I have worked any number of odd jobs to sustain myself in NYC: rollerskating host in an Upper West Side restaurant, IT Helpdesk Agent, Software Trainer, and a retail promotional model. All have been instructive in human nature, and constant reminders of who I am and why I need to remained focused on my life's work as an artist. I thought I'd relocate to the East Coast and work for few years on and around off-Broadway and Broadway as an actor, and then segue into writing for the stage and screen, from my garden office in my comfortable Harlem brownstone. Reality soon set in, and I realized I had to get a job while I figured out the specifics of attaining not only real estate, but a life's work that I could proud of. It's too easy for some writers to give up and make a career out of anything else to save face and keep those wolves at bay. I knew I'd risk everything (well, almost) to be a writer when two separate supervisors gave me verbal warning for either writing in my notebook in my lap or toggling screens to jot down ideas. The second had such disdain in my face and voice, "Yeah, you're writing your great American novel over there." And so it goes.
Perhaps it is best to Have Money, as they say: a trust fund, an inheritance, a rich spouse or partner, or one with a job that pays better, a lot better, than writing does, who is also very understanding. Or, if you have none of these, exactly, but a family, let's say, that is wealthy, and you can get your hands on some of that wealth by being indispensable, that can work, too. That is what I did. So that I could write.
After working for years at my father's sale barn (washing pigs, chasing pigs, driving cattle, scooping shit, hammering boards, sweeping the arena), after attending college, doing a work-study job for the National Veterinary Service Lab in Ames ($6.00/hour, in the late 70's, and I learned to play cribbage!), waiting tables, tending bar, running off to Colorado (the first time), falling on my face, coming back to Ames, graduating from college, tending more bar, working as a chimney sweep for a while, moving to Iowa City, tending more bar, becoming a nursing assistant, doing some training in massage, and finally, for ten years, working as an organ and tissue procurement specialist for the University of Iowa Transplant Program, where I got paid very well, and had fantastic benefits, I decided, not long after my father died in 1992, to quit my job and write, as they say, full-time. This is something you can do in Iowa City and not necessarily feel as if you've totally lost your mind. Not immediately, at least.
I continued to take out tissues for my old program and the Lion's Eye Bank on a per diem basis for another two years. I lived on sixteen thousand dollars in 1994, less than a third of what I made before I quit my full-time job (and roughly the amount I spent last year on medical bills and health care premiums). I applied to the Iowa Writer's Workshop and was rejected. After that, I suffered a nasty bout of insomnia. I was riding my bike twenty, thirty miles a day and still couldn't sleep, couldn't think, couldn't write. I'd quit my job to follow my dream and now, by all accounts, I was depressed. I got a physician I knew to write me a prescription for an anti-depressant—off the record, so my health care premiums wouldn't jump (little did I know what they would one day jump to, even with a perfect record!)—and started to sleep again. I remember thinking: So this is what happy people feel like! Of course there were some side effects: it would have taken a team of very skilled whores to get me off during those days, but Jesus, the focus I had. But I digress.
I decided, then, after meeting the woman I would eventually marry, in Halifax, that I needed to get out of Iowa City. As I told Donna, my future wife: I'm not so crazy as to move to another country for a woman, but I'm close. And Halifax seemed like a fine place to live and be writer—an ex-pat writer from the States (who hadn't published a thing yet, who then got rejected from Bennington, but never mind).
I lived like a gentleman in Halifax, on about thirty thousand a year—advances on my inheritance. I finagled the same for my sister, to keep it fair. I flew back and forth to see to our family's farm, the finances, my mom (I had to do something for thirty thousand a year), who gradually got used to the idea that I wasn't going to leave her in the lurch, that I might have been a bit eccentric, but I hadn't lost my mind. I was functionally eccentric. I had fun, but I took care of business, and her, and especially my sister, who Was crazy. And I wrote for six hours every day. During the two winters I spent up there, I read all the Russian Masters. My Russian winters, as Donna still calls them.
And then my sister got into more trouble, of a kind that was irrevocable, severe enough that, in short order, she would lose her children to the state. This I found out by way of a phone call from Donna, who had got a call from my mother, while I was down having a cigar with my friends, a thing we did every Thursday night, at Tom's Little Havana (where you can't smoke anymore) in Halifax.
