Why don’t you get a real/better/higher-paying job?

“Mini pens” by Valerie Everett, used under a Creative Commons license.

Coming out of a writing retreat or conference is always difficult. The transition from being surrounded by writers who understand the struggle (of writing, of creating a life conducive to writing, of getting published) to people who don’t feels like an extreme version of jet lag. (It’s the same when I come home from a Star Wars convention and have to get back into the swing of interacting with people who won’t get my references to Thracken Sal-Solo.)

This transition is made more difficult by the fact that I often feel like it’s impossible to communicate my experiences in these spheres to the people I’m closest to. Namely, my family. To be clear, I am NOT blaming my family for this communication barrier. I’m not mad or upset at anyone I’m related to (at the moment… ;p). It’s just difficult to express certain writing things to non-writers. I could try harder. And maybe I should try harder, but I never seem to have the energy.

I can’t tell you when I first knew I wanted to be a writer. Of course at various times in my childhood I wanted to be a veterinarian, a country music star, a NASCAR driver, and the first woman to land on the moon, but I was always writing. I don’t remember ever not wanting to write.

As I grew up, the desire to have a career as a writer solidified in my soul, and it’s not going anywhere any time soon. I’ve built my life around writing. I have two degrees in creative writing, and I’ve been careful to find writing-adjacent jobs to keep me sane. Unfortunately writing and writing-adjacent jobs like being a bookseller do not generally make one rich.

I’m okay with that. Success to me doesn’t equal a nice house in a flashy neighborhood or a brand new BMW 678i (am a yuppy)*. Success to me is being able to write. Success is every single time someone tells me one of my stories touched them. Success is making the world a better place through art.

No one in my family really understands this, and that’s not a criticism or complaint. Everyone in my family is creative in some way, and my parents always encouraged my creative pursuits. The disconnect comes in me wanting to make writing a career and not just a hobby. Really, I can’t blame them.

I’m the first person in my family to graduate from a four-year university. I’m the first person in my family to earn a master’s degree. And my parents worked really really hard to give me the opportunity to go to college. They paid for most of my undergraduate degree, leaving me with only moderately crushing debt instead of overwhelmingly crushing debt. I was always the smart one in the family, the one who would become a doctor or a scientist or something.

But in this as in everything, I am my father’s daughter, and I didn’t follow the plan. Instead of becoming a chemist or a linguist (two potential career options I explored early on), I majored in creative writing and then proceeded to work a series of low paying jobs ranging from AmeriCorps volunteer to a glorified customer service rep at a library while I pounded away at first one book and then another on my quest for literary stardom (or something).

Maybe publications should come with certificates of achievement. Certificate of achievement template | designed by Vexels

“Why don’t you look for a higher paying job?” my mom asks me frequently. Or, “When are you going to look for a better job?” It’s not that she thinks I’m lazy or unmotivated, it’s that she thinks I can do better. And yes, I can, but that might mean taking time away from writing, and I’m not willing to do that. I’d rather be an artist scraping by than have a fancy house and cars and not have time or energy to write.

My grandmother was palpably disappointed when I quit my full-time library job and dropped out of library school (though she was less disappointed when she realized I had several jobs already lined up and wasn’t just going to be a stay-at-home bum).

Again, no one is asking me these questions because they think I’m lazy or stupid or can’t get my shit together (though yeah, sometimes I cannot get my shit together). It’s because they just don’t understand why I don’t want a normal job with a normal (i.e. above poverty level) salary where I can get my two weeks of vacation and have a 401k and just, you know, write on the weekends or something.

This also means that it’s sometimes difficult to share accomplishments from my writing life, because no one in my family knows what they mean or why they matter. Again, that’s not a criticism or complaint, it’s a communication barrier. Sometimes I feel like I’m on a different planet, and the commute back to Earth is a killer.

I love my family, and I recognize how lucky I am to have them. Not just my parents, but my brother,** my grandparents, and my in-laws are wonderful people whom I know I can count on when the shit hits the fan. My parents never discouraged me from writing, they just encouraged me to maybe think about doing something else to make money while I write (which is good advice, it really is, I’m just too stubborn to follow it).

Most of the time, I don’t care that my mom doesn’t know what the Pushcart Prize is. Most of the time, I can deal with the writing life grind no problem. But every now and then, it feels a little bit lonely not being able to talk about these things with my family. It’s hard to explain writer’s block to someone who’s never experienced it. Even if they’re sympathetic, they can’t quite get it the way other writers can. It’s like we’re speaking different languages, and even though we can communicate the basics, some things get lost in translation.

Again, I really want to reiterate that I’m not complaining or upset by this. It is what it is. I still love my family, and they still love me. That’s far more important than them knowing the latest small press trends.


