“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).
“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.