This past week, I moved to Wilmington, North Carolina in order to pursue an MFA in Creative Writing at UNC-Wilmington. In the months before making this move, I made my rounds in announcing my decision to friends and family. Often, questions such as “So, what do you want to be? What are you going to do with that degree?” were the first words out of people’s mouths. In other words, “What the heck are you going to do with your life? How can a writing degree possibly get you a real job?”
To answer to these questions, I have found myself resorting to the practical response. I tell them I want to go into the publishing industry; I want to be an editor or work for a publishing house. It sounds reasonable and maybe slightly glamorous. Much more so than what I actually would like to do.
I want to be a full-time writer. I want to sit at my desk or in a coffee shop for hours on end and pound out stories and novels, maybe even essays and poems. I want to hunch over my computer screen at 4 a.m., editing the most brutally frustrating sections of prose until they sing. I want to drink coffee and write and write and write.
This, to the average listener, may sound like another way of saying, “I want to be impoverished. I want to live without any sort of steady income.” And perhaps this is not inaccurate. Not many people can make it as full-time writers, unless they publish hugely successful books. Stephen King and J.K. Rowling come to mind, but mostly as exceptions to the general rule: One cannot make a living writing.
But there are many lesser-known authors who do writing and writing alone for a living. Perhaps they freelance to supplement income or get teaching gigs at major universities. But their main job, their vocation and focus, is working on their art.
I want to practice my art, and if living on the edge of poverty is the price I have to pay, so be it. It has taken time for me to come to this conclusion, but a little post-Calvin life experience has helped me to realize the importance of writing in my life.
I spent this past year working as a barista in a local Grand Rapids coffee shop, Common Ground. While the pay was poor and there were never enough hours available, I found the experience wholly fulfilling. I learned a couple of important facts about myself through working part time in the food service industry.
First, I am an irrevocable extrovert. This can make it difficult to sit at a desk for hours on end with no company save the words on the page. What I loved about Common Ground was the social interaction, from seeing regulars every day to meeting newcomers to the coffee shop.
Second, I learned that I need structure. More than anything, I thrive on deadlines. Over this past year, it became increasingly difficult for me to achieve my writing goals without the artificial structure of class schedules and deadlines. For this reason, I am excited about beginning an MFA program. I feel that the structure and rigor of the program will help me to become a more disciplined writer. However, I also fear the time when I leave the classroom for good. Will I be able to discipline myself after graduate school?
With these two facts in hand, I have come to a conclusion about the kind of life I want to lead and the work I want to do. It is important that, as my life continues and changes, I never lose sight of my vocation as a writer. But, as Professor Felch has reminded me time and again, my vocation will not necessarily be what pays the bills. Job and vocation are two different things.
Perhaps I could go into the publishing industry, as I so often tell people I want to do. But I’m not so sure that that is the best option for my extroverted personality. Also, having an intensely intellectual day job might deplete my stamina for the mentally taxing work of writing. So, what would I want to do instead? This is a question I (and all would-be writers) need to ponder because, while there are writers out there who make a living on their art alone, most of us have to supplement somehow. I have come up with a list of various options for myself based on my need for social interaction and discipline:
1. Food service: Obviously, this fulfills my need for social interaction. In addition, with a full time job in food service, as opposed to part time, I would have more structured days, necessitating more intentional writing time.
2. Childcare/teaching: Many writers teach as well as write. I could see myself doing this, be it at the college level or by simply working at a daycare.
3. Social services: Depending on the emotional rigor of the job, this could be a good option, not only for the social interaction, but for the wealth of life experience (as well as potential inspiration for writing) that it would provide.
And I’m sure that there are more options yet to be considered.
I’m sure there are many people out there like me. We are writers who want to write. But the urge to be practical is not an invalid one. It is difficult, if not nearly impossible, to make a living by writing and writing alone. Perhaps in order to be a writer, one needs to have the time and energy to sit down and write, as well as the humility to take a job in a non-related field. I am still trying to figure all of this out. Thankfully, I have time. And I have faith, perhaps blind faith, that in wanting something strongly enough and having the discipline to pursue it, I will achieve it. Maybe I’m naïve. Probably I am. But there’s still that off chance that I’m not. I choose to put my faith in that.
Bethany Tap (’12) received her MFA in creative writing from the University of North Carolina Wilmington, where she also worked as the managing editor of Chautauqua: the literary journal of the Chautauqua Institution. She is currently working on her first novel. She lives in Wilmington, North Carolina, with her wife, Clarissa, and son, Alexander.
I hear what you’re saying about working in publishing — I find that after working with books all day at work I have little of the right kind of energy left for writing other things. Also, I’ve never worked in a place as quiet as it is here — perfect for my introverted personality; probably less perfect for other types of people.
I also work in publishing and it can be draining to revise catalog copy and read bad submissions all day – sometimes it does make me very tired of words. But working on my own stuff can also be a really refreshing change of pace. It’s definitely a balance to find. There are also other aspects of publishing, like marketing, that would be better for an extroverted personality. (Not me!)
I do have a friend who worked with me in editorial while writing a YA novel at night. Basically all she did was work and write. Then she sold the novel and quit her job and now spends her time writing.
Confession: I actually think your picture of being a full-time writer sounds slightly glamorous. Or at least appealing.
I’ve heard of several writers (I think they were even poets, God love them), who sat down and made a list of everything that they could do without, in order to follow their dream of writing full-time. (Pretty sure it was Mary Oliver and Nikki Giovanni? Anyway, they became superstars.) When writing matters that much, you can find a lot of things that you can go without. Besides, coffee is cheap, and words are beautiful. It’s a good life, right?