I Need Your Advice

Image courtesy of laughlin (flickr.com)

I was recently interviewed by my alma mater, Wesleyan, about my writing career since college.  I was flattered, of course, but mostly humbled.  I’ll let you in on a secret: When taking stock of the last 15 years, my overwhelming feeling was, “What exactly HAVE I done with my life?”

When I graduated from college, I asked a lot of writers and professors for career advice. I wanted to know how to “make it” as a writer, and I knew well enough that I’d need a day job to support myself. The advice I received was as memorable as it was contradictory.

  1. Teach. You’ll have summers off to write.
  2. Don’t teach. You’ll spend so much time thinking about your students’ writing that you won’t have the creative energy left over for your own writing.
  3. Do something totally unrelated to writing. Work a 9-5 job that doesn’t require you to take work home. Then do your writing on your own time, without thinking about work.
  4. Do something related to writing. Then, at least, you’ll be using your skills on a day-to-day basis. But you’ll risk having such an all-consuming career that you won’t have time left over for your own writing.
  5. Get a trust fund. I really did have someone tell me this once. She meant it tongue-in-cheek…I think. Because then she announced that if I didn’t take her job at the low-low wage she was offering, she had ten NYU graduates lined up who had parents willing to pay for their rent so they could work for her. I didn’t take that job.

I chose the fourth path. I got an MFA. Then I worked on Wall Street. Then I taught hundreds of cool young writers at colleges all around NYC. Then I became part of YARN and we won a National Book Foundation prize. So I guess I have done a few cool things with my post-college life.

I’ve had some interesting and challenging job interviews, though. Understandably, the first question is often, “Explain to me your career path.” On the surface, it may look like I’ve done incredibly disparate jobs. The narrative throughline, however, is that in every single job I have worked with the written word, whether my own or someone else’s. From academic to corporate work to YARN, I spend my days thinking about what makes for good writing.

You can read my advice to new graduates in the Wesleyan interview here. I wrote about the need for business savvy, for figuring out how to build your writing career like a start-up company. I’d like to add one more piece of advice for YARN reader-writers, and then solicit your own advice. My advice is to make peace with having multiple job titles. They may not all be on your business cards or paychecks, but claim them as your well-earned titles. I’m a writer. I’m an editor. I’m a teacher. I’m also a wife and I got promoted a few years ago to mother. I braid these jobs together like strands in a rope. Several strands, one rope – albeit stronger.

Colleen Oakley, Poetry EditorYARN Readers: What is your advice? What are your plans for the next ten years of your writing career? Or, where have you been and what worked best in the last ten years?  What would you tell new writing students about their career prospects? Bonus question:  Is there such a thing as a good day job for a writer?


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  1. Since you asked: One simple thing I learned after many years: write. Write. Write. And then, finish what you write. Make it good enough. The best you can. Too many people want to write, and ‘make it’ as writers, also want perfection. Sometimes the idea of the perfect keeps them from starting; perfection certainly keeps them from finishing. Then, I agree, be smart about being a writer. Writing is a business to agents and editors and publishers as much as it is art. Go to conferences. Join industry groups. Read, a lot. Send your writing out and be prepared to be rejected. But keep writing — because ultimately you are choosing this path because you have a story you have to tell that no one really else really can tell. Maybe it will take a long time — maybe you can’t do it when your 21 or 22 because you are broke. I was broke at 21. And I took a 20 year-detour into a corporate 9-5 (well more like 8-8 p) job. Ultimately, I don’t think there is one plan or set of advice to give to another person, especially when he or she wants to be a writer. At the end of the day, you’re writing fiction or creative nonfiction because you have to write, you have a story to tell, you can’t let it go. I couldn’t.
    Truly, the author of LIE.

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