When I moved back to my hometown of San Diego from Chico, California, I left behind a tenured professorship. My kids lived with me and cost plenty. So I started teaching all around.
One semester, I was teaching nine classes at four colleges, putting in about ninety hours a week, which left me too weary to write, or so I thought.
Also, my son Cody and I attended Tae Kwon Do classes twice a week. And I was managing Cody’s Little League team, hoping he might become a pitcher instead of a ninja.
Probably because I didn’t sleep enough, my emotions had shut down. I couldn’t even feel dread or anger while driving the freeways. Something had to change. My kids didn’t deserve a catatonic dad.
One late afternoon as I sat on the grass at the University of San Diego, overlooking the harbor and wondering how I could repair my emotions, I mumbled, “Okay, where should I start?”
Then I remembered advice Master Jeong, our Tae Kwon Do instructor, often gave. He told us, “Everything begins with the spirit. From the spirit come the thoughts. From the thoughts come the actions. From the actions come the habits. From the habits comes the character. And from the character comes the destiny.”
Stupefied by stress as I was, I sat a while wondering where on that continuum I should start trouble-shooting, until the obvious made itself clear.
Start with the spirit.
So, I thought, what could best set my spirit on the right path?
Here’s the message that came, loud and clear: “Okay, you’re a writer. But for months you haven’t been writing, which has grieved your spirit into a coma. Sure, teaching nine classes and raising kids is hard, but it’s not going to kill you. What will kill you is not writing.”
The next morning, I got up at 5 a.m. instead of 5:30, which allowed me to write for a half hour. Not much, but enough to give me the hope that comes when our lives feel in motion toward a better place. And hope is the antidote to despair.
The stuff I wrote during those half-hour sessions became crucial parts of my novel The Loud Adios. About a month after the semester ended, I sent the manuscript to a national contest.
Which meant that after too many discouraging years, I would see a new novel of mine on bookstore shelves, which can be an inspiring sight.
And between the advance and prize money, I earned enough to allow for a lighter teaching load the next two semesters, which gave me time to write without rising before dawn. And when the novel came out, the editor of a magazine that paid remarkably well called and asked if I could write features for them.
So instead of doing time as a freeway flying college instructor who squeezed in a few writing hours, I became a writer who taught only as much as he wanted to, and only because he enjoyed the work.
Which is what I had always wanted to be.
Ken Kuhlken’s stories have appeared in Esquire and dozens of other magazines and anthologies, been honorably mentioned in Best American Short Stories, and earned a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. He has been a frequent contributor and a columnist for the San Diego Reader. With Alan Russell, in Road Kill and No Cats, No Chocolate, he has chronicled the madness of book tours. His novels are Midheaven, a finalist for the Ernest Hemingway Award for best first novel, The Loud Adios (Private Eye Writers of America Best First Novel, 1989), The Venus Deal, The Angel Gang, The Do-Re-Mi (a finalist for the Shamus Award for Best PI Novel), The Vagabond Virgins, and The Biggest Liar in Los Angeles, (San Diego Book Awards Best Mystery of 2010). In Writing and the Spirit, he offers a wealth of advice to writers and everyone looking for inspiration. He is now teaching at Perelandra College, http://www.perelandra.edu. He resides on the web at www.kenkuhlken.net.
(The Killer Nashville Guest Blog series is coordinated by KN Executive Director Beth Terrell (http://www.elizabethterrell.com/). To be a part of this series, contact Beth at email@example.com.)