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Four ways a day job can help your writing

Last week, I talked with Erin Lane of Holy Hellions about money and her ministry for a post I’m working on for Patheos. Erin is an author, speaker, and blogger, and she splits her time between working with a nonprofit that runs retreats and her own freelance projects.

Erin said something that really made me think: that without her work in ministry (at the nonprofit), her creative life would feel like it didn’t have enough depth, and without her creative work, her ministry would miss out on an element of playfulness.

Often, I think writers feel pulled in two directions: to find a way to make money and support themselves, and to find a way to pursue the projects they care most about. Should you pitch that boring trade publication that promises to pay or work on your passion project? Should you make writing your career or your hobby?

And then there’s the guilt that comes with not being able to find time to write because a living needs to be made. “I’ll write tomorrow,” you think. Or on the weekend. Or over vacation. Or when I retire.

But Erin’s point of view was so positive–it reminded me that writing and the other things we do can actually help each other.

In the spirit of positivity–frankly, it’s difficult for me not to be happy on this potentially 80-degree day (SUN!)–here are four ways your day job/side gig/family responsibilities can help your writing.

1. It gives your life structure. Some of the most stressful periods of my life have been when I was totally unfettered from jobs, school, and family commitments and had time to write. When I was between jobs, I stressed out about the job hunt. When I was working on my thesis, I agonized over how to spend my free time. In both cases, I found ways to add structure to my life by volunteering and making a schedule for myself. This allowed me to feel free to write in the time I made for it.

2. Work allows you to enjoy concrete progress. If you work at a company, you get periodic check-ins with your boss to chart your progress. Maybe you can even see the progress of your work: you plan a project and execute it. Or you watch your pay go up over time. You see your child learn to talk; you help her learn to get dressed on her own.

In writing, the progress can sometimes feel like no movement at all. You might spend days working on a chapter that you end up scrapping. You might send out six pitches in a week and be rejected six times. Even though these experiences might help your writing improve, writing doesn’t have as many clear milestones, and there might be an epic wait in between each one. Having a bit of job satisfaction can keep you from tearing out your hair.

3. People appreciate your work. These past few months, I’ve been working with few small businesses and nonprofits to write their company newsletters. And you know what they do at the end of each month? They thank me.

I didn’t realize how much I enjoyed people appreciating my work until I fell into a rut of writing rejection. Reading an email from a happy client was a great reminder that I’m helpful and productive.

No matter what your job is, the thank you’s you get–from your spouse, your parents, your boss, your coworkers–are a great pick-me-up when you’re not getting any feedback from the writing world.

4. You have the freedom to pursue riskier creative projects. This was really Erin’s point–she talked about the balance between flexibility and stability. A day job lets you make a living (or a partial living) outside of your writing. Contributing to your family allows you to have self-worth apart from how many publications you have. These things are vital to making you feel safe and bold enough to take on creative risks. If you have to make your living solely from writing, you’re more likely to have to take on projects that you don’t love (and that even suck you dry, creatively). Erin talked about how having some stability actually makes you more confident in the flexible part of your work–writing. It’s totally true; if I have to make all my money, I’m limited in where I can pitch and what I can write about.


Thinking this way really helped me get perspective on my own situation, splitting time between writing and tutoring/writing newsletters for small businesses. It’s difficult juggling so many things, but ultimately, I think it’s the best set up for my writing right now.

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On NOT keeping track of everything

I don’t have a smart phone, so I seem to be missing out on this “game-ification” trend that lets people earn points for eating in restaurants and walking up stairs. But I don’t like it. Last night when I made a reservation on Open Table for dinner, I was told that I would earn 100 points when I completed my meal. Why? What can I do with said points? Will the points be more delicious than my dinner? What if I only complete half my meal and take the rest home? Or leave it there? Where are these points kept?

Lest you think me a curmudgeon (I am, actually, when it comes to smartphones and points), I keep track of other things. I wrote about how I use a spreadsheet (religiously) to keep track of my submissions and pitches to magazines and journals. I used to keep a Word doc where I wrote down all the writing and writing-related tasks I did every day. (I should probably start it up again–I got a lot done when I knew I had to write down something every day.)

But I have never kept track of the books that I’ve read. I read a lot. Over the weekend, I usually read a book. At night, I usually work slowly through a book (I usually conk out after a few pages). Roughly, I’d say I read a forty books a year. Maybe more, maybe less; sometimes I go for a couple of weeks without reading, sometimes I consume book after book after book.