My sister was living in Loveland, Colorado, at the time. Along with raising her two sons, ages seven and nine, she was shooting up crystal meth; her boyfriend, who would die of hepatitis shortly after he got out of prison, was cooking the stuff up in their apartment. They'd been busted twice before. The cops had let them go those times (in order to catch more people next time), but not this time. I had warned my sister a year earlier, not long after she'd finished drug treatment at a facility I'd got her into in Chicago, that if she fucked up anymore and lost her kids and figured I'd raise them, she'd better think again. But of course, when it finally happened, there wasn't anyone else. My mother was nearly eighty years old by then, and the boys' father had died in a car accident years earlier. His brother, who, to pick just one issue, couldn't read, was considering stepping up according to my sister, which struck me as being a more certain nightmare for the boys than foster care would likely be. Even though they'd likely get split up in foster care.
Or I could step in. See what Donna thought of that. We could see about getting them to come and live with us in Nova Scotia. That could be done, according to the social worker. This I found out when I, as it happened, was out in Colorado for a friend's wedding. The social worker arranged for me to see the boys. Josh, the older of the two, came up to me and gave me a hug. "Uncle Craig," he said. "I had a feeling you'd be showing up."
And that was pretty much that. I could either stay in Halifax in our three bedroom flat downtown and write for six hours a day and maybe never get published while my nephews took their chances in foster care, or I could step in.
Which is how we ended up in Colorado. Donna, whose parents had raised her nephew, decided to come with me; she had wanted to get out of Nova Scotia for some time; before any of this happened with the boys, she'd talked about the two of us moving to Colorado, but I'd insisted it was too expensive. If we moved out there I'd have to get a job, and what would be the point of that?
But now that we were raising my nephews within a long day's drive of my mother's home in Iowa, now that I was more indispensable than ever, it seemed a raise was in order. Donna worked, as she had in Halifax, and I took what I thought I needed, which turned out to be a lot more than I had needed in Iowa City or Halifax. And then we got married, finally, and decided to have children of our own, which meant we needed a bigger house. Right around the time the stock market tanked, which, thankfully—luckily—I was fairly on top of, and we survived somewhat uneventfully, except for the house flood (see: Reader's Narrative, The Residence Inn, Louisville, CO). Still, pulling thirty thousand a year from the pot was a little different than pulling thirty thousand in three months.
And then, a year later, six months after Zachary was born, Ian was diagnosed with leukemia. I remember walking out to the car after getting that news, after not praying for years, looking up at the sky, thinking, Goddamn you, you FUCK! He had better not fucking die . . .
And he didn't. He's fine now. He and his brother are making a shit load of noise as I write this. Sometimes you just need to get firm with God. The year he was the sickest was the year I saw the best I'd ever seen in people. I worry about money all the time, every day, I probably worry about money more than I think about sex, but that year I didn't worry about money. That year I said no whenever I felt like it; I got work done; when the hospital bills came I chiseled them down, as my dad would say, and paid them, and didn't worry about money, because, for the moment, I had enough, and I might have been happier that year than I ever was, the year my son almost died. Then again, it might just seem that way now, because he didn't die; he got well.
A year ago last summer I finished my book and mailed it out to my agent. My wife was about to start nursing school (my retirement program, I call her), and my hope was to get, if not a generous twenty-five thousand for my ten years of labor, maybe ten, and hope for unlikely good sales. But my agent, who is still with me, and quite supportive, said that the book didn't quite "sing" to her like she had hoped it would. In short, she said, she didn't think she could sell it as it was, but that, she was certain, I had the chops that, with a little more work, I could get it there. This state of affairs, she was quick to add, was pretty much par for the course with first novels, and so I shouldn't lose heart.
I called Donna to tell her what I had heard and she came home right away, to make sure I hadn't got into the knives (we don't own any guns). I had sold my family's land two weeks earlier: I'd got a helluva price, as they say in Iowa, what with the ethanol boom, it being a clear sunny morning on the day of the auction, which my father's old partner at the sale barn had presided over, and that might have kept me from having a nervous breakdown over the news about the book.
