The writing online community has been abuzz with this recent article from Salon wherein the author discusses how a lot of writers are able to write full-time primarily because they have an outside source of financial assistance, whether that be from their spouses or their families. I love this article because I too have seen allusions to working hard and giving up other parts of your life is enough to make writing “just work.” I do think being realistic about what it takes to make a living as a writer is something we could use more of, and I think it’s harmful when young writers compare themselves with others without fully seeing their situation.
The Salon article prompted a significant number of responses, both on social media and in other venues. Two of the more interesting ones are over at Brevity.
The first, “A Word from My Sponsor” by Allison Williams (Brevity‘s social media editor) describes the author’s experiences with putting potential partners’ ability to financially support her at the top of her priorities in choosing. The article is a little unclear if she knew she was going to need that support or if it was in case of a difficult stretch. Unusual disclosure, but disclosure all the same, so I’m a fan. I was also a huge fan of a comment in response, wherein a reader remembers an “entire story collection I was directed to read in my program contained not one main character with a job.” Other comments discuss the guilt of not contributing equally financially in a relationship.
Brevity‘s managing editor then wrote a response to both pieces in which she generally agreed with the premise of disclosure but worried about the implied advice that writers should seek out partners who can financially support them. Despite being against seeking out financial support, she does make the case for at least ensuring your partner is going to able and willing to contribute equally. She cautions against sponsorship with strings and gives a success story of someone who is able to support themselves while writing. She also points out that she has only heard of women being sponsored by men – all commenters to both Brevity pieces at the moment are women, as well.
I’ll be an exception.
There’s a lot of different factors coming into play here: gender roles/dynamics, society’s ideas/images of writers/artists, guilt over uneven relationships versus not being able to pay the bills (and even more broadly emotional health versus meeting basic/nonbasic needs). It’s kind of weird that we’ve shifted to this mentality that hard work and the occasional corporate selling-out is enough; so many famous writers of history were sponsored or born into wealth (or maybe it’s not a shift at all, maybe public perception has always been at odds with the reality). I’ve openly disclosed the fact that my wife makes significantly more money than I do. We could get by if we both made my income, but our lives would be much, much different. I’ve written about overcoming the guilt of our uneven financial arrangement: part 1, part 2. Really, though, this question of finances touches way more than relationships. From here we can jump to the whole paying/nonpaying publication deal, the current nonpermanent faculty explosion, the expectation that being a good writer means that you’re also good at: teaching, editing, fundraising, and so on. It’s a tricky world out there to think about money and writing.
My two cents in the matter is that yes, we need more disclosure, because unrealistic expectations hurt everyone and only help a select few seem more sympathetic. But I also don’t think we should spend much time or energy looking at what the ideal situation/relationship for a writer should be. That doesn’t seem like a very useful discussion. Beyond that, I don’t know. Sometimes I feel guilty over publishing things I’m not paid for, because that perpetuates the practice. Sometimes I’m thankful my MFA program makes me teach. Sometimes I feel guilt over the summer writing programs I attended, and sometimes I feel guilt that I don’t feel like I can apply for them this year (this is like double guilt: I don’t feel like I can responsibly spend the money on them and I simultaneously don’t feel like I can responsibly apply for the financial aid to attend). Sometimes I wonder what would happen if my wife woke up one day and decided she hated her current career path and wanted to switch to something less lucrative and with a long start up time, just like I did six years ago.
Today is also Groundhog’s Day, which means we should celebrate that crossover of Borges-ish fiction with Bill Murray deadpan: Groundhog’s Day.
Finally, check out an essay I wrote that was born out of a frustration with the perpetual division between so-called literary fiction and genre fiction: “How to Write Like George R. R. Martin“
I had a few conversations/emails about my last blog entry, which was unusual, so I’d like to expound on the subject a bit more.
In my last blog entry I discussed being our household’s secondary income. I focused primarily on looking at what benefits our household gains by having me working primarily from home and with flexible hours. I did this in the context of the occasional feelings of guilt I had experienced over being the secondary income, especially in the wake of the decision to spend three more years in graduate school pursuing an MFA. Ultimately, by being aware of the benefits we gain and by being aware of what we value and want out of life, I’ve overcome that guilt for the most part.
Something I didn’t clarify, which I’d like to do, is that I’m not thinking about this in terms of gender norms. When I say that I occasionally felt guilt about our disproportionate income, instead I meant guilt over not contributing equally to our finances as half of a 30ish-year-old couple. It’s also a little more than that – there’s the guilt of knowing that if Carolina has any feelings about dissatisfaction with her particular job or a desire to go back to school, that she is obligated to place those feelings on hold (to a certain extent) for the seven years that will make up me finishing my BA and getting my MA and now MFA. So, inequality over finances, inequality over opportunities and freedom.
Another thing that I didn’t really explore (but did mention) is the idea of transitioning from IT to academia, and more specifically transitioning from the expected salary path of IT versus academic work (especially in light of having had ~5 years of IT experience for the former and choosing to go through ~7 years of grad school for the latter). This transition is something that I’ve more than accepted, though. As I mentioned in the last post, happiness has a cost associated with it, and with that in mind, I’m well in the black.
