By Caroline Donahue — THE BOOK DOCTOR
“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself; I am large, I contain multitudes.” — Walt Whitman
Writers very rarely have a simple career path. Given the difficulty we have in making money just by writing, there are almost always other jobs. We have strange constellations of expertise that we accumulate throughout our lives. We are in good company if this is the case, as many writers who are household names spent much of their waking lives working on things that had nothing to do with writing: William S. Burroughs was an exterminator, Dickens worked in a factory, and Kafka was a legal clerk. Looking at these jobs, I can see how these experiences enriched their writing, rather than weakened it.
As someone who has a resume that looks nearly pathologically diverse, I am grateful to think about writing as a pursuit that can only benefit from these changes in direction. I’ve been a psychotherapist, an assistant, a proofreader in an advertising agency, the editor of an auction house catalogue, phone bidding manager for that same auction house, a bookseller, a production manager in entertainment, and a creative writing and English teacher. If I were anything other than a writer, I would be in serious trouble.
When I feel a bit scattered or worried about the variety of my background, I find it helpful to think about books and stories that I am writing as a kind of constellation. A book needs many elements in its world, much like the night sky is made more beautiful for having different-colored stars and planets for us to look at. If you’d only done the same thing over and over for life, you might struggle to create a diverse cast of characters. I encourage you to look at the experience you’ve had up to this point as the planets and stars that populate your universe.
If you have stayed in one career, don’t despair, as there are many career paths that contain multitudes inside the work people are doing. There are so many doctors and lawyers who end up writing, I think in part because these careers put you in so many different puzzling situations that need to be solved. As a doctor, a parade of types comes through your office on a daily basis. I know I learned more about character in the years I did my master’s degree in psychology and saw clients both in private practice and in treatment centers than I could have learned even in an MFA program. If you deal with people in stressful circumstances, you are populating the night sky of your imagination beautifully. I expect there must be a strong presence out there somewhere of flight attendants turned novelists. There are just too many good situations that crop up — particularly when flights are delayed, people are tired, and everyone just wants to go home-not to turn some of them into novels or short stories.
It’s so hard in the moment to see encounters with the dark side of humanity as positive in the moment. One recent morning, I spent over an hour wrestling with the technology in my flat, trying desperately to get our inconsistent internet to work properly so I could scan a simple paper. This experience was so maddening that it drove me to think about doing serious violence. Did I enjoy it? Absolutely not. But is this something now populating the constellation of emotional states I can write convincingly? 100% yes.
There is a fantasy that if we just had time away from all that nonsense we have to deal with out there in the world, then we could sit down and get on with writing. There is some truth to it, in that we have to have some time when we can actually put the words we dream about writing down on the page, but we don’t need as much time as we think. And if we were locked away in a tower all the time, I wonder if there would be anything to write about.
As in most things, we need a balance more than anything. It’s quite easy to get sucked into distraction and technology and social media in the periods of time we aren’t working. We’ve all been there. But if you want the constellations of your life to include the identity of writer, don’t let the web steal those moments. Every time you try on the costume of a new job, you are adding a new character to your arsenal. This is magic. Every time you get a bit older or face a new difficulty in life, that is material you can work with.
It amazes me that there is such an obsession with very young writers. This feels to me like a lot of pressure on those just starting to be able to speak with authority on life, much of which they have yet to experience. What a waste not to consider older writers, those who have the most beautiful skies of experience available to work with. Don’t worry about the path you have taken you to get where you are now. Don’t worry if you are coming to writing as something other than a bright young thing. You are simply showing up at the right time, when your stories are ready to be positively celestial.
Originally published at https://thewildword.com on November 22, 2019.