But I had already done the math in my head: once the taxes were paid, and everything divvied up, there wouldn't be enough to keep us going like we were, not without digging into some serious capital. Perhaps I could do that, perhaps even for a while, and Donna could work, and I could keep on writing, and not have to go out and find a job somewhere when I was sixty-four—or perhaps not. It was hard say. In any event, there would be enough for everyone else: my mom, my sister, my two adopted nephews.
The sale of the farm distressed my mother, in spite of her knowing, deep down, that the time had come to sell. I lived two states away and wasn't a farmer. There were other things I knew much better. I was the only one in the family, truth be told, that could have found the land if asked to. But selling it still upset her. Perhaps because here was another thing in her long life that was gone. Another thing of her era that had passed. She and my sister, who is doing much better now, had talked about this, and, according to my mom, my sister had eased her fears a little. About me, my sister said: "He hasn't made a mistake yet."
Which surprised me.
I thought: I might be able to use that in my book.
I thought about going back to school and getting an MFA, and then a Ph.D., last winter. I thought if I did that I might be able to get a job teaching some day, and worry a little less about money, about my young boys looking at me one day and wondering what the hell it was I really did, why they couldn't get a pile of money handed to them like I did.
But then, more recently, I thought: Fuck it. I've made it this far. When I first quit my job I figured I had three years to make it work—which I can't help but think about now and laugh. Three years, to be a writer!
Anyway, that's how it's been.
I have had some good years as a writer. By good I mean $50,000 years. And some bad years. $0 dollars. I've been a waiter, bartender, restaurant manager, dog trainer, wine salesman, teacher, and more. You do whatever you have to do. And you write. . .
I admire the courage here. I just wanted OUT after high school and a childhood with a violent alcoholic, so I went off to State U. to become an engineer. Four curriculum changes and 4 years later I was off to the corporate world and more “residual stress” (an engineering term also, folks). Being a “wonderer” with an excess of imagination (since childhood) and a disdain bordering on hatred for things routine, repetitive and mundane, the corporate straight jacket I had worked so hard to wear proved to be unbearable. But, like college, I persevered and probably have more fortune 500 companies on my resume than most. Luckily, I found a consulting gig that lasted about 18 years, then early retirement. Being an unbridled optimist, I usually recall only the best of times, and so, returned to an old employer a few years ago. I lasted 3 weeks in the cubicle before mercifully being told “it wasn’t working out” (what an understatement).
Having seen enough of "struggling to make ends meet," I never made the break from "the good life" to really try writing, notwithstanding writing groups, writing classes and writing workshops and used to berate myself for the cowardice. Today, I hope I've found peace with myself— a writing aficionado who appreciates the art and those that practice it—at almost any level.
Update: Rereading this and other's replies I thought, "Technology has certainly made life easier, but it is the arts that make it more worthwhile (Duh!). This is the kind of statement that is catnip to a cynic— if so inclined, have at it— join the ranks of the pseudo-intellectuals constantly guarding the inner sanctum of cultural correctness (Wow! What brought than on?). Maybe it's just the season (political, and therefore my mood, but I can't see, for the life of me, why this election is even close. We got what we deserved electing Bush a second time and we'll get even worse if we elect McCain, whether he and she are "ready" or not (and they're not).
I'm a working newspaper reporter trying to become a "writer" -- whatever that means. Technically, I get paid to write and to shoot photos, to record audio and to shoot videos.
I'm just starting this journalism career and wanting more than I think a daily newspaper can offer. I've waited tables, worked on a ranch, in a convenience store, cell phone sales, men's clothing, as a cable guy and five years in the Marines. Newspaper writing isn't what I expected, but it's not a bad gig. Hope I can make more of it all down the road. Hard to write more when you spend all day writing cops briefs and other assorted fodder.
I earn my living surrounded by books answering questions at the reference desk at a public library. It's good to have support from my coworkers–most of them are actually interested in what I do as a writer! (At other jobs I've had, when I mentioned I wrote fiction my coworkers' eyes glazed over and they'd nod absently and then change the subject.) Also, being in the library community can help when trying to publicize a book.
I earned an MFA and then worked a number of years as a writer, first marketing materials and then online help files for computer applications. I realized the coders and designers made more, so I transitioned to Web design and development.