*This is an inside joke my dad and I have about BMW drivers being various levels of yuppy.

**DON’T LET THAT GO TO YOUR HEAD, KYLE.

Adventures in writing conferences: AWP 2018

Last week I went to Tampa for the 2018 AWP Conference. For those of you who aren’t familiar with AWP, it’s the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, and each year they hold a huge conference in a different city (next year is Portland!).

It’s an exhausting three days full of craft talks, discussion panels, many offsite readings and parties, and a huge book fair (almost as big as the exhibit hall at a Star Wars Celebration, if you take out the giant AT-AT and X-Wing models). Writers, publishers, and editors from all over the US and Canada convene to talk books and writing and collectively drink all the alcohol in whatever city we’re visiting.

A stack of books.

My book and literary journal haul from AWP.

In years past, especially when I was an MFA student and felt that I ABSOLUTELY HAD TO FIND A PUBLISHER FOR MY BOOK RIGHT THE FUCK NOW, I spent a lot of time wandering the book fair talking up publishers and trying to sell them on my manuscript. Let me just say that is not the best approach to enjoying AWP, not to mention ineffective. But it’s what all the writing advice articles say, so that’s what I did.

Here’s the thing, though: I write weird books, and even selling a normal book is hard. I believe in my work and I believe it will find the perfect home as long as I keep putting in the leg work. So this year I decided to take everything a lot less seriously.

And unsurprisingly, the conference was a lot more enjoyable without all that self-imposed pressure. I stayed with a friend from Chatham, and we may have drank an entire box of wine. Maybe. And we may have also dyed our hair purple (which has sadly mostly washed out already).

Because I stepped up as a coordinator for the VIDA Count, I worked directly with more of our team, and had the pleasure of meeting many of them in person for the first time. I also had a blast catching up with some of my professors and former classmates from Chatham at a private reception with an incredibly serious bartender who was probably wondering if all writers are over-excited alcoholics (we’re not).

I also spent more time in the book fair just talking to people. I discovered a few new journals that I’m excited to submit to, caught up with my friends at various presses and mags, and hopefully made some new friends! My favorite part was meeting the editorial staff at journals who’ve published my work. Plus I came away with a huge haul of journals and a few books that I’m incredibly excited about reading. Look for reviews of those in upcoming posts!

The downside to all this excitement at all is that I’ve had a migraine for the past five days (Pittsburgh weather isn’t helping). I’m starting to feel better today (and perhaps some coffee before work will help), but I haven’t even tried to work on my novel this week. Oh well! It’ll be there next week, and I’m excited to get back to it when my temples aren’t throbbing.

Relaxing and having fun is notoriously hard for me (just ask my partner, who complained to me last night that I always want to do productive things after dinner when he wants to relax and you know, spend time with me). I consider it quite an accomplishment that I had so much fun I triggered a week-long migraine cycle.

And hey—I even learned a few things, too.

Dream writing

Blurry black and white image of bare trees.

Image by Michele Moreau. Used under a Creative Commons license. Click to see more of the artist’s work.

Often at night my mind races. Half awake, half asleep, I write entire essays and stories in my head, revise them, erase them. I never get up to put these pieces down, and by the morning I’ve usually forgotten what they were about, or that I wrote them at all.

This isn’t a loss. I don’t think I believe such a generative process could ever be considered a true loss, even if I forget those exact words in that exact format. I view these night-time screeds as akin to dreams. They are my conscious and subconscious minds coming together to work out kinks in my writing process, blocks I didn’t realize were there, angers and hurts hiding beneath the surface. And who knows? Maybe they are dreams. Maybe I’m asleep after all.

I used to think every word was precious. I thought that if I didn’t chase every story idea I was failing. I clung to everything I wrote, and inevitably arrived at a place where I rewrote and rewrote and never moved forward. Writing an entire novel and never touching it again was unthinkable to me. The idea that a story could just be practice offended me deeply. Now I know better. I’ve got three novels that I never plan to touch again sitting in an actual drawer, and who knows how many short stories sitting in various states of completion on my hard drive.

Those novels and stories aren’t failures. They’re lessons. I wrote them, and learned from the process. I got so far as revising two of the novels, and learned from that process also. That’s enough. That’s more than enough. The process is its own reward.

It’s the same with the writing I do only in my head, when everyone else in the house is sleeping and I’ve finally put down the book I’m reading. It’s not meant to be inspiration or brilliance or a finished masterpiece. It’s a process. My mind composts thoughts and ideas, turns them into fertile soil. And in the morning, when I come to the page, I almost always find words growing rich.