I first went to undergrad at 16. I wasn’t ready for it, I didn’t do well, I was dealing with other stuff in my life that stopped me from really taking advantage of my time there. The same goes for my second and third years, at 18 and 19 respectively. It wasn’t until I had grown up a little and went back to school that I was able to experience the joy that learning and being a part of a learning community can bring. Growing up, I loved school, and it wasn’t until school became about things other than learning in upper middle and high school that I started having problems (for more on this, see “A Gifted Education”).
There’s a lot of factors at play, though. I remember reading a discussion about the executive that quit his job and started the Cambodian Children’s Fund. Someone in the discussion pointed out that if the guy really wanted to do the most good for the nonprofit, he could’ve stayed at his job as an executive and made more money with which to fund the organization’s efforts. I see similar thoughts from people who want to pursue the most lucrative careers in order to retire early–essentially, people who view a job or a career as little more than a paycheck. The truth, of course, is something a little bit deeper. Journey, outweighing the end goal and all that. There’s also an element of trying to live in the present, as we can’t account for the future.
In the end, I guess you could sum up this thought exercise with me having done a post-mortem analysis of my transition into academia as part of my decision to sign up for three more years of grad school, and I’ve found the pros vastly outweighing the cons.
Outside Reading/Further Thoughts: Last year when CNBC ignited a firestorm among angry bloggers by putting University Professor at the top of a clickbait slideshow entitled “The 10 Least Stressful Jobs for 2013,” (not directly linking as it’s got no substance) people were quick to point out how being expected to love your job came at a cost. I won’t point out any specifics, but you should peruse some of them. I guess I’m hurting the cause, in my case. Doubly so, as I also write stuff that gets published without being paid for it. That’s a discussion for later, as I haven’t entirely wrapped my head around how I feel about it. Here’s an article that covers some of it, though.
I’m approaching the 5th anniversary of a big turning point in my life, when I quit my job in the IT sector in order to return to college and finish my undergraduate degree in English. Two years later, at age 26, I graduated from Southwestern University with a BA in English. The year after, I worked in the IT department at SU, and the year after that I began the master’s program for Rhetoric and Composition at Texas State. Now, in two and a half weeks, I’ll be graduating from that program, and I’ve made the commitment to continue on for three more years of grad school for an MFA. It’s been quite the ride.
Dropping out of an IT career that was about as unsatisfying as it could get in order to pursue what I’ve wanted to do for most of my life (write, teach writing) has been a 100% positive experience. Ask anyone who knows me; I’m happier and healthier (on the complete psychosocialphysio spectrum) than at any other phase in my adult life.
That said, there has been one aspect of this transition that does occasionally pop up and induce tiny tremors of guilt and anxiety. The transition from IT to grad school has also meant a transition from being a two income household to an effectively single income (cost of university and employment during university have roughly equaled out). This is something my wife (Carolina) and I have talked about and are both comfortable with in theory, but in practice it was still pinching at me every now and then. Recently, though, I’ve started thinking about it in different ways, and I think I’ve finally made peace with it, and I want to share some of that thought process. Some of this might seem kind of obvious, and I would agree. I know there are things that I was telling myself a while back but didn’t really sink in until lately.
Cash flow is more than a paycheck. “Working” is a weird concept for me these days. I work set hours in the Writing Center and in classes, but my other work (writing, submitting) comes in 2-4 hour blasts at different times in the day, at different points in the week (and, of course, this fluctuates heavily). Then there’s the things that are borderline work: reading books, articles, and websites related to my research and writing topics. Add this all together and you get a number of “working hours” that is probably close to the standard 45ish hours. My hours, though, are flexible, and while other people in academia may disagree, I don’t get to the end of a day of work feeling exhausted like I have at past jobs (not counting days where class ends at 9:30pm and is followed by an hour commute home). This leads me to being able to do things that save/make money that I would not be able to (or not want to) do in a traditional job. A few examples: I cook. A lot. Lately, I even make our granola (which doesn’t really save money, but it tastes better and is healthier/more ethical). Cooking is a great pairing with writing, because your kitchen can be ten feet away from your workspace, and you can keep turning over your topic in your head while stirring a pot. When Carolina and I were both working in IT, we ate out 2-3 lunches a week and 2-3 dinners a week, and a lot of that was a feeling of not having enough time. (Big aside here – we still had free time, but the limitations of that free time [tiredness, limited daylight hours to get things done] pushed things like cooking off the priority list.) Now, we eat out maybe twice a week, and we get to be very choosy about when and where we go, because we’re eating out for pleasure, not convenience (not to mention the long-term cost savings by being healthier). Besides our food, there were other things we were outsourcing but no longer do, such as minor car repairs, lawn care, tax prep, etc., as well as things we’ve encountered since I’ve started that we might have outsourced under different circumstances (financial planning, minor home repairs).