The transition has been good. I just finished my first novel and have written for a number of years on various blogs and other Web sites. The computer development work pays better than any writing gig, and I don't use up my words at some day job.
I work for a small software company, heading up product design and customer care. It’s a decent living, but my true passion is writing. I’ve been in the software business since 2000, and before that, in IT working for the government. I’m burned out. Unfortunately, I can’t afford to pursue a writing career full-time (dang money!). That’s why I’ve stayed up into the wee hours of the morning and have spent long hours at Starbucks and at my desk writing my first novel. I’ve completed it, had the manuscript professionally edited, and am now in the process of finding a literary agent. If all goes well, I’ll have an agent within the next two months, a publishing contract by early next year and my book on the shelves of Barnes & Noble by spring 2010. It’s a long stretch of time but part of my 10-year plan of becoming a financially-independent author. Until then, I must continue to work my regular job to make ends meet, and sneak in extra hours to follow my true love.
As far as "experience" goes, it's tough to beat a few years in the military. I never really started writing seriously until I was already an Army veteran, married, with a BS in Engineering and a good job in same field.
I hold the philosophy that work should be exactly that. Work. As in it's something you give of yourself to society, and not necessarily something that is supposed to make "you" happy. The give and take ratio is satisfied monetarily the more you give. To pursue a career in writing is like pursuing a career in barhopping, or lovemaking. The more you "love" your career, the more selfish the pursuit is, and so there is less need to balance the give-and-take monetarily.
I am currently in a fortunate position where my wife's savings sustain the both of us. We have been living comfortably in a small rural community in eastern Canada for the past seven years while I have been writing full time. Next year my first collection of stories will be published. I have just signed with an agent who has been advising me on how to turn my novel ms. into a publishable book.
But for many years I did a number of different jobs in Montreal (my home town). I have worked as a shipper in different companies, a maintenance man for a newspaper, an animal caretaker in a university, a lens dyer in an optical company and a few factory jobs. For the seventeen years I lived in Toronto I did mostly telephone jobs selling ads, booking models, telemarketing, taking messages for an answering service, which later became a call center.
Friends would sometimes ask me why I didn't try to get work by writing book or record reviews or articles for magazines. At the time I rationalized that if I did non-writing jobs I would be reserving my juice for the writing that mattered to me.
But when I read the stories that I have been publishing in the small literary mags for the past seven years, I see that many of them are based on some of these jobs or experiences I've had during the time I was doing them. And all those years I spent on the phones definitely helped with my ability to write dialogue. In retrospect, I can see how it has all been a kind of apprenticeship for the situation I find myself in now.
When I was in high school I asked one of my English teachers what I needed to do to become a writer. He looked at me very seriously and said "You need to suffer." I could see in his eyes that he spoke from experience. That scared me . . .
I wish I could find him now and thank him. I believe he was telling me I had to get out and experience the world, which is what I did. He didn't treat me like a stupid high school kid. He gave me the real information as he would any adult. If it scared me away from wanting to be a writer, then so be it. And in fact it did for a while. But not for good. I will always be grateful to him.
Craig, have you considered writing a memoir? You have a compelling story. I remember that at 19, I gave myself until 25 to make it as a singer/songwriter. Ha. In any case, I have become a writer, a singer of sorts, and it took so much longer. Anyway your account moved me; just wanted to let you know. (I think I have a poem or two somewhere on this site.)
Kim, thank you for your remarks—and you actually have a short story on this site, a quite good one, I should add, and are featured right there at the top on the drop down menu beneath the Archives. I, too, have a piece in there (but have not yet made it onto the drop down menu)—a novel excerpt, "Uncle Peter"—that you may want to look at, since, by my reckoning, it is about 47% memoir, though my sister, after she read it, thought it was even more than that. Anyway, as you know, it is always heartening to hear that someone has responded to your work, that we are not writing for a black hole, as it were, as it often feels. I wish you the best, continuing on with your own fine words, and again, thank you for the supportive words.
I'm still young -- incredibly young- and I'm reading this piece and all the different comments, wondering the whole time if I really want writing to be a part of my life. So many writers are so much more than they appear, it seems. I've never had much of a rosy outlook on writing as a career, but I've never taken the time to really look at the grit of it.
