A “Real Job”: The Legitimacy of Creative Writing

Over the course of my creative writing MFA, the topic of the work-writing balance has come up more than a few times. Some of my colleagues have the luxury of attending our program full-time and not working, but most balance a part-time class schedule with a full-time job, family, children, volunteering, and any number of commitments.

A writer’s retreat attendee once told me she’d had a career as a doctor before becoming a writer, and that she didn’t believe people could just be writers. I frequently get asked what I plan to do with my MFA; others have questioned why I don’t hold a job while taking classes. Editing, teaching, and writing-related jobs are seen as more concrete, more realistic ventures, but the actual act of writing is seldom considered the all-consuming thing it can be. There are a number of reasons for this:

Writing is not an economically stable pursuit. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that only a handful of best-selling writers have the luxury of making a living completely from their craft. Not only that, but all of them started where most of us are, struggling to squeeze writing time in between the hours of their “real job.” Writing is a lot like being the gardener of a very slow-growing plant – to derive any enjoyment, you must enjoy planting and nurturing the seeds just as much as watching the first green emerge from the soil. You must do this with the knowledge that for whatever reason, the seed may never grow at all.

The process is incredibly fluid and unpredictable. On top of not making any money, writing is a notoriously unpredictable and fluid process. Some non-writers seem to believe that writing just “happens,” that poets, novelists and writers of short prose sit at a seat in a cafe or the comfort of our homes, squeezing our eyes shut until the muse swoops down, and bam, story. Ernest Hemingway didn’t help things when he said, “there is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” The truth is much more complex and much closer to any other endeavor requiring time, ability and sweat.

We don’t come to its defense. Unfortunately, writers often perpetuate the stereotypes they fight against. Some set unrealistic goals of being the next Stephen King or J.K. Rowling, just to crash and burn when their egos get the best of them. We often fail (or refuse) to define what it is that we do; writers who are asked about their daily writing routines rarely give clear-cut answers (unless they have the time and resources of Stephen King or J.K. Rowling.) Ambiguity is also found in the academic sphere, where it seems pedagogical debates are often dominated by the issue of whether writing can or should be defined at all as opposed to actually defining it.

Sometimes we feel the need to self-deprecate, to crack jokes at our artsy, bohemian, carefree lives when the reality is a lot less romantic. Maybe we feel guilty for our gifts, for having the means to pursue something for love over money, for having found something that makes us happy. Maybe we’re insecure about the fact that writing is as equally subjective as it is competitive, and making fun of ourselves is the best way to cushion our disappointments.

The problem is this: all of this is self-perpetuating. Because convention tells us to accompany writing with a “real job,” writers struggle to make writing a real job. We fail to establish routines and prioritize writing over other things that eat our time. We don’t submit our work nearly as often as we’d like or should. We become plagued with self-doubt and procrastination. (If you’re like me, you somehow manage to get all of your cleaning done before putting one word on a page.)

So what do we do? How to do we prioritize our writing and afford to live? How do we deal with those who don’t understand? These are difficult questions, and I don’t pretend to have all the answers. But most of the sound writing advice I’ve heard turns the apparent drawbacks of writing into benefits:

Focus on time, not results. Not relying on writing as a source of income also means that writing is not as results-centric as most jobs. Set finite windows of time for your writing and be realistic – if you can only focus for a half hour, set it for a half hour. During that time, just write, and write until the timer goes off. Spending more time on writing will lead you to focus less on the results, which means you won’t beat yourself up as much for the less inspired days, and your creative mind will be freer from self-criticism. Once you have dedicated relatively regular periods of time to writing, you can start to set other goals – word count, page count, the number of pieces you’ll revise this week or submit to journals by next month.

Don’t censor yourself. One of the poets at last year’s Dodge Poetry Festival described the process of writing something scandalous or scary, something “that would knock [her] mother dead.” As she put it, “I wrote it…and nothing happened.”  That’s just it – our initial writing is just for ourselves, nobody else. So write it all out – the good, the bad, the ugly, the shameful, the stuff you’ve never told a soul…and then leave it to deal with later. You may find that your demons are actually everyone else’s demons, too, and that this kind of honesty will lead to your most powerful work.

Be an observer. Unlike jobs that specialize in only one field, writing specializes in everything. This also means you’re never off the clock. Writing ideas will come to you everywhere – in the shower, while doing dishes, in the movie theatre, in the classroom or office, etc. Capitalize on this! Keep a journal, notepad, word doc, text yourself, put it in an app – whatever works to keep track of your writing ideas on the go. Look at your day job as a gold mine of writing fodder (see: awkward office relationships.) They don’t even have to be complete ideas; they can be sounds, smells, images, or just snippets of words that sounded good together. When you get stuck, go to the list. You never know what will end up being exactly the line you were looking for.

People don’t have to get it. I think it was Dr. Seuss that said it best: “Those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.” Some people will understand and respect your undertaking as a writer. Some will be jealous, some won’t care and some will think it’s a major waste of time. This is immaterial. You’re a writer, which means any time you spend worrying about the legitimacy of what you do is time you could have spent writing.

None of these behaviors are the golden ticket, but taken together, I think they have the power to change a writer’s attitude toward writing. And once that happens, it becomes clear that writing is so much more than making a living – it is our living.

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Kara Cochran

About Kara Cochran

Kara Cochran is a poet, writer, teacher, and editor. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Rosemont College, and a BA in Creative Writing and German Studies from Denison University. She is the Assistant Managing Editor of Philadelphia Stories, Jr. and the former Managing Editor of Rathalla Review. She is a Fiction Southeast columnist and volunteers with Mighty Writers, a Philadelphia nonprofit dedicated to teaching children “to think and write with clarity.” She writes poetry, fiction, and articles about the craft of writing.