Regardless, I do not keep track of these books anywhere. Not in my bookshelf (though I try to put the ones I should read on the top shelf), not on Goodreads, not here. I’ve tried to rate the books I’ve read on Goodreads. I’ve tried posting a list of the books and articles and stories here on my blog. But keeping track of what I’ve read isn’t fun or satisfying to me. Reading a good book is a lovely experience; I don’t necessarily want to quantify it with stars.

There are also plenty of books that I don’t finish, and I don’t really care about those. I do have a rule that has so far proven itself: if I get to page 60 of a book without checking the page number, I’m going to finish it. If not, there’s a pretty small chance. It’s a fun game to play.

All the books that I read, finished and unfinished, inform my writing and change my perspective in all kinds of ways. I talk about these things with Andrew sometimes, or I write about them on The Female Gaze Review, or I just muse on them myself. You don’t have to share every important experience with the Internet or even your friends. You can just enjoy it.

I prefer to think of my curmudgeonliness on this issue as preserving a bit of mystique that surrounds reading. Going into another world, real or imagined, is pretty cool. I’ve often felt a little funny following other avid readers on Tumblr; everyone seems to prefer reading to any other activity, to glorify the magic of every great book. But reading is just part of the fabric of my life. It’s just something that I like to do that’s good to do.

However, I’ve realized that I ask (nay, beg) readers to leave me reviews for my own books on Amazon, and they are gracious and kind Indie Review written on a photo of a book saleenough to reply. And I’ve felt bad about this exchange, because until now I have not been a reviewer. I’m overwhelmed by the task; what about all the books I’ve already read that I haven’t reviewed yet? So I’m starting a new experiment. Every month, I’m going to read a self-published Kindle book on Amazon (Andrew got me a Kindle for Christmas–what a cool guy!) and review it. Reviews create visibility for indie authors like me, and it’s high time I shared the indie publishing love with some of my fellow writers. Reviews (on blogs and on Amazon) are the reason I sell any books at all, frankly. They are great.

The first book I’m going to review is It’s Witchcraft: A beginner’s guide to secular and non-secular witchcraft by Jamie Weaver. Very much looking forward to it! I even made a cool button for it, using a neat photo from Phil Roeder.

Cheers to good books!

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An essay I wrote & feelings


My work lately here has felt a little lackluster. Part of it was the holidays, which included a crazy trip to a mountain in Tennessee that has no cell service and no internet (see photo above, taken by my awesome cousin Jon)! But another part was this, a sad thing that happened to me and that took me a while to get over. In October, I had an miscarriage, and I wrote an essay about it that was published yesterday on The Archipelago. You can read it here if you are interested in what the experience is like–one in four pregnancies ends in miscarriage, so chances are you know someone who has had one or has a partner that has had one.

When I googled other essays on this topic, I found a wide range of reactions: sadness, relief, confusion. It is different for everyone, but I think if there’s one thing we have in common, it is bewilderment. It’s very strange to experience something that is ostensibly normal but that people don’t generally talk about.

It made me feel better to write this essay, and I hope that it makes someone else who has one better to read about it. Emotions are ok, and you don’t have to feel bad about them. And you can have whatever ones you want.

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Does Activism = Not Being Happy? And other concerns.

When I first started going to Valley & Mountain, it was like fireworks went off. I literally went home beaming. I had just made sandwiches in the cool community-hub Collaboratory with a whole bunch of folks I never would have met or spoken to if I hadn’t walked into church (I mean Celebration, they call it Celebration) that afternoon.

I felt like I had finally found my place. It’s cliche, but I had never felt that way about a church before and bam! It happened. It wasn’t like fireworks, actually. It was more like sliding into the seat of a roller coaster and clicking in the bar. It just felt like it fit.

A few weeks later, I was sitting in a plastic orange chair inside the Collaboratory, gazing at the brick walls and listening to a local leader talk about her role as a community servant. She was inspiring and confident. I felt like I could feel her confidence beaming over to my seat. The way she stood tall made me want to stand up taller; her fancy brooch made me want to dress better. She was an activist, but she had total control over her story. She told it clearly and she told it well. This was her thing–she could do it without notes.

After the leader spoke, we split into three groups, like we usually do during the service. I had been planning to go write found poems with my friend Jaime but the speaker was so interesting that I decided to go into a small group discussion with her. We filed out the glass doors from the main room (the “Mixing Chamber”) and into the back room, where there are lots of long tables and chairs and more exposed brick.

