It was a Saturday night in the city. A chill in the air because it was February but not enough to keep people from being out and about. Maybe the city never really sleeps. I don’t know. We hustled against the chill, the sun already setting. Warmth waited behind the heavy wooden doors. My husband…
“Do you want to be a librarian when you grow up?”
A few weeks ago while I was shelving books at the library in the kids’ school, one of the younger elementary students asked me this question. I smiled and told her no, that I just enjoyed helping out at the school. I wanted to add that I’m already “grown up” but I didn’t because this question–what do you want to be when you grow up?–is more complicated than ever.
It used to be that people knew how they would spend their lives after school was finished, whether they graduated from high school or college. The future was laid out in a factory or a corporation or a professional career. Maybe it’s still like that for some people.
When I graduated from college, I’m not sure what I pictured myself being when I grew up. I got a job at a newspaper and I stayed there for years then moved on to another newspaper, all the while wishing I had more time to write things I wanted to write, like stories, true and fictional. When I was writing for a living, it was hard to write for fun or enjoyment. I learned this about myself in those years of full-time work and singleness.
Then I had children and stayed home with them. I began to write out of necessity because it was a habit from the journalism years. Millions of words live inside my head and only a fraction of them make it to a page or screen, but some of them have to get out or my brain rejects any other kind of information. Sometimes, if I haven’t written for a while, I forgot how to do normal everyday life things. My brain is too full of the words I have thought but not written. This is my head space.
I have been casually writing from home for almost 10 years. I have a few successes to show for it. A teensy bit of money. A lot of unpublished, unedited words. Turns out the dream of being a writer is still hard work and I am easily pulled in other directions. Volunteering. Coffee dates. Housework (the bare minimum!). Cooking. Yes, I’ve been writing, too, and it’s not nothing. But it’s also not enough.
Two months ago, we started to have the talk in our house about how we were going to increase our income. Adding a part-time job made the most sense and I wrestled with the familiar shame of being capable of earning and falling short. (The truth about being a freelance writer is it requires building momentum and planning ahead and some entrepreneurial effort, many of the things I lack. Maybe this is not how it is for all freelancers.) Even when I did write something and got paid for it, the payment often came months after the writing was over. This was not the way to a sustainable income.
After some tearful discussions and some heart wrestling, I applied for a part-time job that fit with our family’s life and schedule. It took weeks for all the paperwork to clear and for everything to line up but it’s official–as of today, I am employed part time outside of the house.
I’m excited about the opportunity, and the regular income will help our family pursue our dreams and goals.
Still, there’s a part of me that feels like I’m giving up.
Once upon a time, I had this picture in my head of how dreamy it must be to write from home. To write books and have a publisher send them out into the world, or to publish them yourself and send them out. I thought it was possible to spend my days in front of my computer reflecting on life while sipping coffee and creating characters and plot lines out of nothing more than my imagination. If I’m honest with myself, I thought it sounded perfect. And if I wasn’t doing that–devoting every waking moment to my writing–then I was doing it wrong.
Fifteen years ago, I didn’t even know that people who weren’t NY Times Bestseller famous could even make a living writing. That’s when I first started dreaming about the possibilities. It’s a frustrating art sometimes, especially if you want immediate results, especially if your definition of success is some kind of tangible like a paycheck or a publishing credit.
To me, staying home to write was “living the dream” even if it was sometimes more like a nightmare.
Now that I’m starting a “real job” it feels like I’m giving up on the dream. There’s a little voice–it’s really quiet–that tells me this. It whispers that if I had worked harder, if I was more disciplined, if I was smarter or more clever or had taken one more marketing or self-publishing course that I could be “living the dream” with actual results to show for it.
This voice is mostly quiet and I mostly ignore it because I’ve seen differently, especially in the last few years. I’ve seen writers I admire and respect work another job to pay the bills, sometimes even on the day of publication of their first book. I’ve heard how some of my favorite writers squeeze in their art between work and sleep or during lunch breaks, how they’re basically always writing but not always sitting in front of a blank page or a computer screen.
I think what I’m beginning to see is that sometimes the dream and reality are more linked than I want to admit. That there can be both a dream and a reality and I don’t have to give up one in favor of the other.
I’m working an outside-the-house job, yes, and I’m going to keep working at my writing. I haven’t failed or given up on my art because I got a job. I suspect that having a job will make me more motivated to keep at my writing.
I think most of us writers, creators, artists wish our creating paid all the bills. Someday it might. And for some people it does. But it definitely doesn’t happen overnight or without effort. For most of us, we’re going to create right alongside some other work we’re doing.
