Ever since I was a teenager, I have entertained dreams of this concept. Now I am well into my *cough* forties and not a full-time writer, though I personally know a few of these magical creatures. I have another career that demands quite a bit of my time, and I’m perfectly aware that I’m not as prolific as a writer as I could be. I used to battle over this notion, working on my WIPs in the wee hours of the morning until I was stressed and exhausted and a grouchy monster with no possible relief in sight for said grouchiness. This ultimately led to burnout, and on top of that, unhappiness with my inability to better balance my time between my author career (which I love with a passion) and my Associate Professor career (which I also love with a passion). We writers always hear the advice to make writing a priority, and I wholeheartedly agree. BUT I admit that I sometimes wonder if I can mentally/ emotionally/ physically sustain both careers. (Note that I’m in the middle of finals week as I write this and I feel mentally/ emotionally/ physically exhausted.) I also have a family that always comes first. And I have important friendships and other interests and even a need to eat now and then and my health to take care of and other matters of life and ALL THE THINGS. *hyperventilates*
But I digress. This post is about career choices — though for me, there really is no choice. I love and need my life as Associate Professor, and I love and need my author life, and so I choose both. But here’s the amazing thing that I figured out rather late in the game (this year). Until recently, I had largely been viewing these two careers as separate and not synergistic. Now I’ve come to realize that I’m a better professor because I’m an author. Likewise, I know that I’m a better author if I embrace my career as a Professor. (I should probably mention here that I’m not an Associate Professor of English or Creative Writing. I’m an Associate Professor of Biology.)
If you aren’t a full-time writer but are working two careers, whether it be Author first and Other second or vice versa, here are some ways you could benefit from embracing both:
- Character inspiration: This is not to say that you should necessarily write your boss as a villain (No matter how tempting that may be, this would invalidate that important disclaimer about your characters being fictional and how any resemblance of them to real people is a coincidence). BUT we can’t help that IRL people do serve as character inspirations. Maybe your coworker has a quirky or annoying thing that she does that your character borrows for her own. Maybe your directory of colleagues (or class list – hehe) serves as a potential list for new character names. Writers create real characters by borrowing bits of real people. A former colleague and I used to joke that someday we would write a comic strip about university life because of all of the drama and characters we work with. This hasn’t happened, but I’ve had lots of idea fodder because of my working environment, which I’ll talk about more in #2. But before I get to that, I need to emphasize that one of the most important things that helps us as writers (and human beings in general) is EMPATHY. In working with my students and others, I try to take the time to understand them as people. This helps ME as a person and yes, as a writer.
- Career-based inspiration. As real people serve as character inspiration, your knowledge base and working environment may be a source of inspiration as well. The specifics of this one are obviously dependent on your particular career. John Grisham is probably one of the best-known examples of an attorney who used his background to write his legal thrillers. One of my childhood favorites, Agatha Christie, worked for several years in a pharmacy, which gave her knowledge of drugs (and how they could be used for murder). My YA characters have been known to take science courses, and my inside knowledge of college life makes for a relatable college life for my NA characters. Your particular area of expertise can also help to improve authenticity and be used for elements of world building, no matter how big or small. (BTW, I really love this post by Amanda Rawson Hill on contemporary world building).
- Integration. Every day that you write, you become a better writer. (If you don’t believe me, blow off the dust from one of your earliest works and read it.) If you truly enjoy both of your careers as I do, you can seize opportunities within your job to become a better writer. By this, I don’t mean by writing during lunch breaks or while waiting for a copy job to finish (though you could), but by seizing opportunities to do the things that help you become a better writer. Again, this does depend on your career type. A career in floor retail doesn’t afford much opportunity to integrate writing (but imagine the possibilities for #1). Neither does flying helicopters (but imagine the possibilities for #2.) Proofreading reports or legal briefs may help you become better at killing your darlings. Those sales pitches or job presentations may help you become better at pitching your stories. I used to think I had to keep Author life and Professor life completely segregated, but the possibilities for integration keep expanding. For instance, I’ve made great strides to instill the love of reading and the value of scientific AND general literacy in my students. My talented friend and colleague Tasha Seegmiller and I coauthored a scientific paper this year on how to effectively use fiction to promote scientific literacy in biology classes. My other talented friend and colleague (Assistant Professor of Chemistry; see how doable this is?), Elaine Vickers and I were recently accepted as faculty at the 2017 LDStorymakers Conference for our class, Getting It Right: Science in Fiction. These accomplishments are part of my author life AND my professor life, and TBH, I probably would have never dreamed of doing either of these specific things as part of my job if I hadn’t become an author. Also, in grading mountains of scientific papers (finals week – gah!), I have become a better editor of my students’ written works (much to their dismay when they find so much markup on their papers #sorrynotsorry). In my classes, they’re doing scientific and not creative writing, but I still feel it’s my professional duty to teach my biology students about the superiority of active voice over passive voice and why spelling matters (e.g., you know, because the words, “assess” and “asses” have completely different meanings.) But also lessons about why attention to all details is important (a lesson from editing and publishing) and why it’s important to make sure they take care of themselves as people (a lesson from writer life in general).
In sum, for those of you who, like me, are not full-time writers at this point in time (and maybe never will be), don’t feel like you haven’t “made it” as a writer. Take stock in your entire world and appreciate opportunities for inspiration and whenever possible, integration. There is really something to be said about having the best of both worlds. 🙂
Do you have a career in addition to your writing career? What are some ways in which you’ve managed to have the best of both worlds?
Helen Boswell loved to get lost in the pages of a story from the time she could sound out the words. She credits her dad with encouraging her to read ALL OF THE BOOKS on his shelves from the time she was a teenager. An author of both paranormal and contemporary romance, she loves to read and write characters that come to life with their beauty, flaws, and all. She is the author of the Mythology trilogy (MYTHOLOGY, THE WICKED, THE ETERNAL), and contemporary romances LOSING ENOUGH and SCARS RUN DEEP (coming soon). As an Associate Professor of Biology, she tries to instill good writing practices and a love of reading into her students. You can find out more about her writing life at www.helenboswell.com and her professor life at helenboswell.wordpress.com.
One thought on “How Your (Other) Career Can Make You a Better Writer”
Yes, to all of this, Helen. I found that being a creative writing professor kept my circle of thinking too closed. Moving to another role at the university has opened my thinking in many ways.
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