The Hybrid Writer’s Life (Post-MFA)
December 5, 2016 § 21 Comments
By Paige Sullivan
A newly-enrolled MFA student, my job as an assistant editor at my program’s top-tier, in-house literary journal was what you’d expect: reading the slush pile. The journal accepted both paper and online submissions, meaning each week I’d work through a stack of submission packets colorfully paper clipped together in addition to sifting through the online queue.
While the work was sometimes dull, it was crucial to sharpening my reading skills, and it afforded me an invaluable understanding of the spectrum of talent and skill that exists out there. Truly, we got it all: exceptional work, promising work, and strange poems that tried to compare love to meatball marinara.
My favorite part of reading the paper submissions were the more personal touches of the printed and hand-signed cover letters, which were sometimes accompanied by a business card. For me, these submissions became fascinating character studies. Yes, there were writers like me: MFA students or graduates who neatly listed 3-4 italicized publications, any accolades, and where they lived and worked. Others were less conventional and thus more interesting.
One woman included a business card that read, “Poet….Hairdresser.” There was more than one letter from an attorney who wrote poems when they weren’t practicing law. One writer mentioned that in addition to their day job and their writing, they were active in the competitive breeding and show rabbit circuit. Incredible.
As I soon came to the conclusion that the academic career path was not the career path for me, I became more and more fascinated with these kinds of writers: the ones who had other interests and obligations outside the typical gamut of writing/literature/ composition/teaching/adjuncting. The lawyers and hairdressers and rabbit enthusiasts who found room in their lives to make art, too.
While I was not discouraged from pursuing a non-academic career path, I can’t say there was a wealth of structured support within my department. I thus figured out a great deal on my own, cobbling together myriad experiences in freelance writing and editing, writing random articles on ethical travel habits and Best Vegetarian Restaurants in Atlanta between grading papers and preparing poems for workshop.
There are ways in which writers self-soothe:
Well, Robert Frost didn’t publish his first book until late in life, so I’m doing pretty ok.
Well, Wallace Stevens wasn’t an academic. He worked in insurance and turned out pretty ok.
Hey, William Carlos Williams was a doctor! Surely if I don’t become a professor I’m not dooming myself.
I’m sure I’m not the only poet who read O.T. Marod’s essay “Poet at Work” in a recent issue of The Point and felt both the rush and deflation of recognition. Writers are no strangers to the complex paradoxes of their identities–the delicious, almost flippant valor that comes with simply responding, “I’m a writer” when someone asks what you do, tethered to the falter in your confidence when the person lobs back an “Oh, huh.” or “Really?”
Then again, maybe more confident writers don’t feel the need to qualify their pronouncements. On good days, I don’t. Other days, it feels almost blase to flash my poet moniker without the self-conscious need to defend and protect it.
Perhaps we can agree with Marod’s essential points: that poets and writers commonly struggle with a profound crises of role and identity, and that many of us live a dashed or hyphenated identity, as his allegorical poet/tutor does, to make both art and a living.
But is that really so bad?
Yes, in a perfect world, poets would have a salary commensurate with experience and a nice benefits package. But our art isn’t (always) for hire, and I can’t say that that really bothers me.
On the contrary, I think the hybridity of identities and skills working writers claim can be mutually fruitful. I think good writers should likely be passionate about the world around them to remain passionate about art.
And while there’s comfort and prestige and familiar structures that come with academia, preaching the gospel of the tenure-track faculty position isn’t sustainable or realistic–but that doesn’t have to mean something dire.
I am hungry for an expanded conversation of hybrid writers, MFAs With Day Jobs–whatever you want to call them–beyond the perfunctory Well, Philip Larkin was a librarian, so…. exception to the rule anecdote. I want to talk more about people who have a life on the other side of the dash that is just as interesting and enriching and challenging as the life of a poet….and of a rabbit breeder.
Great post. It reminds me of what Kristen Twardowsky said about her experience as a writer and a wolf-trainer: https://kristentwardowski.wordpress.com/2016/11/07/writing-with-wolves/
I’m a composer of music, but I find that I do all sorts of eclectic things for inspiration…
How fascinating! Thanks for sharing that link. –Paige
Yes, yes, yes, Paige. Well said. I’m not a rabbit breeder, but an accountant and financial executive for many years. I eeked out time for an MFA. Writing and the writing community fuels my soul. Thank you for this article. How about an anthology of hybrid writers titled Day Job? Sample pieces like: The Zen Art of Rabbit Breeding. My hearty support goes out to those who cobble together time around their non-writing jobs to write.