Because the truth is that I’m a writer at my core. It’s what I was made to do. And I don’t have to be at home, sitting in front of a screen all the time to be writing. I don’t have to sit in my favorite coffee shop gazing out the window or taking a walk in the park with a notebook to be a writer.
I. Am. A. Writer. Having a job doesn’t change that.
But I do have to get the words out some time and somewhere. That is my goal for this year. To make a regular practice of getting some words out of my head, whether I publish them here or not. You might see less of me around these parts. Or you might not.
Rest assured that even if I seem a bit absent here, I’m still writing. (This is the assurance I’m giving myself, too.)
Every year since 2013, I’ve picked one word that I want to focus on, a guide for the year to come. (You can see all the words I’ve chosen and reflections on those years here.) It still sounds too simple to be effective, but at the end of each year, I can testify to the changes these words have brought about in my life.
This last year might be the year that I’ve written the least about my word and its impact on me. In December of 2016, after life circumstances left my heart feeling hard and impenetrable, I chose to focus on “tender.” I needed to let in the things that hurt. I needed to feel things deeply. I wanted my heart to break in the kind of way the ground needs to be broken every spring in preparation to receive a seed that will grow up from the dirt.
When I look back on the year, there was heartbreak, for sure, circumstances I didn’t understand. We started the year with my husband unemployed and then the transmission went out in our van. After my husband found a job, his unemployment compensation was denied and we ended up needing to fight the decision months into the new year. A project I had emotionally invested in fell through. We struggled to dig out of a financial hole, and when we desperately wanted to take steps forward on buying a home, we were denied a loan.
These things stirred up a lot of bitterness and resentment and while I would normally want to just stuff those feelings right back down, all of these disappointments were like manure spread across my heart, making the ground more fertile. (Can I put in a plug for regular appointments with a therapist or counselor? My therapist’s office became the place that my heart busted open again and again as we turned over things I thought I had buried.)
Before I chose to be more tender, I feared what would happen. I worried that cracking my heart open just a little would break me completely until I was shattered–like innumerable pieces scattered across the kitchen floor. I was cracked, yes, and I was broken, yes, but I learned that I could be pieced back together. Different. Stronger, somehow.
And having survived being broken once, I dared to let my heart break again.
It started a couple of years ago with refugees. I opened my heart. I took action. And they have changed my life. This year I took another step and started learning about racial injustice and how to be part of the reconciliation process. (Mostly I’m just learning and rethinking everything I’ve been taught.) Late this summer, my concern moved toward undocumented youth, those whose parents brought them to the United States illegally but whose entire lives have been lived here. They are fighting for a path to citizenship and I stand with them in that fight.
I ended 2017 softer than I thought possible but also stronger. My heart is not a bitter, barren place, and though there is much work to be done where justice is concerned, I am encouraged and energized by the things I’ve seen, the people I’ve met, the stands I’ve taken. Tender shoots of something green are growing in the soil of my heart again.
Where all of this will take me in 2018, I really don’t know. I have a lot to learn, and I don’t do nearly enough of the kind of work I think I ought to do where advocacy is concerned. But if 2017 was an internal decision to open myself up to caring about people and causes I hadn’t previously considered then 2018 is about getting out of my seat and standing, walking, singing, shouting, and doing more of what I see others doing. It is about sharing the tweets and opinions I’ve been too scared to share because someone might not like it. I’m not out to divide. I’m physically ill when I lose “friends” or get into arguments online (or in person).
But this year I also learned more about my personality (I’m a 9 on the Enneagram if you’re familiar) and my tendency is to keep the peace at all costs. To bury my head in the sand when the shots are flying. To engage in all kinds of diversions when I don’t want to feel one.more.thing.
That ends in 2018. (Or it lessens. Let’s be real.)
So my word for the year is “awake.” I am waking up to myself, my needs, my abilities. I am waking up to the world around me. I am waking up to the ways my upbringing was different than those in other parts of the country. I am waking up to the realities of life. I am vowing to live with my eyes open, to not turn away when what I see is too hard/messy/brutal. (And also to not turn away when it is too lovely/sparkly/beautiful. I have a problem seeing that, too.)
I want to live this life intentionally, not drifting along waiting for something to happen to me. (This is mostly a work-related vow. I will write more about this later.) I am a daydreamer by nature and if I’m looking at you, sometimes I’m not seeing you at all. I’m living a story I’ve made up in my head or thinking about a conversation I had last year. It’s going to be hard work for me to recognize this as it’s happening and pull myself out of it to be fully engaged with the person right in front of me.
So, this is me. And this is my work for the year. Awake.
Stay tuned. It’s going to be an eyes wide open kind of year.