I'm unpublished -- which is a terribly conflicting place to be- but I can't curb my craving to put my work out in a proper way. I'm taking 19 credits at a community college, two other side classes, and working part-time as a fry-cook at a small town fast-food diner. I'm young, and I'm scared. I'm reading these stories of near-financial crisis and thinking that this is what I'm trying to be. I'd love to dream about some million dollar book deal, but it seems that good writing isn't publicly acceptable on such a scale, and if I were honest with myself, I know that I don't expect to make money off my writing. Even then, to classify writing as a hobby would be the end of some significant part of my soul. And so I plan to become a nurse, then a doctor, and eventually a surgeon, and I intend to write the entire way, and when my profession provides me with the basics of what I need (on both a spiritual and fiscal level), I will fulfill my desire to name myself, first, as a writer.
I'm one of those (once) young writers who got an MFA from Brown University in 1987. At that time, I really thought I would "become" a writer. I had written stories and poems since I was 9 years old and being "a writer" was my dream. The MFA program was a great time to write, read, critique and be critiqued. But there was no training in the real world -- in what it means to be a writer in the real world. All I knew was that teaching is what a "respectable" writer does to make a living. I did that on the college and high school level for a couple of years. Then I wrote a novel (unpublished), had a child, wrote two children's books (published), raised my child, wrote some poetry (published) and tried to go back to teaching. By then an MFA in Creative Writing was no longer a good enough teaching credential. To compete with all the other writer/teachers out there, one had to have a Ph.D. in Creative Writing. . . . I thought I had earned the highest degree offered in my field. I thought that was my official ticket to working as a writer for life. Looking back, I wish I had actually gone for a "normal degree" like a true teaching certificate, or a business degree. The fact is, though I have the best education of anyone I know, from top schools, I have always earned the least amount of money and been the least "marketable." Even as a published author, it's still hard to get work through my agent to an editor. The pay is truly ridiculous. . . . I cannot make a living as a writer. But it is the only thing I am trained to do - to write and to teach writing. It is also something I love to do. I love words. I love forming them into stories. I love sharing a vision, experience, feeling with others. But I also know that I was not told the truth about this career by other writers and teachers. I have had to learn it myself over the past twenty years. So I always try to tell my students the truth. Yes, you can become anything you want -- even a writer. You might even be a "success" and get published. But it is very unlikely that you will be paid well or at all for your work. I have published many poems, in small journals, that few people have ever seen. My payment is usually one copy of the magazine. I have a stack of them in my studio. Some day, I hope, my grandchildren will find them and read a poem I wrote and maybe feel a little guidance or connection to me. I have had the joy of watching children thrill when they meet me ". . . the lady who wrote the 'fairy book'." I have helped many students find their own voice in writing. But I have not felt valued as a writer in this society because this society shows that it values a person's work by paying that person money. All the recognition and ego stroking in the world will not pay the mortgage, or help an ailing parent, or buy groceries. Make art for art's sake, but don't think of it as a paying career. Do it because it moves you. Do it even though it doesn't pay you well. Do it even after you've worked an eight hour day and are exhausted. Do it out of love. That's what the reader responds to in the end anyway. If there is love in the work, the work will be loved. That's what keeps me at it . . .
Some places, you do get the truth. I studied at Arizona, when Vance Bourjaily was there. I was in awe of Bourjaily, because Mailer had mentioned him in one of his books. At our first conference, to impress him with my modesty and sensibleness, I told him I had no dreams of glory--just wanted to earn a living from my writing. Of course, I was speaking to a living, breathing counter-example to that whole fantasy. I could tell that I had offended him. He simply said, "Well, I can't!"
Upon graduating from college with a degree in English (a course of study I still somehow feel I was tricked into, talked into . . .) I had romantic ideas of what I could do to make money while I did what I really wanted to do, which was to write.
I had the idea that I could live on top of a mountain as a fire look-out. Then I had the idea that I could work in a halfway house for people with mental illness. I had this very specific image in mind of loading a dishwasher and then going off to sit with Foucault, whom I was pretty taken with at the time -- I'd just sit there with a fat book in front of my face.
