02 December 2009

Trading Up


Two years ago, I decided to rearrange my life around my writing. Some people work a regular job and do their creative work on the side. I am convinced that I am not one of those people. A lot of different things factored into my decision, but a huge part of it was hitting my late thirties and realizing that I didn’t want the rest of my life to look like the first part of my life. I wanted to make creative work the centre. I had always wanted that, but how I came to own my desire is a little bit of a story.

Here it is, in case anyone wants to know.

I’ve always wanted to write. My real passion for it began when I was in grade three and Mrs. Thompson gave me three gold stars for my story about a duck. She even let me write it out in huge letters! in magic marker! on a giant pad of paper! so everyone could read it. I guess that counts as my first publication.

I took a degree in English and Philosophy after high school. I finished my undergrad in 1993 and said goodbye to school. I jumped head first into a dysfunctional relationship that would last for most of the nineties. Despite my crazy love life, I wrote on and off during this time. I did manage a few publications, mostly in homemade magazines with bad artwork and utterly gross aesthetic sensibilities – right up my alley.

After a few years of freelance editing, I decided that the whole school thing wasn’t so bad after all. I went back for more. During my Master’s degree I flirted with minor intellectual stardom. I was a medium sized fish in a small pond. I liked it.

My dysfunctional relationship couldn’t share space with my burgeoning academic career, so I took the cat and moved into an apartment all my own. I took a PhD in English Literature, specializing in Renaissance Drama. I replaced my crazy ex with a crazy thesis supervisor.

All the while, I was studying tai chi and various other forms of energy work. These two different worlds – academia and the mystical – didn’t quite mesh, but I was okay with that.

Throughout my years of study, I always meant to do creative work, but there was just never time. Grad school really crushed the creative urge out of me: since you’re supposed to be publishing constantly, there’s little time for any writing beyond the academic. In my field, it’s article writing or nothing, so I wrote articles. I told myself that it was enough of an outlet. All the while, a protest was building in the hidden chambers of my soul. Because I was busy, intellectually and emotionally engaged in school, and under the special kind of pressure that grad school brings, it was easy to ignore.

Things began to turn around when I finished my degree and won a fellowship to do two years’ further research. Part of the deal was spending winters in Washington DC. Through a mixture of stubborness, determination not to be separated from my cat for three months at a time, sheer good luck, and kismet, I ended up renting a Victorian house on Capitol Hill for those winters.

There was something magical about my time in Washington. The cat and I had this huge, rambling place all to ourselves, I had all the free museum access I could handle, and there was enough cash to keep me going without having to worry – at least for a little while.

Most importantly, for the first time ever, no one was watching me. I was a little bit accountable to my new supervisor (who was lovely and not crazy in the least), to let him know what I was working on. I worked steadily, but slowly. I gave myself lots of space and time to fiddle around. If I didn’t show up at the research library, people did comment, but my funding was from an independent source, so it really didn’t matter. Most of my time was my own.

Sometime in these Washington winters, I started to play with creative work again. I meditated and I practised tai chi in the tiny garden at the back of the house. Slowly, I reacquainted myself with the magic of words on paper. Once I started, I didn’t want to stop.

A realization was beginning to simmer at the back of my brain: if I wanted to be a writer, I couldn’t be an academic too. I’m sure some people can. Some people are way more amazing and capable of multitasking than me.

But I have to say that I’ve also seen a lot of academics who are battered down, unhealthy, and drained dry by their careers. The average English department is chock full of frustrated creatives who just don’t have the time or energy to play with writing. Those people scared me. One of my mentors – one of those people who seemed to be balancing creative work with a professorship – ended up in the hospital with a serious illness. When I asked senior faculty members what their careers were like, they did nothing but complain. I saw a possible future me in those people.

At the same time, the academics of my generation who were getting tenure stream jobs were the ones most incredibly driven to succeed. They worked tirelessly at their research and nothing else.

The academic job market that was supposed to be wide open by the time I graduated was tighter than ever. I found myself competing for the few available jobs with people who had been at it for years. They wanted it more than I did, and I knew that. I’m sure the committees who interviewed me knew it too.

As someone who had outside interests, I was an exception. I knew sooner or later I would be forced to decide between my academic work and the rest of my life.

Slowly, I started to make a decision. This was in no way something I rationally thought through. It’s more like my heart broke open one day and all this stuff came flooding out. I couldn’t put it back in, not without causing myself some damage.

In September 2007, as the academic job market was gearing up, I went up north to our family cottage, sat by the lake, and cried my guts out.

When I was done, I walked back up to the cottage and told my partner that I wanted to quit academia.

He nodded. “I know, it’s making you miserable,” he said. “What else would you want to do?”

I think telling him that I wanted to be a writer took more courage than just about anything else I’ve done in my life. Admitting it to him meant admitting it to myself.

I’ve been working at it for two years now. Mostly it’s been a downhill ride in a shiny red wagon. I'm not where I need to be if I'm going to make writing a career. But I know what I want to do and I’m giving as much of my time as possible to doing it. I have rearranged my life around writing.

I won’t lie: this is a crazy tough road. I’m living with a ridiculous degree of instability. There is nothing right now on which to base the kind of future plans that most people make. I’m working very odd jobs. I would say “to make ends meet”, but at this point I’m really just hoping that ends agree to talk to each other sometime in the future before my line of credit runs out.

For the first time ever, I have peace. My insides feel right, and that is something you can’t buy.

I’m unsure that my creative career will ever go anywhere. But I do know that it wasn’t going anywhere before, and I do believe that if you put positive effort into something, it will grow.

Into what, that’s not for me to say. But I’m going to do my best to make it something awesome.

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