Uncertainty

I have lots of students who want to be published writers.  Publishing, if you’re a writer, is a reasonable goal.  It’s the only way to make money doing it (not, generally, a lot of money, however).  I don’t know any writers who don’t want to publish (there may well be great journal writers that I know who don’t tell me about their writing, who are really writers, but have no desire to publish — I just don’t know what they do).

I have a lot of students who want to be published writers who actually don’t care about writing. They don’t like reading stories for class, because the stories don’t entertain them enough.  They don’t like experimenting or revising.  They have a notion of what a writer’s life looks like: isolation, free time, pipes, beards, either vintage dresses or hiking boots, but they don’t enjoy the act of writing much and aren’t interested in what others write (not even so that they can learn).  That’s okay.  There are better ways to make enough money to purchase a lifestyle.

I happen to be growing a beard for winter

The reason so many published writers teach is because teaching provides income, which writing, by itself, often doesn’t.  The reason some published writers teach is because they so love the act of writing, they want to talk about it all day long with other people who are also in love with it.  Most of the time, I fall into this category (as well as the first, of course).  Sometimes I’m surprised that students aren’t interested, because I find it so interesting.  Sometimes I remember that I was really interested in love and alcohol when I was in my twenties, and love and alcohol made me want to be a writer: I pictured myself with a smart woman in a vintage dress, with me in my study for a pipe and some scotch.  Later, we’d make love on the floor, because our love was passionate and also true.  I did not picture working hard.

I was almost thirty and working a corporate job when I realized that I love writing fiction and had to type at a computer everyday to feel okay.  I was finished with a novel and in an MFA program when I realized that publishing is hard.  I was thirty-eight and a published novelist when I realized I was broke and I had lost a marriage, every semblance of a traditional career, and any clear path to a middle class lifestyle.  I was forty, and teaching, when I realized that I love writing enough to talk about it all day long and do it all day long, and any other path simply will not do.  I was forty, during that same week, when I realized I was committing to a life of uncertainty, where hard work would not necessarily lead to success.  It would lead to lots of written pages, the vast majority of which would never be read by anyone.  I was forty, six months later, when I was lucky enough to land a tenure track job.

This job limits some uncertainty, but state budgets are tight and I try not to kid myself into believing the question has been answered.  I try to enjoy talking about what I love and doing what I love.  Learning story helps students have empathy for others, consider the consequences of choices, think critically and systemically.  These are excellent qualities to develop as a human being.  I believe in what I do, seriously.

Some of my students really want to write.  Many of them are really good at it.  I have anxiety about encouraging them to really pursue the act (although I do).  Thankfully, my colleague, Diana Joseph, just forwarded this excellent article by Sonya Chung. Full disclosure for a writing teacher should be a requirement of the profession.

Students: To really be a writer, you must love the work.  Write a lot (even when you don’t feel like it).  Read a lot (not just to be entertained but to learn what other writers do).  To be a writer, you must be prepared to live with uncertainty and you must be flexible enough to make do with that which is and isn’t delivered unto you (often very scary, often not fun).  If you’re not down with this situation, it is okay. There is no failure in understanding yourself and your emotional requirements.  There is no shame in sipping scotch in a study earned with day job income.

Thank you Sonya Chung for good thinking and a message I can use when I meet students one-to-one.

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1 Response to “Uncertainty”


  1. 1 smashstcloudstate November 3, 2010 at 9:38 am

    I will join you in your study for a scotch any day, Herbach.

    —Steph


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