Remember Who You Are! Staying Focused on Your Dreams Even When They Don't Pay (Yet)
By Kerri Majors
When I was getting my MFA, I was lucky enough to also get a gig teaching writing to undergrads—not creative writing, but freshman comp, the class students all love to hate. I was also lucky enough to be part of a big change in the composition program, and I got to learn the craft of teaching writing from an excellent new Director and Assistant Director.
Once I got over my initial fears, I was swept away by the energy and creativity of the classroom. I found a wonderfully productive synergy with teaching writing and doing my own writing—when I wrote, I developed a third eye that observed myself and began to deconstruct my own techniques so I could use those to help my students. And discussing writing with my students, hearing their ideas, and learning the pedagogy of teaching writing from the new Director gave me no end of new ideas to implement right back into my own writing. It didn’t matter that at the time all I was writing was fiction, and all I was teaching was the academic essay, because on some fundamental and important levels, writing is just writing.
I went on like this for some time, developing my own writing through teaching, and developing my teaching through writing. It helped that many of my MFA compatriots were doing the same thing, and it was actually fun to talk shop; plus, it gave me hope that I wouldn’t be a starving writer. I could actually have a career (teaching) while I was working on my writing, and these pursuits were not in competition with each other; rather, each one fed and inspired the other.
But, a few years in, it became clear to me that in order to actually have a career in college-level teaching, I would need more education than my MFA. I’d need a PhD in Rhetoric and Composition, or English.
But did I really want to teach composition forever? What about teaching creative writing? Yeah, that would be great, but I was a long, long way away from the 3 books I’d need to publish in order to land a tenure-track creative writing position.
I started to tie myself in knots. Even though I had managed to get a full-time lecturer position at a university, it was basically a dead-end teaching job without more education and/or lots of books published. I started to think more seriously about that PhD.
Then I happened to be chatting with the Director of the program where I’d learned to teach, who’d become something of a mentor to me, and even though I knew he thought I was a very good teacher, he really surprised me by discouraging me from the PhD route.
“Remember who you are,” he told me. “You want to write fiction, right? Maybe also some creative essays? Focus on that.”
Sure, easy for him to say! I thought at the time.
But his words gave me pause. I had indeed forgotten who I was, and what I really wanted. Teaching came so easily to me, and writing—or publishing, at least—didn’t. What I really needed to do was figure out how to make my writing and teaching work together again.
From what I’ve seen amongst my writer friends, a moment like this (or many of them!) happens to all writers. The tightrope-walk of balancing a money-making job with our second, often unpaid job as a writer is no mean feat, and when we find jobs that we like, that reward us for our creativity, it’s so tempting to just go there and stay there. Many writers do decide to stay there, and are very happy about the decision to become teachers/non-profit directors/counselors/PR execs/etc.
But if, like me, you want to prioritize your as-yet-unpaid writing, you’ll have to make some other difficult decisions. I had to tweak my schedule, and back off from some responsibilities at the university where I was teaching, to work on my writing career but also keep my necessary teaching position. I also had to let go of the idea of becoming tenured any time soon, and change the way I viewed my current lecturer position. Sure, it wasn’t tenure track, but because of that, the job didn’t require me to spend time on many aspects of university life that would have been a real drain on my writing time. It was a trade-off, but it was worth it.
There is no formula for what any one person needs to do to (re)focus yourself on your writing, and keep the job you like and that feeds you. For some, it means getting up an hour earlier each day. For others, it means trading nights out for nights in front of the computer. Or having one kid instead of two. Or skipping the gym. Or all of the above. Sometimes it does mean quitting the job, because the job really is draining all your creative juices; I know writers who have quit excellent positions for just this reason.
The choices you make for your writing will be deeply personal ones, sometimes made together with a life partner, parent, or child, depending on where you are in your life when the choices present themselves.
The important thing is to remember who you are; if you do, the rest will become clear. Not easy, but clear.
Kerri Majors, author of This is Not a Writing Manual; Notes for the Young Writer in the Real World (Writer's Digest Books, July 2013). I'm also the editor of YARN, an award-winning journal of YA literature. Find out more at Facebook and Twitter.
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The post by Kerri Majors really hit me. I am a not-so-young aspiring writer (but a very seasoned "communication director"). I have been seriously considering an attempt to cut back on work to spend more time on my own writing projects. Time, ever precious, grows more so with each passing week (month, year). She gave me something to think about. Thank you.