I went in to interview for just such a job in Albany, New York. I had it all worked out. But the woman interviewing me told me she had this other job, a job that was similar to the one I'd come in for but was certainly far more interesting. I said, OK, why not, I'll take that one. Little did I know.
I was twenty years old and suddenly responsible for a caseload of people all suffering with mental illness, all at different levels of self-sufficiency. I spent a year and a half driving to one apartment after another, counting out medications, fighting with psychiatrists, tearing my hair out over mind boggling volumes of paperwork, and witnessing the horrors of mental illness, bureauocracy, and apathetic "care workers," and all the other challenges that my clients, whom I loved, faced regularly.
I went a little crazy myself and needed to get out. So I went to Oregon, more or less on a whim, because I didn't know anything about Oregon except that it seemed this mysterious, mist filled place, and the winters wouldn't be so bad. I worked in a residence for homeless teenagers. I was supposed to be doing administrative stuff-- grant writing, recruiting volunteers. I probably spent more time playing monopoly with the kids and giving one girl I was especially fond of driving lessons.
It didn't really take. In Albany I'd gone an astounding nine months without writing. That wasn't because I was too busy (though I was) or didn't want to (I did). I simply didn't seem to be able to. In Oregon I was not very interested in my job. I was disappointed with it. I was interested in writing, and I was living in a town where it cost almost nothing to live. I could have rented an apartment for $250. I fantasized about living in this Oregon town and working in a truck stop, doing dishes, and writing. I went and applied for a job at a truck stop. The manager looked like Burt Reynolds. He wore dark sunglasses inside the already dark restaurant. I think he may have been smoking a cigar. I handed him my application. He never called.
I moved to Seattle. Seattle seemed like a place you go to be a writer. I got a job like the one I'd originally wanted. I worked in supportive housing for homeless people. To live there you had to be three out of four things: chronically homeless, HIV positive, mentally ill, addicted to drugs. It was perfect. I worked four to midnight, sat at the front desk and read my fat books. I talked to the residents. I watched movies with them. I was close to the downtown library and on my break would sometimes go to a reading there. I saw Edward P. Jones, Barbara Kingsolver, Sherman Alexie. Other times I would walk down the hill and sit at Elliot Bay Bookstore -- the best bookstore in the world -- and write. Or I'd sit outside on the steps of some mysterious office building, across the street from an open air restaurant, and listen to jazz while I ate my burrito. I made $9 an hour and lived in a room with a hotplate in a lovely building with gardens that cost $450 a month.
It was in Seattle that I figured out how to be a writer. It was there that I came to know there was no other option. I wrote all the time. For the longest time I didn't have any friends, so I was alone all of the time, and I'd go to bookstores and pizza places and parks and sit and write. I was lonely, but it was magical.
Then I moved to NYC. I'd lived in Brooklyn as a kid and had always wanted to return. It's the only place that's ever felt like home. And so here I am. I got another job in supportive housing, but it's not like Seattle. I'm doing administrative stuff again. I make $30k and pay over a thousand a month in rent. I have no idea how this works, but I've been here doing it for over a year. I write on the weekends, not as much as I did in Seattle, but in a different way. In Seattle I scribbled everything in notebooks, everything that was inside of me went on to the paper. Now, I try to construct things. I think it's working.
I'm usually broke. I can't pay all of my bills all of the time, I have to pick and choose, so my credit is suffering. My phone constantly gets shut off because I haven't paid it. I eat ramen noodles far too often. Usually at some point in the month I'm living on coins and the kindness of friends.
If I lived somewhere else it wouldn't have to be like this, I know. If I lived somewhere else I could afford to have a job where I would sit with a book and load a dishwasher. But, here I am, it's where I want to be, so I'll do what I have to do; I'm trying, anyway, to stay here and write, and I'll never stop trying.
I agree that as writers we have to begin our writing lives doing something other than writing. I knew from a very young age I wanted to be a writer, but I also knew the writers I respected could tell good stories because they had lived a full life. They didn't merely travel or indulge themselves; they went out and felt real joy, pain, anger, and frustration. They took this understanding and created very complex and emotional stories. Consider the writing of John Steinbeck and you can tell he acquired his abilities honestly, through living a life, not merely sitting in a classroom studying for an MFA.
