“Work and writing are intimately related” began Libby Burton, senior editor at Henry Holt & Co., to open Friday morning’s panel “Work Work Balance: When a Day Job Pays More Than the Bills” at the 2018 AWP conference. “We are all here to make money off of books.”
The panel, covering the anxiety and inspiration entwined in the delicate balancing of art and life, consisted of Rachel Heng, author of the forthcoming novel Suicide Club; Rebekah Frumkin, author of the forthcoming novel The Comedown; and Chelsea Hodson, author of the forthcoming essay collection, Tonight I’m Someone Else.
“All of these writers acquired an agent and sold their projects while working in other capacities,” said Burton. Each author had different employment experiences—from finance to teaching to juggling four part-time jobs in New York. Here’s some of the conversation they had around writing their books while negotiating their jobs.
When did you consider writing your job?
Each author seemed to deal with impostor syndrome to a greater or lesser degree—uncertain just how much they were allowed to think of themselves as a writer, and how much they should let this identity dictate their lives. For a long time their job was one thing, their writing another.
Hodson thought most of her adult life of writing as her work, but never her job. Similarly, Frumkin didn’t think of writing as her job, at least not until she sold her book. And Heng was writing in secret for three years while working in the high-powered world of London finance before ever she told anyone that she was a writer. Then within three months she got into the Michener Center MFA program and sold her novel—so the shift for her, from writing to writing-as-work, was a very “clean break.”
Why did you start writing?
Hodson always had a diary as a child (she admired Anne Frank’s own diary as lovely and amazing), and so has had a long history of documenting life in writing. But she didn’t know artists and writers growing up, and so saw writing books as an “impossible project that rich people do.” She studied journalism in college, but soon a poetry class inspired her to pursue creative writing as a craft. Nonetheless how such a thing was ever a career remained a mystery.
Frumkin started writing because she is “very easily embarrassed and massively insecure.” She described “feeling intensely” as a mode of life in a world where people didn’t seem to feel as much, and so she channeled this feeling into fiction. “Feeling small and wanting to connect in feeling small,” was how she defined the writing impulse.
Heng has always been a huge reader; books were how she made sense from a young age. But she never wanted to be a writer when young, as she never saw writing as a “thing that people could do.” Raised in a single-parent family in Singapore, and feeling pressured early on to make money, she felt that “the arts weren’t presented as a viable career choice growing up.” But she participated in National Novel Writing Month while working in London, and this opened her up as a writer. The experience nourished her and made her happy when she felt lost there and alone.
How did you balance work and writing?
Hodson’s main advice on this topic was “not to be too hard on oneself.” She explained that, though she had a writing schedule set up for herself while writing the essays for her book, sometimes the demands of working four part-time jobs would mess it up. “It’s really important to adapt to your own constraints, your own emotions and efficiencies.”
“I can definitely tell you what not to do,” said Frumkin, who had a pattern of working a job and then leaving that job to take some time to find another job, only then writing in that space between jobs. She soon understood that this was an unstable method for writing, and that she needed to set up a habit, a practice, and learn how to maintain a job while writing. “Be easy on yourself,” she said, “and find the practice that works for you.”
“I didn’t do any of those things,” chimed in Heng.”I was very unkind to myself.” In order to write her novel, she got up at 6:00 a.m., wrote 500 words longhand in the hour ride on the train to work, and then she wrote three to four hours more on Saturday. “For me,” she said, “having that structure and regular goals helped”—but she understands that this won’t be true for everyone. And now that she’s quit her finance job and is pursuing her MFA, this structure for writing doesn’t work as well even for her.
What do you wish someone would have told you?
Hodson says that she uses the word “instinct” a lot when she teaches, and she thinks that this is important for young writers to know—to trust their instincts about publishing and writing opportunities. When she got early book publishing opportunities, she sensed in her gut when she wasn’t ready. In a culture pressuring young writers to publish soon and everywhere, she feels that this other conversation isn’t had enough—to trust yourself, and know when you’re ready and what you and your writing need.
“I wish someone had told me that what you do in the rest of your life,” said Heng, “like for a living, doesn’t invalidate your life as a writer. If you’re writing, you’re a writer.” She said she had read this before, but she had never really believed it. She was not a part of a writing community; this is her first AWP conference. It took her 300 rejections for her six acceptances for her writing. “So much of your writing life involves feeling like a fraud,” she added. She recommended a Poets & Writers article profiling Shelly Oria that she said helped remind her that her writing anxieties are not real.
“I wish someone had told me that publishing is not a zero-sum game, and that there’s space for everyone,” said Frumkin. “And still I wrestle with this daily.” She says that she means things like prizes, books, achievement. She’s realized that these successes matter so little in the long run—where what matters is getting your voice on the page and out in the world. “You will get your work out there,” she says.
Travis Kurowski is the coeditor of Literary Publishing in the Twenty-First Century and editor of Paper Dreams: Writers and Editors on the American Literary Magazine, which won an Independent Publisher Book Award and a Foreword IndieFab Award. His fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Mississippi Review, Ninth Letter, Little Star, Poets & Writers, TriQuarterly, and elsewhere. He is an assistant professor at York College of Pennsylvania and lives with his daughters and dog in York, PA.