At a party not long ago, I was talking to a graduate school friend who had recently penned a movie that grossed more than $100 million at the box office and was nominated for an Academy Award. It wasn't an overnight or singular success: he'd been working progressively as a writer, producer and executive producer for television for nearly fifteen years. Graduate school was so far in the rear-view mirror that conversations with such friends were more likely to revolve around toddlers, real-estate prices, and new restaurants than about writing. The disparities were too great, and a fiction writer like myself could feel like I was talking to out-of-state Uncle Dave, who might ask if I were "still" writing. For successful friends in the television or movie industry, there is little separation between vocation and avocation (although there are few circus acts more impressive than writing a side project while working as showrunner). That day, the subject of my fiction did come up, and I was surprised to hear my friend say, "But you're a professional. You have a career."
I protested that I hadn't been trying to become a professional, in the conscious way an attorney or physician must. I'd just failed at being a professional writer for many years.
Our graduate school program had not been led by academics. The instructors had been sex-workers or Navy men or chronically underemployed, and when it came to the writing life, they didn't put much stock in attending college, let alone teaching it. On their advice, I decided I should find a job where I might encounter interesting people and got my first position in the non-profit sector. Eight months into it, I became the organization's recruiter, and spent my days talking to candidates about career paths. Recruiting was sobering, and even at 23, I could imagine still working as an entry-level administrative assistant at 40, and it frightened me. A writer's bio that included decades of "odd jobs" that provided material but no financial independence lost any appeal. Working in human resources let me see behind the curtain into people's real wages, their child support, and their health care crises.
But writing was still my priority and I took a demotion and pay cut for a 25-hour-per-week job that would allow me to finish a novel-in-progress. When that book (and the next book) ultimately didn't sell and my bosses kept quitting, I ended up in a director-level job, which led to a more prestigious role at a top organization, and then the headhunters came calling. As a fiction writer working in the non-profit sector, my wage expectations were modest, to say the least. And yet I had found myself earning a real living—(what some might call middle-class but in this country is for the rarefied few) enough to cover a mortgage, retirement, and child care, not an easy triple feat in any major city.
Then a funny thing happened when I was six months pregnant (a pregnancy I had long put off because of both financial concerns and my failure-to-launch as a writer). Within a span of two weeks, I learned I'd received an NEA Literature Fellowship and my story collection Dog Years had been selected by Richard Russo as the winner of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize from the University of Pittsburgh Press. Both came with the kind of financial support that could have been life-changing at 23. But at my age, without the need to use those awards to pay my monthly bills, I could think about how to use the funds strategically to advance my work and career, to reinvest it in myself.
Having a baby on the way made the financial downside of a writing life (which usually means the adjunct or otherwise underpaid teaching life) feel more menacing. I would love to teach someday, and hopefully can string together enough small successes in the coming years to have good opportunities to do so. But there's a comfort in the fact that I'll have a nest egg to support that habit, because the truth for fiction writers (which many of us can't help but remain deaf to, as a lifelong coping mechanism) is that vocation and avocation may come closer together, but it's rare that they become one.
Yet the greatest upside of failure has not been financial. Looking at the lineup in my Drue Heinz collection, five of the nine stories have been inspired directly from my work life, in a Law and Order ripped-from-the-the headlines way. By working in medicine over the last nine years, I've stumbled upon the writing material those sex-working graduate school instructors had promised. In part, it was a matter of efficiency. If I was going to spend all day doing at work, it had better serve double duty. I once spent two days at a Meaningful Use of Medical Data Conference, with presentations by search-engine algorithm writers so obscure even the doctors steeped in clinical data didn't understand them. But there was a lovely presentation on the theorem of regret that stoked my old poet's sensibilities and was stored away for future use. Nothing—even bad memoranda and sexual harassment webinars—is entirely wasted.
But the most important thing my failure-to-launch has given me is a better orientation to my own work. Since I was 17, I've been treated to writing-life talks by well-meaning writers on process versus product. But most of us know that no matter how many process-praising self-help books we read or inspiring talks on the subject we hear, this is something that can't be learned and must be lived. This imperative to love the journey and not the destination, to enjoy the act itself, can seem like the cruelest form of advice, especially from those who may seem to have arrived long ago. For many the act of actually writing, of sitting down at the page, is not something we can fully welcome.
But over the last decade, I'd seen many of my friends stop writing fiction, or stop writing altogether. It wasn't from lack of talent, and more surprisingly, it wasn't about discipline, either. The writers I knew who had taken their writing most seriously—working part-time, freelancing, and making significant financial sacrifice to spend more time on their work—were the ones who most easily gave it up when a stable career opportunity came around.
For years, when all else failed, I would think of something I'd heard Ron Carlson say: the writer goes to the stubborn. If I didn't feel disciplined, or inspired, or talented, I knew I could be that: I could be stubborn. But when I talked to friends who had been able to give it up, I realized it was no longer stubbornness that kept me coming back. If I hadn't learned to love the act itself, I'd learned to love the lens—not the time spent writing, but the way that time at the page created meaning in all my other time. This is something poets know best and that the old poet in me had perhaps forgotten. It's the sensibility the act of writing brings to that everyday snack of cold plums, those hours spent watching a skunk rooting in the backyard. I successfully failed long enough to find a kind of purity, in spite of myself. I know this is something that will have to be lived and re-lived throughout my writing life, that my focus will slip elsewhere time and again. But I can say there's nothing quite like failure to help you find it.