Thousands of students receive undergraduate and graduate degrees in Creative Writing each year. Many pursue careers in academia but face an increasingly difficult job market. According to the Association of Writers and Writing Programs’ 2015-2016 Report on the Academic Job Market, there were 890 academic jobs listed in the Job List – a relatively steep decline from 2014-2015’s 1169 academic jobs. In 2015-2016, only 311 of those 890 listings were for tenure-track positions; only 119 were for tenure-track positions in Creative Writing. Indeed, according to the American Association of University Professors, full-time tenured and tenure-track employees made up only 29.5% of the academic labor force as a whole. At the same time, the number of graduate programs conferring degrees in Creative Writing increased. According to the AWP’s report, a combined 458 programs offered graduate degrees in Creative Writing, an increase from 440 in 2015. Perhaps these are the reasons behind another increase in the AWP’s Report: 1,306 nonacademic jobs were listed – an increase from the previous year’s 1,274 listings.
As a writer who left academia three years ago, I was intrigued by these numbers. I posed a question on Twitter: How many writers were working outside of the academy? The response was overwhelming, and offered an inspiring glance into the diversity of work done by the writing community. We work in content marketing, publishing, and library science; we’re freelance writers and editors, or elementary, middle, or high school teachers. We work as exterminators, contractors, and technical recruiters; we are legal aides and non-profit managers, stay-at-home parents, flooring salesmen and data analysts, soldiers, bakers, and librarians. And we are enriched and inspired by non-academic work. As Amy Woolard wrote, “my life as a legal aid lawyer is just as much a part of my identity as my life as a writer. I’m not trying to find a way to give it up and just write, for example.”
This conversation illuminated not only the rich diversity of the contemporary writing community but the enriching possibilities of a non-academic work life. I asked four writers working outside of the academy to reflect upon their experiences. Their responses offer an enlightening – and inspiring – view of what it means to work and write outside of the academy.
Bethany Ball, author of What to Do About the Solomons (Grove Atlantic, 2017)
I loved my MFA program. I was glad I did it late in life. I wasn’t really ready to learn anything until after my second child was born. I’m a late bloomer and a slow learner. I didn’t feel like a part of that community because I felt so much older than the other students. I wish I hadn’t felt that way because I’ve reconnected with a lot them over the past year and it’s a shame I didn’t get to know them better while I was there. It would have made my experience so much richer.
It was only after I published the book that I began to have any kind of writing community. When I published my book, a lot of my friends in my town were surprised. Writing was not something I talked about much. Now I have a few writers I send my work to, or they send me theirs. I like having the two worlds, writing friends and friends in my community, parents of my kids’ friends, neighbors and sometimes they overlap. I’ve recently connected with a couple writers who are also my neighbors. It’s nice to be around people I can be my neurotic writing self around a couple times a week.
I work when my kids are in school. If I’m starting a new project, or need a big push, I’ll try and escape somewhere for a few days, to immerse myself. I’ve never done a writing retreat or anything like that, officially. I feel like all the time I’d take to research and apply to writing retreats could be spent writing. I’m just not good at that type of thing. If one fell in my lap though, I’d be ecstatic! I do think I write best with lots of distractions and very little time. I need to feel a sense of urgency. If I have gobs of time, I’m afraid I wouldn’t really get anything done.
Every once in a while I’ll take some kind of workshop. I went to Dani Shapiro’s Kripalu workshop last year, and I did a one-day writing workshop with a poet at a really great place called the Hudson Valley Writer’s Center across the river from me. Classes are really inspiring. I especially love writing exercises. They are like magical incantations to me. Recently, I’ve been making forays into teaching and I think that’s a great way to create community.
Anthony Frame, Editor of Glass Poetry Press and author of Where Wind Meets Wing
I’m a little hesitant about doing too many direct comparisons between working as a writer in and out of academia, mainly because I have very little experience working as a writer in academia so most of my ideas about that are based on what I’ve heard from others who are working writers in academia. That said, I think that the main difference I see/imagine relates to the idea of support. And I know this is different from school to school, department to department. I spent five or six years as an adjunct instructor at two local schools while also working as a writing tutor at one of the schools and their idea of support was to say a) “don’t bother us we’re busy swiveling our administrative chairs” and, when that didn’t work, b) “it’s okay that we’re cutting your pay because we’ve opened up a food pantry for the students and you’re welcome to request assistance, too.” So, everyone has a different experience in academia.
But, when you work outside of academia and you are also a working writer, you have to take things into account that a lot of writers in academia don’t necessarily have to take into account. I’m thinking about things like readings and residencies and conferences. And I don’t want to infer too much, but my sense is that a lot of academic institutions want their teacher-writers to participate in these, that they feel it good for both their teacher-writers and for their institution. I’ve heard some places even have funds available to help cover the costs of travel and lodging for readings and conferences and such.