A great idea for an anthology! Thanks for getting the gears turning and for reading. –Paige
Love this idea! I would add my experience being a dog walker / writer. Lots of great fodder there.
I’m an aerospace analyst by day. My seven-to-five is nothing but numbers. But my nights are given to words. Flipping the switch can be a challenge but ultimately worth it.
I admire that you juggle such different disciplines! –Paige
Thank you for the link to Marod’s essay.
Absolutely. It was a fascinating read. –Paige
You raise a very interesting topic, and one that has perplexed me for some time. I stand looking in, I suppose, from the other end of the spectrum, in awe of those who can define themselves with just that one word: writer.
My first job was as a cocktail waitress in a night club, the required uniform for which was a mini-skirt and six-inch heels. When I would arrive home at 4:00 a.m., I would take my shoes off at the door, then crawl on my knees to the bedroom, because my feet wouldn’t carry me one step further. My next two jobs were selling vinyl siding and vacuum cleaners, door-to-door. Since then, I’ve worked as a stock clerk, a mannequin refinisher, a fashion merchandiser, and a retail store designer. I had a brief career selling roses in strip clubs (which ended when I stepped between two men in a brawl and got clobbered in the jaw) and brief stint breaking horses on a ranch (which ended when I was thrown headlong into a barbed wire fence). I’ve been a floral designer and a dog trainer, taught ESL in two foreign countries and tutored Italian in the U.S. In Mexico, I worked in a youth hostel, assigning beds and giving directions to tourists who were mostly European; in Italy, I worked as a sales clerk in a designer’s flagship store, selling purses to tourists who were mostly Japanese and American. The most peculiar job I’ve ever had: operating a home storage and organization business focused on assisting the bereaved in sorting through the personal belongings of their deceased relatives. I’ve cleaned both houses and offices – more toilets than I care to remember. For a couple of years, I operated my own yoga studio in a small Texas town, where I taught elderly ladies to touch their toes and housewives to stand on their heads. I’ve volunteered at animal shelters (walking dogs) and a wildlife rescue center (feeding birds with an eye-dropper). In addition, I’ve been a homeschooler, teaching six subjects per semester, and an only parent. My first degree was an associate degree in fashion merchandising, at age twenty; my last, an MFA in creative writing, at thirty-nine.
I’ve long stood in awe of those writers who have taken the straight and narrow path, who seemed always to know which cobblestone to jump to next to follow a direct course from high school to a tenure track teaching position. As well, I’ve often marveled at the imagination of such writers – their ability to make things up (when writing fiction) – or their persistence in researching unfamiliar topics. I’m not particularly imaginative – in writing, I rely on experience – and, obviously, as evidenced by my muddled resume, persistence is not my forte. When asked to fill in the blank, I now simply type: writer/poet/observer. “Writer,” because this is the only thing I have done consistently throughout my life; “poet,” because this is the way I’ve lived – in fragmented snippets; and “observer,” because this is perhaps the only profession that truly encapsulates the motivation underlying the disparate paths I’ve followed.
So interesting. Thanks for sharing your path – I’m impressed by your eclectic array of skills! –Paige
Thanks for this fascinating story. Perhaps I’m a hybrid person as well as a hybrid writer.
Great point – perhaps we all are. Thanks for reading!
[…] “The Hybrid Writer’s Life (Post-MFA)” – Brevity‘s Nonfiction Blog […]
[…] so heartened to join the conversation with Paige Sullivan about what she so deftly calls “life on the other side of the dash.” Not only because much of my life exists there, but because I want those who are nearing the […]
[…] Larkin was a librarian, so…. exception to the rule anecdote.” So writes Paige Sullivan in a post on the Brevity blog. That exact conversation continues with a post from Rae […]
Reblogged this on Writing Reconsidered and commented:
I love this article from Paige Sullivan with Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog!
There’s a lot of pressure and uncertainty for writers around the question of whether or not to go for an MFA, and then, what if you do? What if you go for that MFA, graduate, and then…what? Do you get to say, “I’m a writer” when people ask what you do for a living (even if your writing isn’t what pays the bills)? And what if being a writer isn’t your career dream, but you know that writing is an invaluable skill that you want to further hone and develop? Or what if it’s like Rae Pagliarulo says in her terrific follow-up article to Sullivan’s, where you have no intention of shucking off your non-writer job, but you know that pursuing an MFA will feed your soul regardless?
In other words, what does a writer look like, and how can we as writers (whether professional, self-proclaimed, or otherwise) come to grips with this wild identity?
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