I loved reading all of the comments, particularly E. C. Kane; you've got it going on! Loved your descriptions of Oregon and Seattle, the vicissitudes of the writing life (I'm up! I'm down!) and your determination to stick with it. Your writing voice comes through loud and clear. I would read your stuff.
I agree with those who say it's important to go out and do some living before committing to an MFA program. I worked as a reporter for about 17 years, got my MFA towards the end of my career as a feature writer (the MFA was a low-res program, Antioch in Los Angelos) and that degree magically opened doors for me as a teacher. Did I ever think I would teach? No, absolutely not. I initially got the degree because I thought it would force me to write a book, which I did. It was published in 2004, though I never made it on Oprah. I pursued that MFA for love, not money.
Then I got mad one day at the newspaper where I worked and up and quit job my job. Not a very smart financial move, but there it is. (Journalism is great training for the long haul of "real writing").
Out of work, forget "doing it for love!" A lofty sentiment when you're employed. I needed the dough! Life is long. Things happen. After working as a non-tenure track teacher in Colorado teaching four--count 'em four--sections of English composition, I landed a job in Ohio at a small, liberal arts college with a decent teaching load, wonderful colleagues, and a very affordable housing market. (Sadly, Ohio is a hot spot right now for foreclosures.)
I try to juggle teaching journalism and creative writing and the dreaded, soul-sapping English Comp by reading good books, keeping a journal, and meeting with fellow writers. I sometimes send out my essays when I feel brave, but rejection is hard to take.
I agree with the comments made about how teaching can sap one's juices. I love my students, but I have trouble finding the energy at the end of the day to work on my stuff. At the same time, there is nothing quite like seeing young writers catch fire and get religion. But I feel hypocritical telling my students to be vigilant in their writing lives when I'm not in my own.
What is the answer? Keep chipping away at it. Write when you can. Live a life. Be honest with yourself. Respect your gifts. And do it...for love.
I have been a schoolteacher for 18 years, full time for most of it. Lately I teach high school writing and literature. I chair the English department of a private college prep school for girls. It's a satisfying, inspiring workday that makes pretty good money. During years I do not work summer sessions as well, I get lots of time off to write. I think the trick is finding the job that supports your art and leaves you with enough soul left over to write in the evenings and weekends.
Teaching isn't for everyone. Some people hate it, or see it as evidence of failure. I have a great time at work every day, and as a writer, I can commiserate with my students about the tyrrany of the blank screen. The fact that I'm practicing the craft that I'm teaching makes me more effective in the classroom.
Most years, between vacations and random Catholic school days off, I work less than half the days of the year. I have a story published in a magazine now that was inspired by my years teaching in a notoriously difficult and violent public school system. It's a pretty intense and violent piece that actually started out as a novel. Most of my fiction has nothing to do with what happens in schools, but I think it's interesting when my two worlds of work meet each other and say hello.
I'm fairly skeptical about PhD and MFA programs for students, although I do think it might be a good gig for a writer (although Lynn Freed in her Harper's article some years back describes her experience teaching as soul-destroying). While mentors and peers are good and necessary for writers, I feel much of the work that comes out of these programs has a sameness, and that the academic setting can be so rarefied and inbred young writers miss the chance to be engaged by the larger world, in both its sensuous aspects and its political and social aspects. I feel literature should return us, renewed, to engagement with the world, rather than simply bask in its own preciousness. I imagine it will always be difficult to survive as an artist and that every individual has to find his or her own way. I don't regret any of the many menial jobs I've had, although I wouldn't want to have had to do them forever. I agree with James Buchanan--craft a life, live fully, write from there.
I agree with the idea of chipping away at it. Writing has to be something you desperately want to do and will do no matter what anyone else tells you. I've never been able to support myself as a writer; instead what I've done is work for a few years and then not work for a few months. It's tough, but doable, provided you don't have too many expenses.
Was it Buddha who said, Life is suffering? Or was it struggling? Did he have writers in mind when he came to that conclusion? Well, many do, and it seems like all creative genius goes though struggle and suffering . . . We smile and touching the keyboard keys. On the screen something appears that has merit if to no one else then to our own inner searching to express the lives we are living.