‘Dear Roz, how do I get a career with my writing?’ – Anya
You might already guess what I’m going to say: everyone finds their own way, and a career happens after an apprenticeship of muddling and wandering. That muddling period might be long, or it might be short if the stars align. (It will still feel long to you, even if everyone else tells you it’s short.)
Planning might help, but luck is more important; outrageously so.
But here’s where I can be more encouraging. Luck doesn’t have to mean dramatic big breaks. Luck can also be small stepping stones that together line up into your own individual and unexpected path.
Also, most of those stepping stones are not random; they are choices you make yourself. You try this and that, and even if this and that were not what you hoped, they helped you stumble across a better this and that.
For a while now I’ve been running a series of interviews where I ask writers how they made their careers. I’ve seen lots of those stepping stones and choices.
So here are a few general principles.
You might follow in the footsteps of creative family members.
Connie Biewald’s family encouraged creativity. One of her brothers is a musician. Her father built furniture.
But every principle has a contradiction. Your family might believe that arts are only a hobby, not a means to earn a living. No worries. You’ll do it anyway.
Like Annalisa Crawford. And me!
You might take a writing course or two, or even a degree.
Like Ian M Rogers.
Or you might teach yourself as you go along.
Like Apple Gidley. Actually, like everyone. Even if you take a degree course, that’s only a few years – a blip in a writing lifetime. Your real education as a writer starts from the moment you discover reading, when words become your playground, your workshop, your analyst, your element.
You might decide there’s a point where you own that you are a writer.
John McCaffrey describes how he had always ‘couched my writing in deprecation when asked, but decided I was making light of real accomplishments and harming my true self’.
You might use your writing sensibilities in adjacent professions.
Many of the novelists I interview are editors or teachers for other novelists. Some use their writing-fu for more down-to-earth purposes, as journalists – like Martha Engber, Mark Chesnut (and me!). Ann S Epstein wrote psychology papers for many years. Ian M Rogers edits academic and business materials. Rishi Dastidar is an advertising copywriter, journalist and brand strategist. John McCaffrey writes grant applications.
Or you might keep your writing mojo for yourself.
Connie Biewald says she decided early on to not try to work in the literary arts – ‘I thought it would take my writing energy away’. Even so, she hasn’t strayed far from books – she teaches reading and writing in schools and is a librarian and growth education specialist.
Or you might work in something completely different.
Martha Engber and Annalisa Crawford are also fitness instructors.
Although you might have imagined your destiny was novels, you might find you also write other kinds of books.
You might write manuals for other writers, like Martha Engber, Jessica Bell, David Starkey, Alexis Paige and me.
Because narrative is intrinsic to your way of living, you might surprise yourself by writing a memoir.
Like Gina Troisi. Elaina Battista-Parsons. Jessica Bell. Mark Chesnut. And me.
You might, if you’ve been at it long enough, answer yes to most of these statements.
You might do a lot of unpaid work to get started.
Amie McCracken describes how, in the early days, ‘I worked my butt off, most of it for free’.
But you learn your worth.
You learn that when you contribute to another person’s creative work, you give something of value. You learn to ask what value you’re getting. In the early days that might be a training experience or contacts or a reputation. But there comes a point where you can charge the full value that you’re offering.
Creativity doesn’t switch off. You might also do other artforms.
Steve Zettler is an actor. Nick Padron and Jessica Bell are musicians. Ann S Epstein weaves textiles. Melanie Faith is a photographer. Mat Osman… well, if you know the band Suede, you’ll know what Mat does when he’s not writing novels.
You don’t do it alone.
You might set out alone, perhaps in secret, but you’ll gather others around you. Some will be fixers and mentors – editors, critique partners, publishers, other authors. Some will be cheerleaders – advance readers, reviewers who are pleased to see new work from you. Some will stick with you, some will become an inner circle who’ll see the wobbly days, who’ll tell you the truth or help you find what your truth is. You have publication credits, books in the world, people who have read you and want to know you because of that, maybe want to work with you too.
How do you fund creative work if your natural niche is not a high earner? Ian Rogers is the guy to ask. He’s done a variety of odd jobs that allowed him headspace to write a series of mischievous pseudo self-help pamphlets and a full-length work of experimental fiction released last week, titled MFA Thesis Novel. Meanwhile, he exploits his word-fu to the full, editing academic papers and business texts, and teaching English as a foreign language. How creative people sustain their careers is a long-term interest of his – which led to his blog, But I Also Have a Day Job.
Ian, how did writing start for you?
A lot of writers start interviews like this one by saying they were writing passionately from a young age, and if you count a handful of elementary school stories and stick-figure comics, I guess I was too.
When I was young I gravitated more toward different forms of storytelling: acting out imaginary stories at recess, narrating into a tape recorder, making my younger brothers laugh.
Have you done other arts?
