For a long time I didn’t admit to people that I was a writer. I worked part-time as a teacher while I was getting my MFA in Fiction Writing, and as soon as I finished my degree, I went back to teaching full-time. So I told people I was a math teacher. Which was true, but not completely honest.
Even after I quit teaching to focus on writing, I found it hard to ‘fess up. Now, when people ask me what I do, I still sometimes say I’m a Skype tutor for Ukrainians, or a math curriculum consultant, which I am. But writing is my chosen career.
I always worry that saying I’m a writer sounds pompous or sophomoric. Shouldn’t a writer have books on the shelf at Barnes & Noble or a column in a magazine? Shouldn’t a writer be making a living off her writing? (I have gotten paid for my writing at various points, but certainly not enough to live off of.)
Sometimes it’s easier to say I create math curriculum. Then I don’t have to think of a response to questions like “oh, where can I buy your book?” or “so when is your book coming out?” (The answers to which are “nowhere” and “hopefully sometime in the next decade, fingers crossed.”)
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This past weekend, however, I could own up to being a writer because I was surrounded by other writers at the AWP conference (held this year, conveniently, in Seattle.) AWP (The Association of Writers and Writing Programs) puts on a HUGE, rather hoity-toity conference that is mostly filled with writers who don’t make any money off their writing either.
On the first day of the conference, I woke up early and tutored a Ukranian for an hour before heading to the convention center. I attended two panel discussions, helped man the Burlesque Press table for an hour, and then I came home where I practiced guitar and finished a math curriculum project. Then I headed off to my other part-time job as an after-school assistant. In the evening I met up with my writer friends for drinks.
“I can’t believe you’re trying to tutor and play guitar and go to work on top of all the AWP stuff,” my friend Jeni (amazing director of Burlesque Press) shouted to me over the din in the dark bar.
I always do this, though. Last year I tutored and worked on math curriculum in the mornings and went to AWP in the afternoons. I think I don’t want to invest all my time at AWP because I don’t want it to be all that I do.
“If writing is all that I do, it puts a lot of pressure on my writing,” I explained to Jeni. “It’s like a self-preservation thing – not putting all my eggs in one basket.”
“Well it’s time to stop that.” Jeni arched her eyebrows and took a sip of white wine. “You’re a writer. It’s what you do. It’s time to admit it.”
She’s right…. And, in a way, she’s not.
For so many years I was afraid to admit to being a writer because it was scary to put my hopes and dreams out there for all to see. I thought I could write secretly in the privacy of my own home, and then surprise everyone one day with the success of my first published novel. And if there was no success of a published novel, no one would know about my failure except for me. It was safer that way.
But Jeni’s right – I need to stop that line of thinking. I’m never going to have success as a writer if I don’t put myself out there and meet people who might teach me or help me reach my goal. Putting myself out there is largely what this blog is about.
But I don’t think it was necessarily wrong of me to split my time between AWP and other activities. Because writing isn’t all that I do. One of the things I’ve always liked about myself is my well-roundedness. On the SAT’s in high school I got the same score in both math and verbal. That tells you something. Growing up I read a lot, but I also played volleyball, acted in plays, and factored polynomials on the chalkboard in my room (no joke). I actually enjoy creating math curriculum. I also enjoy doing yoga, playing the guitar, tutoring, dancing, and reading science books. I don’t want to put all my eggs in one basket because life’s more interesting when you have more than one basket.
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On Friday and Saturday, I ended up spending most of my time at the conference, and what I realized is that AWP may not be the place for me. It is filled with literary journal editors, small press staff, and creative writing instructors. It’s filled with a lot of people who talk about creative writing, and teach creative writing, and have highfalutin thoughts about creative writing, but not people whose writing is read by the world at large. In fact, some of them seem to actively frown upon the idea of writing for the general public (although I have the feeling they wouldn’t exactly mind if they wrote a book that became a best-seller.)
It makes me wonder if maybe a lot of the prose writers at AWP are doing their own version of self-preservation. They write high-brow literary pieces for small journals and presses and claim a disdain for “commercial” fiction because they are afraid if they tried for bigger goals they wouldn’t achieve them and would have to admit their failure. It’s safer to continue fishing in small, stocked ponds than try your luck in the unforgiving ocean.
I don’t know. Maybe that’s not the case at all, and I do think small presses have their place, but every year major publishers put out books with literary merit that go on to have great commercial success – the two are not mutually exclusive. The Alchemist, Lolita, and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, — all excellent books — are three of the “twenty best-selling books of all time.” Writing a literary book that finds commercial success isn’t impossible; it’s just a terribly difficult thing to accomplish.
And most people are afraid to admit that they want something when it’s is terribly difficult to achieve it.
But I am admitting it. I am a writer. And what I want more than anything is to write a book with literary merit that has some commercial success. I want to see my book on the shelves at Barnes & Noble. I want to make some money from my writing. Not because I care about money (and good thing since writers make little of it), but because I want writing to clearly be my career.
Writing is not all that I do. But it is what I have done most consistently and with the most gusto for most of my life. I wrote my first short story at five years old and my first novel at the age of eight. Like my business card says, I am a “writer… among other things.” It’s the other things that make me the well-rounded person I’ve grown to know and love. But I am a writer first of all.