Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Business Side of Writing

Many of us tend to think of writing as this purely creative field, this artsy endeavor that we’re drawn to, at least in part, because we’re not drawn to the things you have to do in an office job. But the truth is that a big part of being a writer involves a lot of the same stuff that you do at a desk job.

Consider submissions. You have to keep track of what pieces you’ve submitted to which journals, and preferably on which dates. I keep a spreadsheet where I log all this information (in addition to what particular projects I have going, what my goals are, and whether or not I’ve met my goals). In what sometimes feels like a past life, I used to work in the billing department of a healthcare clinic. This job epitomized the classic image of a desk job, in my opinion. I spent most of my day moving paper from one stack on my desk to the other, and a large part of my job was logging information into spreadsheets, not unlike what I have to do now as a writer.

But the submissions process is like an office job in more ways than that. Correspondence was another big part of my job: sending out correspondence to various labs, hospitals, and neighboring clinics, not to mention patients and insurance companies. I remember thinking how tedious it was when we would have to send out a run of patient bills, for example. Printing all the invoices, stuffing the envelopes, and then mailing them. Preparing a batch of submissions is sometimes even more tedious. It involves all those same components but you also have to research each journal to find out what, exactly, they are looking for. Then you have to find out how they accept submissions; do they want you to format it in standard manuscript format or following their own quirky specific rules? Do they want you to mail it to them, or e-mail it, or use their online submission form? The whole process is so dull that many starting out writers can’t even seem to bring themselves to do it.

And other parts of writing feel like work sometimes, too. What about when you’ve reached a point as a writer where you’ve made a commitment to it – you’ve decided that you’re going to write every day, or X number of hours every week, or X number of words every month – but you’re just not feeling it that day? You still sit yourself down in front of that computer and do the best you can to be engaged. On good days you’re able to trick yourself into getting sucked into the work, on bad days you force it until your time or word limit is reached and then feel relieved when quitting time rolls around.

So I guess what I’m trying to say is that being a creative writer isn’t the romantic, artistic dream we may have once assumed it to be. It isn’t a pure escape from the office/desk job/business world. Not if you actually want to get published, anyway. The truth is there’s the artistic side of writing and the business side of it, and you have to be willing to do both if you want to really make it. But the truth is, also, that this is part of what separates the ones who will make it from the ones who won’t. Those people who don’t submit, the people who don’t buckle down and write even when they’re not “feeling it,” those people are not going to be much competition for those of us who do. And for those of us who really, really love writing, the way we all say that we do, we don’t really mind the business side of it so much. It’s worth it to us. Somewhere along the line we realize that it’s worth it.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Up-Side of Teaching

To be fair (and to make myself feel better about my current situation in life) I want to talk a little bit about some of the reasons why teaching could be considered the perfect career for creative writers. Last week I went over some of the reasons why this might not be true after all, so let me give the other side of the issue a chance to defend itself.

First of all, and as I mentioned last week, once you work your way up into a full time position as a creative writing professor, you generally have a month or so off in the winter and about three months off in the summer. You still get paid a decent annual salary, but you have around four months completely off every year. You can (and should) spend that time writing. As was brought up by Justus in the comments from last week, you also get a sabbatical every seven years, during which time it’s just assumed that you will be writing. Keeping up with your creative writing is, actually, one of your job requirements as a creative writing professor.

In addition to that, as Justus pointed out last week, teaching is good practice as a writer. You are forced to look at writing problems; you are forced to think about what makes good writing and what makes bad writing; you are forced to think about how to improve. All of the things that you teach to your students, you think about again and again for yourself, and every semester you become a slightly better writer than you were the semester before.

But perhaps most appealing of all (to me) is the thought of being part of a literary/creative writing community. Forever. This is one of the main benefits, I think, of going to grad school: to immerse yourself in a community of writers. If you become a creative writing professor, you will always be part of such a community. While there are no guarantees that you’re going to get along with everybody in the department, I feel that there’s a much better chance of developing strong and productive relationships with your coworkers if you work in an English department versus, say, if you work at an office. This is important both for writing purposes, because you gain a lot from interacting with and sharing your work with other writers and literary types, and for general peace of mind, because, after all, you have to spend a lot of time around your coworkers, and how much you like them has a huge effect on how much you like your job. Sometimes, I believe, getting along with your coworkers is even more important than whether or not you enjoy the work itself.

There are other benefits, too, such as having access to a university library and being affiliated with a university who will promote your work, because it benefits them, too, if your books sell well. And perhaps I shouldn’t forget the importance of things like job security and benefits (the employment benefits of being a professor are pretty awesome, often including things like your children getting to go to that college for free).