I did a lot of acting in high school, and for a while I dreamed of doing stand-up comedy, but I never took serious steps toward either. Around college, writing—and novels specifically—naturally emerged from that experimentation as the method of telling stories that was most accessible to me. It was the method I understood the best after nearly two decades of reading books.
Were your family in the arts?
If making ridiculous jokes around the dinner table counts as an art form, my family were experts. As far as the more traditional arts, though, not at all, and no one in my family understood how one made a career in that. My parents encouraged me to follow the path I wanted regardless of what it was. I think to my parents, saying I wanted to be a writer was the same as saying I wanted to be a plumber or investment banker—it was just one path out of many, and didn’t come with any connotations, positive or negative.
You have a blog titled But I Also Have a Day Job. It’s a situation most people working in the arts would recognise. How did this blog come about?
After I finished my creative writing master’s at the University of Nebraska I was processing a lot of mental overload about my next steps. I was working on the MFA Thesis Novel manuscript and trying to pitch an earlier novel based on my time living in Japan, and the easiest way to earn money during that time was an incredibly laid-back job in a greenhouse on the university’s agriculture campus. The job mostly consisted of filling pots and mixing chemicals while hanging out with cool international students, and when I finished in the afternoons I found myself with plenty of energy to come home and write—far more energy than I’d had as a grad student, where I was teaching classes, doing homework and attending department talks.
The Day Job blog grew out of this idea that having a mindless job that required very little energy and caused zero stress was the perfect way to earn bill-paying money when you’re primarily interested in doing your own creative work. The writing program I’d just finished was the exact opposite of that—it stressed that if you wanted to write you had to enter this cut-throat academic world where the competition for professor jobs was fierce and most opportunities came in the form of poorly paid adjunct positions with little job security. With the Day Job blog, I wanted to explore the possibility of finding different career paths, and the various ways writers and other creative people handle these very practical concerns.
Are all the interviewees writers?
I try to host a balance of writers and people working in other creative fields—for instance, Krissy Diggs, who’s an Instagram illustrator, Jeff Gill, who’s an animator and producer on the Netflix show Ask the Storybots, and Miranda Reeder, who writes, draws and programs visual novels.
Are there any useful generalisations you can make about creative careers?
One thing I’ve found is that while the specifics of different creative fields vary widely, the paths to building any kind of creative career involve a lot of uncertainty, a lot of working less-than-ideal jobs while you transition, a lot of networking, and a lot of night and weekend work.
I think a lot of writers make the mistake of only looking to other writers for career guidance, whereas there are plenty of other models they could be borrowing from. My hope is that by looking at these stories of how different creative people become successful, creative people in all fields can get ideas and inspiration about how to build their own careers.
What is your day job now?
In January I finished a second stint of teaching English in Japan—first elementary school, then at a university in Yokohama. Most of my income now comes from editing, writing coaching, and teaching private video lessons in English as a foreign language. It’s a good routine because I can set my own hours, I don’t have to answer to a boss, and most importantly, I can write in the morning while my mind is fresh.
Your website mentions you’ve done a lot of odd jobs. How successful were they for you?
The greenhouse job was probably the most successful in terms of freeing my mind and time for creative work, and I probably would have kept it if it hadn’t involved staying in Nebraska.
All of my other jobs came with one problem or another: before grad school I worked as a school secretary, but the pay was low, the workload neverending, and the environment toxic. For a while I graded standardized test essays online, but it got too monotonous. After that I picked up a job listing electronics for an online store, but I left after I discovered that the boss was breaking tax law and cheating employees out of overtime pay. I didn’t want to be associated with a work environment where other workers were being exploited.
Tell me about MFA Thesis Novel.
Much like Day Job, MFA Thesis Novel grew out of my grad school experiences in Nebraska. The novel I was workshopping was about life in Japan, a topic the other grad students knew nothing about, and it used a lot of experimental techniques I was drawn to after years of reading the 20th century modernist writers. No one around me was doing any of that, and the program was centred in more contemporary fiction, especially fiction with a rural bent. I still had a lot of craft-developing to do, but the people around me usually rejected the literary moves I was making rather than trying to understand them, which felt confusing and hurtful, but most of all, limiting.
In my grad school workshops we always talked about conflict, and it occurred to me that grad school itself was a perfect setting for conflict—work that didn’t fit the mould was being criticized, people were lonely in this strange, conservative university environment, and everyone was aiming for these high-paying tenure-track English jobs that were disappearing because universities weren’t funding them any more. MFA Thesis Novel naturally emerged from these conflicts, along with my love of campus comedies like Lucky Jim and Joseph Heller’s A Portrait of an Artist, As an Old Man, which merges narration and novels-within-the-novel in a way that’s both poignant and incredibly silly.
Why that title? It’s quite brave…
The title was inspired by a Broadway musical I’d seen a few years back called [title of show] in brackets. It’s a comedy musical about two guys trying to write a comedy musical, and the audience watches them bumble through the process. I loved the metafictional concept and wanted to play with that in MFA Thesis Novel, which is also about the writing process and finding your voice as an artist.
