Day Job

As a small child, I assumed I would grow up to sing on Broadway, preferably starring alongside Gene Kelly, star of some of my favorite musicals: Singing in the RainBrigadoon, and An American in Paris. I was not a little heartbroken when I saw That’s Entertainment! at some point and realized that my dashing leading man was 67 years my senior.

In later elementary school, I spent a summer school session learning about law and politics. We took a field trip to the courthouse in downtown Chicago, and I stole a phrase from no less than Abraham Lincoln for my campaign slogan: government of the people by the people for the people. We were also taught the basics of legal vocabulary, and as a plaintiff, I brought an imagined suit against my parents for withholding allowance. (We were terrible with routines. I am similarly terrible with my own children and allowances. Who can remember to give someone money on a weekly basis?)

A high school psychology assignment required that we imagine our futures through the lens of Erik Erikson’s various developmental stages: I dreamed of finding love and intimacy with a partner, and generativity through my career at NPR, hosting a radio show on religion and politics.

Writing is terrible. Just ask the figure in Leonid Pasternak's "Throes of Creation"

Writing is terrible. Just ask the figure in Leonid Pasternak’s “Throes of Creation”

By early on in my college life, I knew I wanted to be a writer. In a class on the personal essay taught by a magazine columnist, I discovered my medium, my form. The only problem, of course, being that no one wants to publish essays by kids with a BA.

I went to college, too, as the internet was just being born. We used telnet to check our e-mail and were excited when there was ethernet in our dorms; so much easier than dial-up.  The democratization of writing that came from online publishing hadn’t really started yet. There were gatekeeping editors and a few publications everyone knew. Print inches were expensive and not readily offered up to green folks. Maybe, sometimes, if they were really good reporters. I didn’t feel like a really good reporter. Only a few outlets had a religion beat.

I was pretty well convinced I’d never get a job writing what I wanted to write, so instead I went to grad school.  There, I discovered I had been wrong: my form was not the personal essay, but the sermon. I’m a writer, but I’m a preacher first and foremost. Something like a reporter, something like a storyteller, something like a literary critic, something like a prophet: I love preaching.

As it happens, I also love a lot of the other parts of pastoral ministry: caring for people and designing programs, administering sacraments, ordering the life of the church. And so as I finished grad school it became increasingly clear what sort of work I should pursue. For just over ten years I’ve been serving full time in pastoral ministry.

I write for publication, and for myself, when I can.

People sometimes ask me how I have time to do all this — especially given that I have three kids, too. And there are lots of things that make a difference: a supportive partner, family nearby to cover the gaps. But, as I’ve been reflecting on the economics of writing lately (lots of internet noise over this article), I think this must be said: I have a really good day job. I do not earn my living by writing. Last year I sold my second book for the largest sum I’ve ever pulled, and the advance was just a small fraction of my annual income.

I consider my writing part of my ministry — I hope it helps people — and thus I can in theory write periodically as part of my day job. My wonderful colleague — who hired me at least in part because he liked my writing — is forever asking me if I am making time to write. This means that my day job is way more conducive to writing than many.

The other thing is that, between my husband Josh and I, we can usually (mostly) afford enough childcare. We are fully present with our kids a lot of the time, but we gratefully send them out into the care of others while we work and (sometimes) write.  We are not usually on a deadline with a bunch of kids running around, promoting and revelling in the chaos of parental stress (though I do, in this year of the third baby, periodically rely on nap time as a way to squeeze things in). Freelancing, unless you’re awfully good at it, doesn’t often support that kind of financial stability.

Writers always — for all time, I assume — work more than their income reflects. There are others for whom this is surely true, too; I think first of adjunct professors. And I can’t decide if I’m contributing to the problem: by not relying on my writing to put food on the table, am I lowering the cost of good writing and making it harder for freelancers? Or am I a part of a pretty lengthy tradition of working day jobs to support my writing habit (I hesitate to call it art, but you get me)? Actors have always waited tables, children’s authors have always taught…

I muse on this because, as I said, somebody asked me about it, but also because I think a lot about young adults pursuing and ordering their careers and vocational lives. I remember reading a collection of essays once that had all these pieces by folks with soul-sucking day jobs, who used their pent up frustration to fuel their writing in their off-hours. And I thought then, how I could never manage a soul sucking day job, even if it meant I would have the head space to write. That’s not how I work, I have discovered — it is the meat of my work that fuels my writing, that provides grist for the mill. The questions, existential and religious and practical, of my congregations that tell me what to write.

Ann Patchett has an essay in her wonderful volume This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, about how she became a working writer. Finding the right day job was critical. Teaching got her creative juices flowing, but also consumed them in editing and guiding the work of her students; waitressing gave her the headspace, but left her exhausted. Eventually, she managed to score a few ongoing gigs writing light feature pieces — the sort that are easily completed and paid relatively well. Creative work that made space for her other creative work… and paid the bills.

I don’t know if you can still make a modest living on light feature pieces. I suppose it depends on where you live and what your access to health care looks like.  But overall, I think the new gig economy, while likely here to stay, actually means a lot more writers (and particularly writers who are parenting) are scrambling: overworked and underpaid.  Finding a day job, even a vocation, you love — that feeds you as it serves the world and pays the bills — can make a difference at least in individual cases, while we wait for our economy to right itself. I don’t get to write as much as I’d like — but this is part of building a life: carving out space and time and balance for passions and responsibilities.  I’m generally overworked, but I can’t complain about being underpaid.  That is tremendous luck, but is also the result of no small amount of discernment.




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My twitter tagline is "Fiercely interested in most things." Writer, mom, pastor, spouse, daughter, sister, citizen -- not in any order, and usually all at once. Nearly life-long resident of Cook County, IL, for better and for worse.

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