It turns out I went to graduate school to become a writer. It’s so obvious now. I had this fantasy when I was a teenager of living in an RV and driving around the country writing novels and poetry. I discounted the fact I can’t make up a story to save my life. And I ignored the fact I’d read Steinbeck’s Travels with Charlie and found it God-awful boring. I think I thought more would happen out on the road.
Regardless, I knew I was drawn to this this life of thinking and writing and moving.
After earning my bachelor’s degree in business marketing (imagining this to be the more creative of the business majors after I was dissuaded from an English degree by folks who portended I would never get a job), I took a job in a telecom company. It was a good job: upward mobility, steep learning curve, good boss, decent pay. So why did I feel like I was walking through mud everyday on my way to work? The monotony. I thought it would kill me.
So I quit and went back to school for a master’s in English with the vague hope it would change my life into something more purposeful and interesting.
It turns out it changed my life in ways I never anticipated – nor did I notice them when they were happening. I forgot about the RV, the novels I didn’t know how to write, the joy of putting pen to paper. These aspirations were all supplanted by the idea I should become a professor. If I’d succeeded in landing a tenure-track job, I’m sure my life would have turned out fine. I certainly loved the books, the teaching, and the conversations. But since the whole pursuit ended up being a wild goose chase, it also feels like a distraction.
It took nearly a decade after leaving academe for me to figure this out. This is partly because I was also so busy with raising a family and working as a tutor. I believed in the tutoring work deeply and knew that I made a significant difference in the lives of my students. But I also knew it wouldn’t hold me forever.
After my kids grew out of elementary school, I found time to think beyond the tutoring. That’s when I started this blog. That’s when I really had to do the soul searching that postacs must do to figure out what to do with their lives once they’ve given academe the boot. I just did it many years later than most.
It took a year of suffering through the questions of: What is my purpose? Where have my choices led me? Where do I want to take things from here? It was a midlife crisis on steroids, given the extra confusion of: Why did I get that Ph.D.?
I had so many interests and aspirations swirling around in my head. I had to whittle things down and ask myself, what is the first priority–the number one thing I wanted from my new career.
Then the image of the RV came back to me and I realized: freedom. I also remembered my old aspiration to be a writer. No longer a teenager, I could see through the romanticized notion of driving around in a truck with my dog to more illuminating kernels of self-awareness:
It wasn’t just the work that had driven me mad at my telecom job. It was the confinement. I realized I wanted to be my own boss. I didn’t want to be trapped in a building. I needed to be outside. I had to be creative.
These realizations went a long way toward clarifying my goals. I would try to work from home as a freelance writer/editor. I could do my creative projects on the side. I wrote about the culmination of this decision two years ago in the post: the perfect job: life after academe.
Over the course of the years since, I’ve gradually replaced tutoring clients with writing/editing clients. It turned out I needed that Ph.D. after all (and the tutoring experience too). I write for organizations that produce scholarly information in special education and health. I couldn’t do the work without my experience as a scholar.
No, I don’t get to edit amazing novels by famous authors. I don’t get to spend my days writing poetry in the shade of a friendly tree. But almost no one gets to do those things. And I’m lucky that I believe in the missions of the nonprofits I work for. And I never grow tired of the puzzle that is a new writing assignment: lining the words up in the right order, with the right rhythm & nuance.
I also get to work in my pajamas, get up from my computer and jog around the house like a fool when my Fitbit says I’ve been sitting too long, manage my time so I can ride my bike in the middle of the day, graze in my kitchen at will. I’ve also finished what I hope is the final version of my memoir. And now that I think of it, I do get to work in the shade of a tree–I often move my laptop into the backyard where I sit on our deck and work under the monstrous pine that towers over our house. I only wish it wouldn’t drop needles onto my keyboard where they slip under the keys and threaten to short circuit my livelihood.
All of that and I get paid well too.
It was about a year ago that the balance of my profession tipped definitively away from tutoring toward writing. For many of us, our careers are journeys. Mine has certainly had a number of twists and turns. It was so strange and gratifying the first time someone asked me what I did for a living and I said, “I’m a writer.”
Why didn’t I think of it sooner?