For me, it’s different. Now, I’m still pretty lucky. I work for my family’s business and my family is very supportive of my writing. Still, if I am going to go to AWP, for example, I have to request time off of work (kind of a lot of time) and explain why I need this time off and hope that I can get the time off. I’ll likely have to help figure out how to reschedule the work I would have done on those days and make sure that whoever is covering my accounts knows how to manage them – all on top of my regular daily duties. That’s just the annoying inconvenience part of this. Because I’m not salaried. So, if I take a week off of work, I’m losing a week’s worth of pay. So, all of the expenses of participating in these events are then compounded by the loss of wages. I also have to take into account what my (very supportive) bosses will think of me if I’m constantly taking time off to go do writer things. Yes, my bosses love that I am also a writer, and yes they are willing to work with me to give me time to do writerly things. But, when the time comes to offer someone a promotion, who are they really going to offer it to? The technician who takes off every couple of months to go give a poetry reading? Or the technician who seems more dedicated to the company? My bosses might not think that way, but, again, I’m in the unique position where my bosses are my cousins. Other non-academic writers are not in that position. So, it’s a lot to balance.
I was recently asked to read in New York. And, for a little Ohio poet, the idea of reading in a beautiful park in New York City is kind of an amazing, unbelievable opportunity. But I had to turn it down. It’s happening on a Tuesday. In the middle of our busiest season. So not only would I be giving up hours, I’d be giving up overtime hours, the hours I use to cover the slower winter months. This is the nature of working in a seasonal industry.
My writing process has also had to evolve as I moved away from academia. I used to be a daily writer. I don’t know if that was better for me, but I am not a daily writer anymore (I am a daily reader, which, I think, is important, for me at least). I also no longer have a set time or place where I write. That kind of routine is impossible because my work schedule is erratic. Some days, I’m starting at 3:30 am and some days at 7:00 am. Some days, I’m home by 1:00 pm and other days it’s 6:30 pm (or later). There’s no way to set up and maintain a writing routine so I’ve had to find a new process. I keep a notebook handy and I’m constantly jotting down ideas, lines, images, words, whatever pops in my head that I think might be part of a poem. Then, once or twice a month (sometimes more, sometimes less), I try to go through these notes and see if I can start drafting a poem out of them or from some of them or inspired by one of them. It’s a strange process, and often it’s frustrating, and it’s extremely slow. But it’s working so far. I don’t “finish” as many poems each year as I used to, but I feel a lot more connected to the work I’m doing and I think it’s stronger than the work I used to do (whether that’s because of the evolving process or just my natural growth as a writer, I can’t really say).
I think community is very important for writers. Writing is so solitary so not having a support group around can be really hard. You can feel really alone because, in a way, you are. And all the struggles and pitfalls of being a writer can feel very personal if you don’t have other folks who can say, “yeah, I’m going through that, too” or “I was in that same spot last year and here’s what I did.” It’s been hard finding and maintaining a community. I don’t know what it’s like for writers in academia. I don’t know if it’s easier, if the years getting the advanced degrees lead to more close relationships with other writers or if going to conferences and reading creates that creative community. I don’t know the benefits of being around other writers most every day. I’m rarely around other people who love words and stories and poems the way I do (except for my wife, who is an incredible community for me all on her own). The internet, specifically social media, makes it easier. I see other people struggling with the same things I am and we can chat through it on various platforms. And there are people to celebrate and people to celebrate me. But I do miss the closeness of a workshop, the trust of sharing my work with a friend. I’ve had folks who I would swap work with over the years, but it’s hard maintaining those relationships when work gets busy or frustrating, when your personal life gets complicated. Again, I don’t know if that’s unique to non-academic writers. Honestly, I suspect it isn’t. But, maybe being in an environment, working in an environment, where being a writer is valued makes it a little easier.
Alena Singleton, Poet, performer, and sociologist
To be honest, living as a writer outside of academia is less of a choice and more of a “life circumstance” for me. I am currently disabled by reason of autoimmune disease, and as such am unable to work full time. If I was able to work full time, there’s a good chance that, at this stage in my trajectory as a writer, I would actually pursue an MFA in order to teach. Alas, because of my current health and mobility concerns, that’s not even an option.
Paradoxically, however, being disabled and chronically ill is what made it possible for me to begin taking my creative writing – poetry in particular – seriously again at this point in my life. I was just beginning to garner attention as a poet on the NYC spoken word circuit in the early 2000’s, which felt unique as a non-slam poet. However, my poetic endeavors fell by the wayside when I temporarily left NYC and entered academia to pursue a PhD in an unrelated field. I scarcely had time for a social life during my studies and subsequent teaching obligations, let alone a creative life. But once my health made it such that I couldn’t work any longer and I was dealing with severe chronic pain on a daily basis, I started writing creatively again as an outlet.
I didn’t take my creative writing very “seriously” at that point; back then I was chiefly writing as a means of survival. But as I started seeking out spaces with fellow writers and sharing my work again, I received such strong feedback that I decided to start trying to write more systematically and perform more often. One of my chief outlets for doing so has been the Women Writers In Bloom Poetry Salon, a monthly writing workshop and open mic hosted by dynamic poet JP Howard in NYC. It was with this group that I’ve done much of my recent growth as a writer and made new friends and connections within the poetry community. Many of my recent performances and publications started as conversations, ideas, or actual poems that blossomed in the context of WWIB.
