Creative Writing, ESL, and the Problem of Time

Last spring (February – April, 2017), I volunteered as an ESL instructor through my church. I did the same thing last fall, and also several years before that at a church I attended in Maryland. With the help of a few amazing assistants, I was responsible for teaching the beginner class once a week for about 12 weeks.

It was immensely rewarding. I came to love our students, who are diligent and brave, and have an inspiring work ethic. Few if any of them have their own car. All of them live in apartments. Half of them work into the night and weekends. Showing them compassion, watching them grow in the language, and receiving grateful hugs at the end of class are beautiful things that are hard to capture in words without being overly sentimental.

But there were significant challenges, too. At the end of a long day at my regular job, I rarely felt like drumming up the energy to do the hard mental work of teaching. This was made worse by the fact that the students sometimes failed to show up. Not because they didn’t want to, but because they couldn’t: they literally didn’t have the time or ability. They needed to work, or they needed to rest from a job that’s physically exhausting, or the family member that drives them to class was busy.

Personally, though, the biggest challenge for me was time management. Planning an ESL lesson is complicated, as any ESL instructor can attest. For a single class I was looking at about 6-8 hours a week, including lesson prep, classroom time, and travel.

As a Dad, finding free time is hard enough. As someone who fits creative writing in his spare time, it’s even harder. Writing fiction is not conducive to 1 or 2-hour spurts.

I made it work, sort of. I watched less TV. Fasted from Facebook. Planned my schedule more rigorously. But even with those measures, I got much less writing done. Sometimes I went for several weeks without it. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t be a Dad, an ESL volunteer, and a creative writer at the same time. Or at least I couldn’t do all of them well. One of them had to give, and usually it was the writing.

How does one cope with that? The best advice I heard was to at least think about my story every day. How to improve that chapter, how to close that plot hole, how to make things more interesting. As one author put it, you may not have time to write as often as you like, but you should try to mentally engage with your story every day (and to split infinitives while you’re at it).

I don’t regret doing ESL. It’s one of the ways our church seeks to reach the nations, and on a purely pragmatic level, there’s a pressing need to help immigrants get integrated into our culture. The joy it brings to us and our students is like fresh air.

At the same time, I’m grateful our church’s ESL program is taking the summer off. Not only is the week less stressful, but I’m getting a lot more writing done.

There’s also been another very positive outcome: my Netflix and Facebook consumption remains at an all-time low. That was a hard habit to form, and so far it’s paying dividends. Do recommend.