Sunday, August 2, 2009

30) balancing work with the call to write (especially for emerging writers)

the literary life 8/2/09

It’s a question many of struggle with as writers: how to honor the call to write with the need to earn a living and make money. As an emerging writer, this can be especially tricky. We don’t have the credits yet to acquire the kind of opportunities that accompany a published book, yet we need time to write if we’re going to get a book out there, and work drains us of our precious creative resources. What to do? This is a question I’ve struggled with myself. Below I share my personal experience and thoughts on this topic.

Ever since my teen years, I’ve known writing would figure prominently in my profession of choice. By senior year in high school, my English teachers along the way had inspired me to pursue a major in the humanities. By grad school, I figured I’d end up with a Ph.D. and an academic life. Along the way I was writing poems and stories in my journal and teaching/tutoring part-time. But after I passed my doctoral exams, I fell into a career crisis. Did I want to be an academic or an artist? I felt I was being pulled in different directions, overwhelmed by research, teaching, and creative writing. In the end, I decided to leave my graduate program and get a teaching credential. This way I could focus on writing, earn a living through teaching, and stop worrying about research. With summers off, I’d have time to write.

I’ve taught high school now for three years. During this time, I’ve thought a lot about what it means to balance work and writing. As you may expect, it’s not easy, but it has gotten easier. As a first year teacher, I struggled with finding time to sleep much less rework a poem. But my first paid summer off was a writer’s dream. Ten weeks to not only write, but fully embrace the calling without worrying about money. It felt divine. Summer break is a wonderful thing to look forward to every year. Many writers, like Stephen King and Wally Lamb, taught high school before they led more of a full-time writing life. I can see why. Teaching is creative, stimulating, and literary, plus the vacations are better than most 9 to 5's. Being around young people is challenging but fun. The down side is that during the school year the grading pile never disappears and the pace is frantic. But I enjoy having something practical to do. So this is what I’ve come to believe lately about balancing writing and work for emerging writers: it really helps to have a full-time job, something outside of the writing that feeds you.

Call me conservative, but this is how I feel. I know every writer is different, and there is no one way to approach the work/writing combo. In the end, every person must choose for themselves. But if I had to give an emerging writer advice based on my experiences, I’d say, try to get a job and write on the side. But try to get a job where you can openly share your identity as a writer if you want to, and keep changing jobs until you find the right fit. It's not worth it if the job is soul sapping or there's no way to make peace with it. Think about types of jobs that fit you as a person and complement your creative life. And try not to worry about having time. Instead focus on making time to write, no matter what. Really clarify your writing goals for the long and short term. For example, maybe in ten years you’d like to have a collection of poems and two novels published, but what do you need to get done in the next three months? Maybe write the first three chapters of a novel. Maybe send out poem submissions to magazines and attend readings. Maybe finish the last few chapters of your book. Every three months, update your short term goals. Baby steps. Or as writer Anne Lamott notes, bird by bird.

Like Aristotle, I am a big fan of the Golden Mean, the balanced life: family, work, self-care, spirituality, and writing. Having a job is humbling. It keeps us grounded. I’m the kind of writer who needs to feel grounded. Having a stable paycheck takes away the stress of worrying if I’ll have enough money next month (though this recession’s made all of us feel vulnerable regardless). The fact is, I like having money, and as a poet I can’t bank on my writing supporting me financially. Having money means I can sign up for writing workshops, pay to enter contests, and buy books to expand my library. It a kind of investment in the writing life. It means living at the level of comfort I need to enjoy life. It means I can shrug off a week of writer’s block without chewing my ATM card. It also takes off the burden of making money right away from my writing. At the same time, I can nurture the dream that one day I might be able to devote more time to writing.

Teaching is consuming, but it feeds my writing and helps me make a difference in the world in a way I don’t think my writing ever will. I approach teaching as an artist and an educator, so I view teaching as an extension of my writing life. Maybe, if I’m lucky, my words will outlive me. But I want to be doing many things in my life now. When I get too into writing, I feel like a hermit in a cave. This is cool for an odd month or a week, but I don’t want to look back at my life and think I didn’t dive into the ordinary life because I was too caught up in some ideal. I’d want to think I nurtured the ideal while staying grounded. I think wanting it too soon or too bad, unless luck is on our side, can be a form of suffering. I want to believe we can balance it all: work, family, writing, life. We can balance it if we clarify and simplify our writing goals for the short term, decide on what we want for the long term. We can balance it if we view work as an important ordinary contribution to being in the world–whether the work is parenting, teaching, or typing in a cubicle. I guess what I’m trying to say is that feeling the call to write is not the same thing as clinging to the call to write.

Balancing work and writing involves some kind of sacrifice. I feel in our culture we are inundated with romantic stories of writers who make writing more important than earning a living. I’ve tried to offer a different point of view here. I think writing and money are both important, and until our writing begins making enough money, we may need to pursue other callings along with writing to stay afloat. Still, I am aware every person is different, and sometimes we just have to follow our intuition, even if takes us into risky spaces. In the end, if we let our writing be an ordinary but important part of our lives as we emerge as writers, we’ll know exactly what we need to do to balance work with writing.
FYI: Here's a link to an article which lists 6 ideal day jobs for writers.


  1. Thanks for this, Mehnaz!

    "...feeling the call to write is not the same as clinging to the call to write."

    Good point. As I figure out my own writing life (and my life, in general!), I know that I don't want to feel obligated to write out of habit, or guilty when I don't. It's expansive, this life, which can be scary but liberating too.

  2. Agreed. I see my writing as a relationship I'm in. This relationship, like any old relationship, has baggage. When I feel expansive and less obligated, as you put it, there's less baggage.