The Official Website of Author Ashley Cowger
The Life Gradebook
April 9, 2016
Share this article:
category. It’s a holistic approach to happiness: instead of focusing on work or money or marriage or whatever, he averages out his overall grade, just like an academic GPA. As soon as I heard about Short’s system, I modified it for my own purposes.
While Short, I think, is mainly interested in self-improvement—part of his gradebook involves keeping close tabs on his weight, for example, to keep his eating and exercise in check—the idea of a life gradebook appealed to me mainly as a way of keeping things in perspective. I struggle with depression and negativity, and while antidepressants and therapy help, I thought it would be a good idea to institute a way of forcing myself to look continually at the big picture and not get too caught up in the things that aren’t going as well as I want them to.
See, I have a problem of motivating myself through negativity. It’s how I motivate myself to stay in shape. I tell myself I’m fat and worthless, that I lack self-control if I eat that potato chip or indulge in a mocha with whole milk and whip. When I was living in Alaska, I passed out one time at a hair salon. I was restricting my calories so much that the act of getting my eyebrows done and then walking to the register to pay was too much for my body to handle, and I started having seizures.
It’s how I motivate myself to write, too.
After my first semester in grad school, looking down the barrel of a long, dark winter in the far north, I told myself I was a fraud and a failure, that I wasn’t a real writer and never would be unless I started to write for at least three hours a day, every day. And the thing is, it worked. I started writing every day. I started getting published. I signed the contract to publish my first book one year after earning my MFA.
Motivating myself with negativity—it worked. If the alternative was to admit I’m a big fat zero, I did whatever I had to do to convince myself otherwise. The only problem is that, even when you do the things you’re trying to get yourself to do, you still feel lousy. If I wrote for a couple hours one day, I’d get on myself for not writing longer. If I wrote for three hours one day, I’d feel like I was only doing what I should do, so it didn’t make me feel good. It’s like brushing your teeth—you don’t applaud yourself for doing it; why would you? Of course you brushed your teeth this morning. You’re supposed to brush your teeth.
And if I spent time, instead, say, going out to dinner with my husband, I didn’t recognize that as time well-spent. If I watched a movie, if I spent extra time planning a lesson, if my husband was having a bad day and I turned my computer off to give him my full attention—any time not spent writing was wasted time, as far as I was concerned, and instead of making my life better, all the pressure I was putting on myself about writing was making my life way, way worse.
Then I found out I was pregnant—the same week my first book came out, which was also the same week I turned thirty. It was a planned pregnancy, but I didn’t really understand how busy my life was about to become. Writing quickly took a back seat to parenting, as well it should have. Can you imagine a parent so terrible that their writing is more important to them than their child?
But because my image of myself was almost solely dependent on my productivity as a writer, I sunk into a deep depression about not writing enough. The fact that I was responsible for the welfare and development of a human being was apparently not a sufficient excuse. If I wasn’t writing, I may as well not be breathing. Anybody could be a parent, I reasoned. That was just a thing that lots of people did. It wasn’t something to be proud of. It didn’t make me special or worthwhile.
And that’s how I reached the point where, a few months ago, a therapist urged me to give myself permission not to write. “You’re more than just a writer,” she told me. The thought of a writer being qualified like that—“just”—shocked me, but it also, and I hope you’ll pardon the hyperbolic cliché, kind of set me free. I am more than a writer. I’m a seamstress. I’m a zombie enthusiast. I’m an avid comedy fan. I’m a teacher. Nobody could be a very good writer if all they were was a writer, and, honestly, they wouldn’t be a very interesting person either.
So adopting Martin Short’s life gradebook seemed like the perfect way to remind myself of those other things that matter. Some days I might not write, but maybe, instead, I spend time with my daughter. Maybe I get busy with grading or lesson planning. Or maybe I just feel like watching a movie. Sometimes, watching a movie is important. Sometimes, watching a movie keeps me sane.
My gradebook consists of seven categories: family, writing, creative outlets (non-writing ones, like sewing and playing piano), entertainment (because watching TV and movies, listening to music and podcasts, these things make me happy; these things matter), wellbeing (which includes physical health as well as social health as gauged by meaningful relationships with friends and extended family), career, and finances (because, unfortunately, if my finances are a wreck, then so is my emotional state).
I give myself a letter grade in each category, and each letter grade is assigned a number of points (an A = 4 points, a B = 3, a C = 2, a D = 1, and an F = 0). Once each category is graded, I add up the points. My goal is to earn a B average, or 21 points. So maybe I haven’t been writing much, maybe it averages out because I got an A in family and entertainment. Maybe I spent a lot of time sewing or playing piano, and that makes up for not having finished that story I was working on this week, or that novel chapter I had planned on revising. If my GPA is low, that’s a sign that my overall emotional health is not going to be great, but if my grades average out to a reasonable score, there’s no point in getting caught up in any one category.
My most recent report card averaged out to 21 points, a B average—right on target! No, I don’t have a 4.0, and no, I’m not writing as much as I used to when I motivated myself the other way. But I’m writing for the right reasons, now, and I think I still write plenty, either way. And more important, I’m much happier and healthier all around. Writing no longer feels like a burden, like a curse. You know that old saying: “Being a writer means you have homework every night for the rest of your life”? Well it doesn’t feel like homework anymore. It feels creative again, fun. Writing is once again a release, a meaningful part of my life, not just another “have to.”
In his book, I Must Say: My Life as a Humble Comedy Legend, Martin Short describes his life grading system, which involves dividing the important aspects of life into categories and regularly assigning himself a grade in each