If you’re a writer, or any kind of artist—musician, painter, sculptor, etc.—you are compelled to create; it’s a vocation, and if you deny your calling you suffer a kind of mental and spiritual anguish, which screams at you in increasing volume to stop neglecting your creative expression because without it who are you? A listless, unexpressed soul? I know, it sounds dramatic, but for the artist it is dramatic; it is life threatening.
So why would any artist not give her work attention?
Well, because there are so many other things that demand our attention, one of which is a job that may have nothing to do with our art, but which has everything to do with our basic survival: rent, food, bills. Not to mention any kind of a personal life. Relationships, although nurturing (at least we hope so), take time and effort. Even with the most ordinary of life’s responsibilities, the artist can quickly become overwhelmed.
Our society isn’t set up to support the artist.
Unlike other vocations or professions where you receive a degree or training and then upon graduating begin your professional career in say medicine, law, engineering, computer science, mechanics, or business, the writers’ path is never straightforward. For writers who have received formal training in an MFA program, we know all too well the anxiety that “Life After the MFA” poses. There are numerous blogs that tackle this very subject precisely because the journey of a writer is so uncertain. The only security we usually find is teaching, or jobs that use our writing skills to serve the vision of a company. These jobs do not ensure that we practice our art.
Our identity as a writer seems to dwindle the more we have to explain to people that, Well, this is only my day job. I’m really a writer. Americans, in particular, are eager to marry one’s identity with her profession or job, and seem to prefer thinking of any pursuit outside of one’s job as a hobby. The writer dreams that eventually, though it may take years, she will break through and be able to support herself as a writer. But even if this doesn’t happen, she is not less of a writer and would never identify her pursuit as a hobby. Keep in mind: Toni Morrison worked at Howard University and was raising two kids when she wrote The Bluest Eye. George Saunders worked as a technical writer for an engineering firm and wrote on his lunch hour and breaks. Edward P. Jones proofread documents for a Tax firm before and after his first book, Lost in The City, was published. And Franz Kafka worked as an insurance officer for most of his life.
There isn’t a clear solution to the writers’ predicament. As Lorrie Moore wrote in her story, How to Become A Writer, “First, try to be something, anything else.” Because if we can do something else and not be plagued by a black hole of despair (again, I know, very dramatic) when we neglect our art, well then we’re likely not a writer. It’s a difficult, serpentine, and solitary path. So if we’re going to accept our vocation, we need to know what we’re in for and not delude ourselves; it only makes it harder.
There are some things you can do to make it less daunting.
A support structure is vital.
Whether that support comes from reading about other writers (as well as just reading), attending an author event, a class or workshop, or meeting a fellow writer to speak about what you’re doing and struggling with. Go out. Reach out. Go online. There are many forums, blogs, and other resources on the internet—you’re on one of them (TS! Have you listened to our awesome podcasts?).
A poetry and two short story podcasts: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/features/audiolanding; http://www.selectedshorts.org/podcast/; http://www.newyorker.com/podcast.
Above all though, write.
About the Author: Neina Gordon
Neina Gordon, Contributor, is a graduate of the MFA Program at UNC Greensboro where she was the Fred Chappell Fellow and fiction editor for The Greensboro Review. She teaches creative writing at Salem College in Winston-Salem and at The ArtsCenter in Carrboro. She has work forthcoming in Big Fiction.