Time is money and so is happiness. Above, I limited the examples to things that save us money. Saving time and adding happiness to our lives are just as important and just as possible. Anything I get done during the day while Carolina is at work is one less thing we have to spend our leisure/off/together time doing. We don’t have to use our lunch hours to get oil changes. We don’t have to (but we still do, sometimes, of course) fight the 5:30 crowd at the grocery on our way home from work. We can cut back on how much of our weekends get dedicated to laundry and errands. If we need someone to come to the house for a service, I don’t have to take a day off to be home for it. Same for pick ups or drop offs at the airport. Our dog gets walked more, probably a lot more, than she would otherwise. It opens up a lot and makes us more flexible, and this isn’t even beginning to account for the amount of happiness that the career shift itself has given me.
Not all of this has to do with a career shift or even a career at all. Part of it has just been getting in a mindset of thinking about (or altering how I think about) what I spend my time doing, what my time is worth, and what I’m achieving when I do something. Part of it is being very cognizant about my values and how my day to day life is matching those values. Part of it is seeing the people around me who are happy and the people around me who are unhappy and looking at what is shaping that. As far as the whole financial aspect, a shout out to /r/personalfinance (smaller shout outs to the more hit-or-miss related subreddits of /r/financialindependence and /r/frugal) and related sites that got me thinking about this. And, of course, I can’t end this without mentioning how awesome my wife is for being amazingly supportive and how important having communication is in a relationship.
I’m really curious to see how the movement to encourage opting out of standardized testing will go (FairTest, Seattle teachers, United Opt Out). I purposefully failed the standardized test administered to me in 9th grade, primarily out of defiance, and while I’m not sure if the short-term losses of large groups opting out is worth the long-term benefits (I hope they are but am unsure), it’s an accomplishable idea in a larger discussion about education reform that’s primarily theoretical.
Another cool idea I’ll be watching is the organization Sponsor Change which is organizing sponsors to make payments on student loans in exchange for “volunteer” work.
In Spanish the word for “to hunt” is almost the same as the word for “to marry” (cazar/casar). While this has its own set of interesting implications for relationships, it always comes to mind when I think of the phrase “job hunting.”
I’m supposed to graduate in four months, which means that I’m not too far from needing to be gainfully employed myself. I would say it’s hard not to be discouraged by the prospect, but that would be lying. Yes, it’s true, I am inundated with negative statistics on every side: The ever-increasing percentage of academic teaching positions held by adjunct professors, the bottom rung of the academic ladder I hold by chasing an MA in the humanities, the apparent duty I have as someone who may or may not be part of the so-called millennial generation (Pew Research says I am) to complain about not being able to find a job, and finally, the geographic factor of “158 people moving to Austin every day” (a fact that’s cited in a few dozen articles but I can’t find a source for other than the name Mark Sprague).
Add onto this the fact that I don’t have the option of moving for a job and I hit pretty much every common sad story. Thankfully, I don’t have to deal with the dreaded “two-body problem.”
But I’m making myself stay optimistic. After all, most of my friends are doing what they want to do, even if they are having to do it or had to do it on a much smaller scale/payscale than they had hoped. Hell, even my friend in journalism got a promotion recently (insert journalism dying joke here)! Also, I’m getting started early, and feel a lot better prepared/confident than I did the last few times I needed to do serious job searches.
That said, I fully anticipate not having a full-time job lined up come this fall. It would be nice, and there are several I’m planning on applying for, but I’m fine with doing some combination of teaching/writing/editing on lots of part-time bases. As far as teaching, I’d like to end up at Austin Community College as that’s the place I have the best shot of transitioning into something full-time (and the best writing class in my memory was a night class at a junior college). I’ve also applied for some interesting positions, like being the writer-in-residence at Exeter Academy. That job would be awesome – I was initially worried about my qualifications, but looking at their past candidates, my publication history is on par if not better. Main difference is that every one of them got an MFA, not an MA. So we’ll see. Finally, I’ve also reapplied to an MFA program, just to keep my options open.
A few thoughts on selecting a teaching position: Larger universities generally offer better opportunities for research and to focus, but it takes a long time to take advantage of those opportunities. There’s a married pair of professors I’m familiar with who teach a similar subject matter but one’s at Texas State and one’s at Southwestern University, and the one who is at SU (a SLAC) says his favorite thing about teaching there is most years he has a chance to teach a class on pretty much anything, thanks to the flexibility. Personally, I’m drawn to community colleges for a similar reason to why I’m drawn to writing centers – informal setting, and students who show up generally have a desire to be there. I have no intention of being heavily involved in research, which is a further positive for community colleges: they won’t emphasize the need for academic publications as much, and my nonacademic publications might have more weight.
So there it is. My hopeful, pregame show. We’ll see where I’m at come July, eh?
Outside content: BOOK REVIEWS! I reviewed Daniel Alarcón‘s At Night We Walk in Circles for the Fiction Advocate. My buddy John Savage reviewed Diane Ravitch‘s Reign of Error for The Texas Observer. Also, is the current culture of people like me doing book reviews for free everywhere too scared of writing negative book reviews? The New Yorker ponders this.