Five or six of us gathered around a wood-topped table on rolling plastic chairs and the leader leaned against the wall, holding court in the corner. We could ask whatever we wanted. Another member of the church, Ulysses, who is mild-mannered but passionate, a thin guy who is always doing something to protest or organize, asked what would become of the speaker’s field, which he saw as aging. How were they going to get more young people?

The speaker said, “We need to bring our children to the table.” She meant bring them to the discussions about protests and activism and organizing. “Young people don’t have anything to lose.” They don’t have families and jobs to take care of. She mentioned Martin Luther King, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s father. “He was a great activist,” she said, “but he had a lot to lose.” So MLK Jr. was the one who led protests and became a hero.

To answer Ulysses’s question, the speaker reiterated, “Bring our children to the table.” “There’s so much of this,” she said, miming playing a game on a hand-held device, flicking her thumbs. “When I was a kid, we didn’t know what was going on. Imagine how little our kids know now.

I was like…huh?

First of all, anything that smacks of “the kids these days” is a pet peeve of mine. Literally every single generation has complained about the kids these days. It is documented in countless bitchy, ineffective newspaper columns. Do not talk to me about the kids these days.  If you are talking with some kids and explaining to them why you think their way of doing things is wrong, by all means, continue (though I doubt that is the most effective tactic). But if you are talking to a crowd of adults about “the kids these days,” you are not trying to actually change anything. You are trying to get an Amen.

Second of all, activism, to this leader, meant losing a lot, or at least putting it at risk. Your family, your home, your job, your quality of life. I am into all the things that activists care about: equal rights, higher wages, better jobs, better training, better education, more opportunities, radical change, a new system. Does that mean I have to be willing to sacrifice children to get there? Dear Lord, I hope not.

So I left church that afternoon feeling disappointed. I walked back along the sidewalk from Hillman City to Columbia City, past the telephone poles with flyers for a bar’s karaoke night and a survey for women who sell sex stapled to them. I felt kind of empty. This was what I’d been worried about before I joined–that everyone there would be a super-serious hippie, and I would have nothing to talk to them about. There was so much to change in our community–more karaoke, less selling sex, for one thing–and I thought that by joining Valley & Mountain, I would be a part of changing it. But maybe I had to do more. I didn’t know what that meant: protesting all the time, sending angry letters in, making phone calls, writing bills?

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The problem is I care about nice things: I like living in a house with my family. I like spending time doing things like making quilts and decorating my office (and hiking up by Mount Rainier with my friends Mike and Lindsay). I don’t want to pour all of my energy into changing the system. But at the same time, I feel bad that I’m not doing more to change the way things are in my community. The biggest way I’m changing it is by being part of the new wave of young white people who have bought affordable houses in the area, pushing out the mostly lower-income black people. Gentrification.

I walked back down the alley to our house, into the nice little courtyard where the neighbors put up a sign if the kids are playing on their bikes. My neighbors care about doing good things–they spend their time biking and playing with their kids, making dinner for each other. They cleaned up our weed yard before we moved in, when our house was still empty.

I don’t want to have a split personality again, where I feel like I’m living in two worlds. When I went to Restoration, the evangelical church, I felt as though I had to keep some of my interests on the down-low at church, and some of them on the down-low when I was with my friends. I couldn’t tell the nice folks at church that I had taken a shot after I talked to their visiting faith healer. I couldn’t tell my friends at the bar that night that I believed what the faith healer told me.

I turned all this over as I walked into the house–it was burning hot outside, and I was sweating by the time I got home. Andrew was getting ready to grill us some food on our brand-new grill (which is ridiculously large). I poured myself a glass of wine. Maybe wanting and caring about having a nice home could be a good thing. Maybe it gave me something to relate to other people about. I’ve always found activists–real, hardcore activists–to be kind of detached, as if they’re so busy fixing everything, they don’t have time to enjoy anything. As if enjoying anything is time away from fixing other things.

I don’t actually have answers to these questions: what my role in Valley & Mountain is, if I should try to be more of an activist, if the leader was right that the most important thing we can do is educate our children about the problems with the world. But I have made a conscious effort to not try to hide how I feel about all of these things from anyone. We should talk more about how best to change the world–what else could activism look like? Does it have to be lots and lots of time away from your family and the people you care about? And more about gentrification–how can we make places safer, prettier, and richer, without losing the people who already live there?