The trouble, of course, is that most of us have to put up with teaching adjunct – year round and for a weak salary – before we can even hope to land a full time teaching position. And teaching adjunct is a bitch. You’re considered part time, even though you sometimes teach as many or more classes than the full timers, you get paid hardly anything compared to the full timers, and you have to teach the worst classes, the classes that the full timers don’t want. But as my husband Damien keeps reminding me, no matter what job you want and no matter what field, you have to start at the bottom and work your way to the top. Teaching is no different, and if we can put up with the bottom for a few years, and keep our writing wits about us so we actually have a good chance of competing for a full time position, then someday, in the not-too-distant future, it might all feel very, very worth it.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

A Time to Write and a Time to Teach

With school back in full swing out here, I’ve been getting to that stage of hectic busyness that always leads me to wonder whether or not teaching is really the best job for creative writers. We often talk about teaching like it is, and I think there are a lot of pretty great benefits to being a teacher that work well with writing, not the least of which is that you usually get winters and summers off. If you really focus, you can get a lot done in that time. Summer break, for example, is sufficiently long for a person to buckle down and write a first draft of a complete book-length work. Then that person could spend the more limited time during the school year revising.

But setting that oh-so-appealing three to four months off aside: is teaching really conducive to a successful writing career? Well, I think there are a lot of strikes against it, and I can never quite seem to make up my mind on the issue. Let’s look at it a bit more closely, shall we?

I feel that there are really two main components to a job as a teacher: planning lessons and grading papers. Both involve a fair amount of mental focus, and both are comparable to the mental powers you use as a writer. Planning lessons uses the same brain functions that you use when you’re drafting, and grading papers uses the same mental muscles you exercise when you’re revising and editing. So if you spend all day doing the things you have to do to teach, you don’t always have the energy to keep using your brain in that same way for another hour or two to write.

In addition to that, I find that teaching takes up way more time than a regular nine to five job. Sure, a good deal of those extra hours can be spent at home in your jammies, or at the coffee shop or wherever you like to hang out, but regardless, you spend well over forty hours a week if you carry a typical full time college teaching load – at least I do, and I’m not even technically full time, although I do teach the same number of classes as the full timers at my school. See, besides planning lessons, grading papers, and the actual contact hours of regular class time, I spend a fair amount of time each week responding to student emails and reading and giving feedback on the additional drafts my students pass my way (because I figure if they’re willing to put the work in to revising more thoroughly, I better be willing to put the work into giving them feedback).

So once classes really get going, I inevitably start to wonder if this is really the right career. I like teaching, don’t get me wrong. It’s fun (most of the time, anyway) and rewarding. But it’s extremely difficult for me to spend fifty or sixty hours a week using these exact brain functions and then try to write as much as I want to at the end of each day. And if I don’t get to write as much as I want, I start to feel like I’ve lost my way because writing has always been the thing that keeps me going, it has always been the force that pushes me through life. If I don’t have the energy to write anymore, well, pushing ahead in a career, even a great career like teaching, doesn’t really feel worth the price.

This is not to say that I absolutely believe that teaching isn’t a good job for writers. It’s just something I’m thinking about, something I think about often. During the winter and summer you can write your ever-loving brains out, and maybe that really is enough to keep it in balance. Eight months out of the year you work work work, four months out of the year you get to be a full time writer. Those eight months, though. Those eight months can be pretty hard, let me tell you.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Spice of the Writing Life

I’ve been having a lot of trouble keeping up with my writing goals for the past several months. I still write, and I think I write a fair amount when I compare it to how much time many other starting-out writers spend writing, but I still can’t seem to meet my measly little one hour a day goal. Oh I come close, but I haven’t quite hit the mark in some time, and it’s frustrating because an average of one hour day doesn’t seem like much to ask of myself.

This has been throwing my whole world off balance, if you want to know the truth. My entire sense of identity, and my sense of what makes life worth living, they’re both entangled with my image of myself as somebody who writes often. Somebody who writes not just because she thinks she’s going to hit it big one day, or because she has this pretentious image of herself as “artiste,” but because she really genuinely loves to write. But if I haven’t been writing much, if I haven’t even been hitting an average of an hour a day, it makes me stop and wonder: is that really who I am? Have I been fooling myself this whole time?

To try to get to the bottom of this problem, I sat down and analyzed my life as a writer for the past few years. Before going to grad school, I wrote often – probably not every single day but on the days I did write, it would usually be for at least a couple of hours, and some days I would spend the better part of a full day writing. My guess is that I was clocking not much less than an hour a day if averaged over the course of each full year.

