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.

A brave new world

Last month, I quit my job at the library and dropped out of library school. I want to talk about what happened, and I want to talk about it honestly and fairly, without malice.

I’m not sure I can do that yet, because frankly what happened is shitty and unfair, and because I don’t want my words or actions to harm anyone who still works at the library. And I don’t want you, potential library-user, to feel any sort of weird bad feelings toward the library, because you should absolutely not (which reminds me that a few of my books are a day late…)

So instead of detailing the events that led up to me quitting my job, let me talk about what I’m doing now.

First, I am teaching fiction writing classes at the Community College of Allegheny County, in the community education (non-credit) program. I’ve always enjoyed teaching, but got scared away by endless adjunct tales of woe and the need for affordable health insurance. Thankfully, I’m in a position now where I don’t have to worry about health insurance quite as much, making part-time teaching a possibility.

And I have to say, it feels good to be sharing the thing I most love doing (writing fiction) with people who are excited to learn. My students range in age from around my age to retirees, from judges to hydro geologists, and I am learning as much from them as they are from me, I’m sure. I’m going to give teaching a trial run for a year, and if I find at the end of the year that I still love it, I’m probably going to apply for PhD programs (creative writing PhD in Hawaii? Yes, please) to up my chances of getting a “real” teaching job (and also because I want to write an ecofeminist dissertation on Star Wars, but that’s a tale for another time).

Second, I am working part-time at Riverstone Books, a new bookstore in the North Hills that will open later this week. In addition to working the floor, I’ll be working on the store’s social media as well. Right now the main focus is on getting the store up and running for the grand opening tomorrow, but I’ve got lots of content ideas percolating, and I’m really excited about the store and this opportunity.

Third, I am freelancing, which is something that had to fall by the wayside while I was working full-time and taking classes. So far I’ve had work published in The Millions, Health.com, and Next Pittsburgh. Where will my name pop up next? Who knows! I missed writing nonfiction, so it feels good to dip my toes back into the business of facts.

Journalism has always felt like an odd side appendage I don’t know what to do with—I know I’m not really interested in hardcore investigative reporting, but getting to write about topics I’m passionate about (food! writing! migraines!) for more than my blog is only a good thing.

Fourth, and most importantly, I’m writing more. My writing sessions don’t have to be limited to fifteen- or thirty-minute sprints before I head into the library. My mornings are open, so I can write for one hour. Two hours. Even three hours. I am still giddy with delight at this bounty of time. So I am shopping my short story collection, revising a small collection of flash fiction, and plotting a serial novel for NaNoWriMo next month.

What’s more, my partner’s fears that I would just play Pokemon Go for eight hours a day if I quit my job have not come true! I still only play for a very moderate average of one hour a day!

This is all still new, and still a little scary, but ultimately, I’m hopeful that good things will come of this brave new world.

Fund the Corporation for National and Community Service: My AmeriCorps story

I grew up in a working class family across the street from a steel mill. I have been working since I was 15, when I got my first job in a video store at the mall. I’ve done a patchwork of things: bookstore clerk, church secretary, childcare provider, jack of all trades at Target, even web designer.

My parents worked hard so they could send me to college, and I’m the first person in my extended family to earn a college degree. But I graduated in 2009, smack-dab in the midst of the Great Recession. There weren’t any jobs, especially not for 22-year-old writers with only very thin files of published clips. Newspapers were laying off staff and closing left and right.

As my college graduation date drew ever nearer, panic settled over me. I thought about joining the Army, and even went as far as taking the ASVAB–I was one step away from signing on the dotted line. I thought about the Peace Corps, but wasn’t sure I’d be able to handle a remote position with my new diagnosis of chronic migraine. I looked at Teach for America, but didn’t feel passionate about teaching.

AmeriCorps Logo

The true problem with all of these options was the same: I wanted to write. And I wanted to get paid for it. I’d heard of AmeriCorps, part of the government agency the Corporation for National and Community Service, and knew there was a position working with the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council. I figured that was as close as I was going to get to getting paid to write, but when I searched AmeriCorps’ job openings, I found a staff writer position at a community newspaper in Pittsburgh called The Northside Chronicle.

I applied. I interviewed for the position. I nailed it. And there I was, a 22-year-old writer with hardly any clips, getting paid to write. True, it was less than $12,000 a year and I had to rely on food stamps and LIHEAP (a program that helps with your heating bills), but even so. I was getting paid to write.

This was a dream come true for me, and without AmeriCorps I likely would have had to move back in with my parents and work a crappy job at Target for lack of better options. Instead, I got to do work that was important to my community and helped me grow as a writer and a person.

If you cut funding for AmeriCorps, you put people like me–people from working class backgrounds, the people our current president claims over and over again he supports–in dead-end jobs while we wait for Baby Boomers to finally retire.

That first job taught me a lot about working as an adult and about being a writer. How to deal with difficult coworkers. How to not only take editorial feedback but seek it out. How to negotiate. How to write on a deadline. How to copy edit and proofread, and the difference between the two. How to be professional even when someone is screaming at you because they don’t like what you wrote, and so much more.

The most important lesson for me, though, was that it was possible to get paid to write.

That experience helped give me the confidence to apply to the MFA program of my dreams at Chatham University. It undoubtedly helped me get accepted. The educational stipend I got as part of my payment for my service helped pay for it. And the lessons I learned as an AmeriCorps volunteer at The Chronicle continue to help me when I’m doing an author interview or review, or even when I’m writing a blog post against a ticking clock.

a view of the Pittsburgh skyline

A shot of the Pittsburgh skyline from a neighborhood dog walk.

I’m not stupidly wealthy. I’m not internationally famous. But I’m employed full-time doing what I love–editing and writing for my public library’s daily blog and helping people find their next favorite book at the public service desk. I own my own home. I make enough money to pay my bills and still have some left over for my Star Wars addiction. I spend my free time writing, playing board games with friends, and taking my dog for long walks in my beautiful city.

In other words, I am living my own version of the American Dream, minus the white-picket fence (I live in Pittsburgh, so I’ve got a retaining wall instead of a fence in my front yard). While I won’t discount my own hard work and a robust safety net of family support, I owe this success in large part to my early experience with AmeriCorps.

The president’s first budget proposal calls for cuts to AmeriCorps. I am walking, breathing, living evidence of why this is a terrible idea. If we want to build a nation of engaged, educated citizens who make meaningful contributions to their communities, we need to foster public service, not cut its funding.

AmeriCorps is a vital element in our communities and an invaluable experience to those who serve. The last thing our communities need is for the president to cut funding for this and other important programs. Please call your elected officials and ask them to reject a budget without funding for AmeriCorps.