How long was your novel in progress?
Too long! I wrote the first draft over nine months while I was working in the greenhouse in Nebraska, then took two-plus years to revise it while I was working more mentally demanding jobs after moving back to New Hampshire. In the process of writing MFA Thesis Novel and the novel I’m working on now, I’ve realised how difficult it really is to make progress on a novel when you’re working a day job, commuting, and trying to build an online presence as a writer, not to mention making time for hobbies, family, and—wait for it—sleep.
Do you have an MFA yourself?
My creative writing degree is actually an MA (don’t tell anyone), though research and more than a few late-night grad student conversations have revealed that my experience was comparable to any number of the hundreds of MFA programs in the US. My own department was at a huge R1 school that prized research and had a lot of creative writing PhDs, as well as a lot of students in literature and composition and rhetoric, which led to its more academic bent.
Was it useful to you?
It was. Aside from the time to write and hone my craft, I learned a lot about the world of literary agents, publishing and small presses, which were largely a mystery. Equally important, though, were the connections and work experience, which launched me in a whole new direction after graduation. I did internships with the department literary journal and the university press, taught a year of freshman composition, got my first paid editing jobs, and took an amazing class about copyright law and how publishing contracts work. Plus, of course, the experience gave me a cool idea for a novel.
You also have a set of zines, The Erochikan Zines, which satirise how-to pamphlets and corporate culture. Are these a reaction to situations you’ve worked in?
The Erochikan zines satirise work, but they also shine a spotlight on basic human interactions that to me feel broken, like how passive-aggressive put-downs are considered socially acceptable, or how we subtly pressure one another away from making changes in our lives. I thought, what if there was an evil corporation intentionally teaching people how to act this way—how would they make these abhorrent behaviours seem attractive?
Does that indicate a rebellious streak in your soul?
Ha! ‘Rebellious’ is a word I usually associate with teenagers who cut class and carve their initials in bathroom stalls. I prefer to describe myself as someone who points out the absurdity in the world we all live in and isn’t afraid to speak the truth. I’ve always found satire to be extraordinarily powerful in how it can show us bigger truths about society in ways that have real entertainment value while also being more thoughtful than, say, sarcastic Twitter memes.
The name Erochikan comes from the Japanese words ero, a shortening of the English word “erotic,” and chikan, a pervert who gropes women on crowded subway trains.
The Japanese have a word for that? They think of everything.
Speaking of words, you’re an editor too, with a broad set of skills – academic papers and business materials as well as the more creative side of writing – and, of course, English as a foreign language. How did you get that spread of experience?
That greenhouse job I keep mentioning actually started as an editing job cleaning up agricultural research manuscripts written by second-language speakers from India. I knew nothing about farming, but it gave me a lot of experience both in line editing and in working with dense academic writing in specialised fields I didn’t have a background in. My boss was good about recommending me to his colleagues, and I picked up other gigs editing social science and architecture manuscripts. If clients like you, they tend to use you again and pass on your info, which helped bring in different kinds of jobs, especially ones that involve coaching or talking through ideas over Zoom. Transferring those skills to working with fiction writers felt natural because I could integrate my teaching background and my writing experience, so it’s been especially rewarding to work with fiction writers as they hone their craft.
Your novel contains autobiographical material. Would you ever write a memoir?
While I’ve read a few excellent memoirs that played with form and structure in ways I found fascinating, I doubt anyone wants to read about my childhood playing Sonic the Hedgehog and having sleepovers with my friends. Aside from traditional memoir, one of my goals is to turn But I Also Have a Day Job into a nonfiction book about how creative people build careers. The book would be part research, part my own experience, and part experiences of people I’ve interviewed—a road map to the creative life.
That sounds like an excellent idea. Okay, here are some quick-fire questions.
Wordcounts or not?
In my own writing? Hell no—solving one really different problem for me is more valuable than 10,000 mediocre words I’ll have to edit out later.
Travel or stay at home?
I’m constantly torn between both—when I lived in Japan I was in travel mode, but for now I gravitate more toward staying at home and getting work done.
Fast or slow reader?
Slow—I tend to pause and process ideas as I read.
How did you end up a complete expert on the George Michael song ‘Careless Whisper’?
I had a chance to join this cool podcast called Blanketing Covers with Danny Getz and Jon Trainor. Every episode they choose a song or artist and look at the dozens of artists across the world who’ve covered them. They gave me a few options, and ‘Careless Whisper’ jumped right out. I take guilty pleasure in all the soft rock songs that my mom would listen to on the radio in the early 90s, and I’ve given the protagonist of my new novel a similar fondness.
Oh wise editor, what’s a word you always mis-spell?
Disappointed, recommend—any word with two sets of letters that could be doubled.