Though I think I should have gotten resume credit for planning a wedding!).

    But I had to learn to prioritize, and it was difficult. This is all such good advice. The whole “I can (must?) do everything!!” is so exhausting. And, btw, I’d love to see the museum you curate. That sounds awesome!

  • I so admire all that you do, and all that Emily (Pea Faerie) does as well. My answer to “Balancing Academic Work and Writing Life” was to run screaming from my academic career. I love what I do, but I would surely be making more money these days if I had managed to maintain both careers. I might be dead of a coronary, but if not, I’d be making more . . . Anyway, another great post, Brandy. Thanks.

  • I’m having trouble balancing my life of late. The job is wiping me out because I do feel like I have to take up the slack and work harder, so I’m beat most of the day and haven’t actually written in a while, which is a bit devastating. But hey, my wife and I will be able to go on our anniversary jaunt soon if things work out and just maybe I’ll be able to force myself to slow down and get some writing in after.

  • *raises hand*

    Another person here drowning in papers, grading, meetings, planning, grading, teaching, and grading. Since I’m not a full professor I don’t have the research to do, so I’m looking forward to time off in the summer to write!

  • bschillace

    Pea Faerie, I completely hear what you are saying–I was doing a 4/4 before I left my tenure track; my hat off to you for your brilliance and boldness and just plain amazing ability to get anything at all done. Balance is like a wagon I keep falling off of, but I’m committed to a life worth living, and that helps a lot. 🙂

  • bschillace

    David, thank you! You know, I am a strange academic hybrid, circling the academy but not quite of it. I think academe proper is so hard on the writer because the demands are concrete and deadline specific. I have plenty of work at the museum, but it is not a tenure clock, which is a huge relief. The museum’s chief curator really likes the mix of my work, too, and I am able to promote my work and the Dittrick at once (because of intersections between medicine and humanities). My kangaroo still has an eye twitch, though. My FB page has some very interesting photos presently from friends who enjoyed that comment. They are uncanny critters, roos.

  • bschillace

    Hang in there, SiSi! You, too, Daniel. I keep thinking I need to set up a list-serv that just sends positive messages to writers (including me). We already do so much; we don’t need to feel haunted by not somehow doing even more. Then again, I suffer from that feeling all the time. We need each other, don’t we, to remember that we are OK–we are not failures, we are not lazy, we are not slow. We need each other to fend off the rage when someone raises their brows “oh, you’re a writer, are you?” We are all worth a little praise!

  • Visit the local fitness center on January 2nd. You need look no further for proof that we set unrealistic goals for ourselves.

    One of the desk attendants at the Y where we exercise calls the sudden crowd of exercisers who appear in January the Resolutionists, since they’re only there to fulfill a poorly planned New Year’s promise and will vanish by March.

  • Ken

    Thanks for posting this, Brandy! Just this morning I was hearing that voice that was whispering, telling me that I wasn’t doing “Enough”. It’s hard to keep it in mind that I can only do what I can do.

  • It isn’t just in academia where more is expected of less. I work as a Mission Assurance Manager (quality assurance on steroids) for a defense contractor. I am responsible for 5-7 very dynamic programs. If, during my “regular” 8-5 hours, I get 15 minutes of uninterrupted time to actually work on stuff that’s supposed to be done, I consider it a good day. If I’m not addressing the crisis of the hour, I’m in a meeting, trying to keep my buzzing blackberry quiet (as more crises du jour are reported). To get “work” done, I go in around 7, and frequently stay until 6 or later. Then I come home, look at all the housework that has accumulated, and run to my computer and stories to hide from my guilt!

  • Razziecat

    “But if you write at the same time every week, it becomes part of who you are.”

    This is so simple and yet so important – no matter what day job we do! 😀

  • mudepoz

    *looks around* I am definitely doing something wrong. I quit my job in academia (custodian, complete with a closet), so I could go to PT all the time. I have less time to write than when I was mopping and squeegeeing.

    I’m rather impressed all thewaynaround.

  • bschillace

    Resolutionists–I like that, Misty! And Lyn, you sound like a dynamo! I used to work in business and finance, and I remember how it was both hugely busy and also kind of mind-killing work. Isn’t it wonderful to have those stories to go home to! And it is like going home– I hope you never let it get you down–all those crises can be so draining!

    Razziecat, I am actually doing that same-time-every-day writing right now (9:30 pm) 🙂

  • bschillace

    You know what’s funny–when I was a student, I thought “Can’t wait to be a PhD–I’ll have so much more time.” HAHAHAHAHA

    My brother worked as a janitor for the college he was attending for his masters. He stopped short of getting the MA but stayed on for two more years as janitor… then decided to pursue a career in orthopedic massage therapy. I bet he would agree with Mudepoz; he actually did a lot more reading back then than he does now–even in his field of study. Maybe we never get more time; maybe we just have to get better at plumping up the time we have!

  • bschillace

    Ken, I heard those voices today myself–while running late (to three different meetings). But you know, when I get home, I remember: I am a being. I need being time. The drive from my office to my house is good detox time!