What’s My Assignment?

Our English word “assignment” originated in the 13th century, from Old French. It means “to allot by sign, to mark out, to award.”

It’s the first day of fall quarter classes at my college, and I’ve just returned from my Creative Nonfiction class. My students are an inspiring mix, so inspiring that, for the  first time in weeks, I’m feeling as though I can teach full-time this year and still be a writer.

For one thing, a number of my students also work. One is a tree-climber! Two of my students needed my signature because they are working for the college and taking my class. A couple students are working for the student newspaper. At least three students are veterans. A number of students have children, and one is a great-grandmother. A significant portion are Running Start students, also finishing high school (and if I’ve learned nothing else from my daughters, I have learned that being a teenager is a full-time job in itself).

Somewhere in the blogosphere I came across the advice to ask, whenever presented with a problem (or a “problem”), “What’s my assignment?” My assignment is to get my own writing done this quarter, alongside all the rest.

How will I do it? Small, manageable goals. Fifteen minute blocks. Give up whining about not having more time.


I’ve been at my desk in Gray Wolf Hall quite a lot this week, getting a stiff neck from sitting in front of the computer, and developing an eye twitch. I won’t start in about the meetings I’ve attended. I’m here to count my blessings.

Number one — I have this great gig, a teaching job where I’m paid to talk about books and writing. This job not only pays me a salary and provides health insurance for my family, but it enables me to write about anything I want. I don’t have to worry about writing a book that will sell. I don’t have to hustle for little teaching jobs or editing gigs or random writing assignments to pay the bills. I also have great colleagues who — even in meetings — I’ve enjoyed seeing again.

My office is on the third floor, and I have — if I stand up and stretch — a bit of a view of Puget Sound. I have a terrific view of sky. This week I’ve watched the weather shift from bright sunshine (early in the week) to gray (today). A hawk flew by a little while ago with a mouse in its talons. Until I started writing this post, I had forgotten that Wednesday afternoon I saw, in the distance, an unmistakable line of pelicans flying by. I frequently see eagles and great blue herons, sometimes very close to my window. (Thanks to Kathleen Kirk and Chris Harshaw for this fabulous photograph.)

On Monday, my students will be back on campus. I’ve met with a few of them this week. I’ve answered quite a few emails. I’ve written a syllabus for each class. I have first week reading and writing assignments in hand. I’ve planned my course calendars so that I can go on my writing retreat at the end of October.

It’s a good life. I’m grateful.


“If a vocation is as much the work that chooses you as the work you choose, then I knew from that time on that my vocation was, for better or for worse, to involve that searching for, and treasuring, and telling of secrets which is what the real business of words is all about.” -Frederick Buechner

I vowed to stop lifting quotes from Barbara Abercrombie’s A Year of Writing Dangerously. But I read Frederick Buechner, too, and this quote is so spot-on to what I’m feeling this morning, that I feel compelled to share this. (Click on the link to go to Abercrombie’s blog.)

Did you work this summer?

Back to the college, and that inevitable question, “Did you work this summer?” I’m guilty of asking it, too. What we mean is “Did you teach a class — or two or three — this summer?” What we mean is “Did you do PAID work this summer?”

This summer I took care of my family. I tried to be fully present with my niece’s death. I took my mom to Idaho so she could see her grandson who was home on leave from the Marines. I coordinated stuff for my kids. I coached my 19-year old daughters through emotional turmoil with friends and boyfriends. I tried to be a wiser, quieter mom to my 13-year old. I took my mom to doctor appointments. I helped get the last leg of mom’s move accomplished (interesting that I had forgotten that detail until I began editing this post). I dealt with my husband’s illness and 12 days in the hospital. I took my daughters school shopping for supplies and clothes. I got Emma back to school. I also saw old friends. I went to the Y and walked on the treadmill. I read 24 novels. I watched movies and ate popcorn.

I got up every morning and wrote in my journal. I wrote it all down. I carried my novel manuscript around with me, not working on it nearly enough. I tinkered away with my historylink.org article (and wrote in my journal trying to discover why I don’t simply finish the damn thing). I thought about writing. I may even have done some very useful thinking about writing. I think I deepened my novel. I think I reached a point-of-no-return with the article (I really will finish it in the next few days). Some mornings I wrote a bad poem.

I worked. No one wrote me a check, which is how in this culture we define “work.” But to hell with our definition. It was valuable work. It was the work I needed to do. I am going back to the college — officially — today (though I’m missing the all-employee breakfast because I overslept and I felt it was more important to scribble). I hereby forgive myself for not doing what I didn’t do this summer (finish the novel rewrite, finish the article). I don’t even resolve to do better. I resolve to be kind to myself. I resolve to be kind to my students this year, and to continue being present with all that calls me. To borrow from Theodore Roethke, I resolve to “learn by going where I have to go.”