My first semester in grad school I pretty much stopped writing altogether. I wrote a few new stories . . . for workshop . . . because I had to, and that was it. That winter I got extremely depressed, asked myself what I was doing in grad school if I wasn’t even going to write, and made some hardcore resolutions that ended up sticking. From that point forward I wrote . . . a lot. When I actually did start logging my time spent writing, I found that I was spending a little less than an average of two hours a day writing.

Now, after grad school, I seem to be back where I started before I went to grad school. So what gives? Well, beside the fact that I certainly had more time to spend on writing when I was a student (the real world’s a bitch, you guys, I’m telling you!), there is one key factor that I think might be at the core of the problem. Variety.

I’m going to extend a metaphor to the breaking point here, so bear with me for a minute. When you’re trying to lose weight, you might go out and find a new diet plan that seems interesting and appealing and will give you the results you want. You start the diet plan and usually stick with it pretty well for the first little while. Encouraged by your results, you plow through for a few weeks, maybe even a few months. Somewhere along the line, though, you start slipping. You splurge. You tell yourself you’ve had a bad day and deserve this donut or that cookie. Eventually you realize you’re basically not on the diet at all anymore. Then what happens, at least to the true weight loss fanatic, is that you find another diet plan and start all over again.

Yo-yo dieting is a common and oft-made fun of phenomenon, but the thing is, what I believe is at the heart of this jumping from fad diet to fad diet is our need for variety in life. We get excited by new things. We feel encouraged when we’re starting some new program, embarking on a new resolution. But after we’ve been doing something for a while, even if we’re seeing positive results, it just starts to feel stale. We start to feel less motivated. I think that when I made up my mind to overhaul my writing life, it had much the same effect as being an overweight person who hits rock bottom with that one last piece of cake and makes the decision to start a new diet program.

That is to say, it worked. It worked wonders, at least for a little while. Then somewhere along the line, I added logging hours into the mix: a new addition to my “diet” program that kept it fresh for a while longer. But I think what’s happening now is that the freshness has gone out of it a bit. It isn’t that I don’t love writing – I do! – and it isn’t that I can’t somehow steal an hour to write each day - I can, I know I can – but I think what’s happening is that I need something new – a new sort of goal, a new type of resolution – to keep me motivated and keep me feeling like I’m working towards something, like I’m moving forward and not just spinning endlessly in a circle.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Keeping Track

As I was planning out my writing goals for this year, I looked through my process blog entries for last year to see what I’ve been doing and which goals I have and haven’t met. It really hit me how helpful it is to keep these kinds of records of what I’ve been working on. It’s helpful at the time, because just by the simple act of writing it down I’m holding myself accountable for what I do and do not get done, and keeping a record like this helps later on, too, so that I can have accurate documentation to review and analyze.

When I write my monthly posts for my process blog, I include not only whether or not I met my goals for that month, but also what the circumstances were that may have prevented me from meeting them. On the conscious level I’ve been including this information to explain what happened, you could say as an excuse, but looking at those explanations now, and likewise, looking at my entries for the times when I met or exceeded my goals, has helped me to evaluate myself as a writer. It’s helped me to understand how I work, what works for me and what doesn’t, what occurrences or situations in life seem to slow me down, and what settings seem to be ideal for my writing output.

It’s also been really useful for me to keep track of what projects I’ve been working on, as well as how much I got done and on which days. Sometimes I feel like I’ve done a lot more than I actually have, and sometimes I feel like I’ve done nothing when in fact I spent hours upon hours working on a close revision of one particular project. But being honest with myself, knowing on a conscious level what I have and have not been doing, is, for me, one of the best forms of motivation. Once I realize that I haven’t been writing as much as I’d like, I definitely push myself to work harder, and if I have been performing at the level I want myself to perform, I feel encouraged to keep the streak going.

I think it’s a good idea for writers to keep track of their work. It’s a given that you should log your submissions, but I believe that writers should also log what they’ve been working on. This may mean different things for different people. You may be the sort of writer who counts words, you may quantify your work in terms of time, or you may think about what you’ve been doing in terms of specific projects. It doesn’t matter. Whatever works. I think it’s well worth the time it takes to do it, and you’ll probably find that you start pushing yourself just that much harder just by knowing that you’re going to write these things down and look back on them later.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Issue Three

Start the year 2010 off right by reading Issue Three of MFA/MFYou, which is waiting for you on the main website even as you read this. You will not be disappointed, I assure you!