Back when I was an undergrad, I took one of my first fiction writing workshops. The professor, a published short story writer and novelist, warned the class: “Being a writer is hard work. You need to know that before you decide you want to write.” Like any naïve and optimistic twenty year-old, I only half-listened to her words and continued to write. I imagined my future self as a professional writer living the writing life, and though the details were fuzzy (What exactly was I writing? How was I paying my rent?) my imaginary career involved a cozy coffee shop much like the one in Friends, lots of hot beverages, and relaxing days spent in front of my computer as I churned out new material.
This guest post is by Emily Cavanagh. Cavanagh is a writer, teacher, and mother. Her work has been published in Red Rock Review, Grain Magazine, Transfer, The Vineyard Gazette, and Martha’s Vineyard Arts and Ideas. Emily lives on the island of Martha’s Vineyard with her husband, two daughters, and their Australian Shepard. She’s currently at work on a novel that takes place on a fiction island very similar to Martha’s Vineyard. Her first book, THE BLOOM GIRLS, was published by Lake Union Publishing.
I went to graduate school for English and creative writing, waitressed and taught on the side, and ultimately decided I didn’t want to write enough to waitress for the rest of my life or to teach in some far-flung college town in Kansas. So I got a job as an English teacher and began my actual career. I continued to write as the rest of my life moved along—I married, had a baby followed by another one a few years later, and continued to teach. Yet somewhere in the back of my mind, the dream of life as a professional writer persisted.
Before I signed with my agent, I had been writing seriously for ten years. For ten years I squeezed my writing life into the corners of weekends and the odd half hour here or there after the kids were asleep. I had several completed manuscripts, a pile of rejections, and a fervent belief that if I could just catch a break, I really could be a professional writer. In my writing daydreams, I quit my teaching job and worked full time as a novelist. Just imagine what I could accomplish if I could actually devote myself to my writing!
Fast forward to November 2015 when I finally signed with my agent, Marlene Stringer. Within six months I signed a two-book deal with Lake Union Publishing for two of the manuscripts that I’d been hard at work on during those snatched minutes. I was finally on my way to being a professional writer.
So I quit my job, dedicated every day to writing, and would make more as a writer than I did teaching. Right? Uh, no.
At the time of this writing, my first book has just launched (after a long, anxious wait) and I’m preparing for edits on book number two. I continue to work full time as an English teacher, and I still write on the weekends, during naptime, and after the kids are in bed. However, now in addition to editing and new writing, I also have to maintain a website and blog, be active on social media, plan and coordinate book events, connect with other writers, and promote my upcoming book. With less than an hour a day to dedicate to my writing career, this is a challenge.
While it’s possible that my books will soar to the top of bestseller lists, and I’ll be able to focus on my writing full time, it’s more likely that I’ll be like most published writers, carving out time to write around the edges of everything else. As my professor warned me nearly twenty years ago, being a writer is hard work. Only now do I get it.
And while part of me feels a bit cheated, and I still have moments when I imagine an eight-hour day when all I have to do is write, mostly it’s okay. Because this is what life as a professional writer actually looks like for most people.
In my twenties I struggled to commit to a writing schedule, going through spurts of writing regularly and then not writing at all for months. Then I had kids. And while that could have meant the end of writing, for me it was just the beginning. Finding time to write became a respite from the chaos of family life, and because those spare moments were so rare, I made sure I used them really well. Once I got an agent, writing no longer became something I was doing just because I enjoyed it. Now I was doing it because as a professional writer, you’re actually expected to write.
Since my writing obligations have tripled, I use the little bit of time I have even more carefully, and I find a few extra minutes here or there that I might otherwise have spent cruising Facebook or watching Law and Order reruns. These days my forty-five minutes in the evening might be dedicated to writing a blog post, creating a press release, or doing copyedits, but these are my new responsibilities. Publishing a book has allowed me to take myself seriously as a writer for the first time.
Another thing that has changed since getting a publishing contract is I’ve been placed outside my comfort zone and discovered new interests. Who knew I’d enjoy designing a website or writing a blog? And while I still have a love-hate relationship with social media, I didn’t expect to find a community of supportive writers so willing to help each other out. I’m still terrified of my first upcoming book event, but I’m slowly starting to warm to the idea of talking about my writing publicly. For the first time, I have an audience, and while that’s mildly terrifying (I’m dreading the snarky one-star reviews), isn’t that the goal of any writer? To actually have people read what you’ve written?
And I’m realizing that maybe cutting myself off from the world and holing up with my computer in that imaginary coffee shop isn’t the best thing—for me or my writing. After all, my job as an English teacher has spilled over into my writing; my experience juggling work and family life makes multiple appearances in my books. I am a natural introvert, yet my job requires me to be extroverted on a daily basis. While there are days when I’d rather hang out on the couch in my jammies with the computer, now I wonder if my ideas would dry up. Without interaction with a greater world beyond my living room or inside my head, would I have anything to write about at all?
I don’t know what my writing future holds, but for the first time, I’m considering that this right here might be what my life as a writer looks like. And though that’s not the dream I envisioned all those years ago, it might be okay after all. I still have days when I’m slogging through report cards and lesson plans and wishing I could just focus on the work in progress that’s been sitting idle on my computer for a week. I still imagine that coffee shop, with its bright colorful throw pillows and comfy couches, an endless latte next to my computer. But more often, I’m aware that this is the fantasy, and I’ve only scratched the surface of the reality of a writer’s life.
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