I have several good friendships that I’ve developed in the NYC writing community in the last few years, and besides supporting each other emotionally and practically, we make a point to support each other creatively as well. Some of those friendships have almost become de facto writing groups! I find that so much of my work lately gets refined during hype Facebook messenger conversations where poems just keep flying back and forth, and in hushed, in-depth emotionally-charged exchanges had over tea.
In addition to my informal networks and ongoing writing communities here in NYC, I’m currently seeking out more formalized ways to take my writing to the next level and have been looking into fellowships, residencies, writing workshops, and the like. Because I’m not in a position to do an MFA at the moment, I feel like they’re my best chance to learn new skills as a writer and make new contacts in the literary world – both things I definitely need right now. Once upon a time you could make a name for yourself in poetry just by putting together beautiful and moving words and putting yourself in the public eye, but nowadays I’m noticing that a lot of people want to see a “pedigree” of sorts in addition to the talent when it comes to who gets invited to share work, be a featured performer, who gets published in certain places, etc. And that’s discouraging. At times I feel like I’m at a definite disadvantage without having the MFA and the publishing experience or social capital that comes with it. But I keep chugging along like the little writer who could. Wherever I go, my work always gets a positive response. I just have to trust that there are enough creative spaces left where that alone is sufficient reason to get behind a person’s work. Otherwise, I don’t know what will become of most of my work. But I will keep writing regardless. I don’t know who I am without my poetry; regardless of how many people see my words, I am not myself unless I’m writing.
C.T. Salazar, editor of Dirty Paws Poetry Review
Being a writer outside the academy can easily feel like isolation. So many of the writers I follow and admire and endlessly respect are professors and lecturers. Now I’m at the end of an MFA, and if I don’t become a professor, I’ll have virtually no working affiliation to academia. And I’m just now in a space where I’m okay with that. I absolutely love my work as a children’s librarian, and it’s a field that I may not do forever, but want to be doing right now.
My routines are chaotic like the children I work with. Between being a full-time student and full-time employee, I don’t have a set time to write even though I try to write every day. I keep one journal at a time and take it with me everywhere. If it’s not in my backpack that’s taken to work every day and taken into my apartment every night or in any coffee shop I go to, it’s in my car. I’ll write whole poems or half poems depending on my time, edit and rewrite before eventually moving the poem to a Word document for more revision.
I have a yellow table in my apartment that belonged to my grandmother. My mother grew up eating breakfast at it every single day for over twenty years. I would always write at that table if time and place were never an issue. I love to sit there and write—I love to sit there and breathe, knowing the two most remarkable women of my life sat there every day and became more and more themselves. My grandmother lost the diamond from her wedding ring at the edge of the trees while chopping firewood. My mother ran for a political office that had never been held by a woman before, and she maintained that office for twenty-four years. I am in conversation with strength and survival when I’m writing at that table. Sometimes I have to write in my workspace, or in a coffee shop on lunch break, and I’ve accepted that fluidity over preference is a necessary trait for a working artist.
Community is a great subject. I had to help foster one, but I feel so fortunate to have it and belong to it. I live in a small town in Mississippi, and decided two years ago to plan, advertise, and host a poetry and spoken word open mic. I didn’t know if it would be a flop or not. No one around me ever talked about poetry. The bar I was part-time employed at let me host it there. Around 150 people came, and to this day it was one of the most magical things I’ve experienced. Ever since, I’ve hosted it every other month in an independent coffee and tea shop.
The poets that come range from high school students to elderly and it’s one of the most ethnically diverse groups I’ve ever seen in my town. Once, a man I’ve never seen (which is a big deal in a small town) came up and said in the mic, “I’ve never actually shared my writing with anyone, and I don’t know that any of my family knows I write. Anyway, I hope you guys like sonnets” and he read a sequence of four sonnets about his father with PTSD from the Vietnam War. Those sonnets have never been published and will probably never be studied by anyone—but I swear they’re the best sonnets I’ve ever encountered. I can remember one line still (this was over a year ago): “I know the war has teeth, and I know it’s still chewing on you. I wish I could make it let go.”
Emma Bolden is the author of two full-length collections of poetry, Maleficae (GenPop Books, 2013) and medi(t)ations (Noctuary Press, 2016). She’s also the author of four chapbooks of poetry — How to Recognize a Lady (part of Edge by Edge, Toadlily Press); The Mariner’s Wife, (Finishing Line Press); The Sad Epistles (Dancing Girl Press); and This Is Our Hollywood (in The Chapbook) – and one of nonfiction – Geography V (Winged City Press). A Barthelme Prize and Spoon River Poetry Review Editor’s Prize winner, her work has appeared in The Best American Poetry and The Best Small Fictions as well as such journals as The Rumpus, Prairie Schooner, Conduit, the Indiana Review, Harpur Palate, the Greensboro Review, Feminist Studies, The Journal, and Guernica.