The Work of Being a Writer

What is work?  They say writing is a “labor of love,” but it is still very much a labor.  Tell people you’re a writer and you’ll get mixed reactions but many—those who work with their hands, executives, lawyers, pretty much anyone with what they consider to be a “real” job—will cast doubt on the validity of your profession; that is, if you’re even fortunate enough to make a living from writing.  Mangrove caters to undergraduates, many of whom are on the cusp of graduation, so this should be a pertinent issue to our contributors and readers, who must be wondering, “How do I continue to write once I leave college?”

The reality is that most writers need a second or third job to support themselves and their writing, which is also a job.  Or maybe they have one full-time job and wake up at dawn or stay up past midnight to squeeze writing time into the margins of their days.  It’s been said that Wallace Stevens, who spent most of his life as a lawyer at an insurance company, wrote some of his most acclaimed poetry during lulls at work.  Cheers to him.


A year removed from college, I found myself in an entry-level marketing position, crunching sales data in a cubicle, and certainly not writing, so I emailed a former lit. professor, a commercially successful writer herself, for advice.  She told me that if she could do things over again, she would have been a librarian or stocked grocery store shelves at night, some occupation where she could check out mentally, conjure stories in her mind, and then rush home to put them on the page.  She also conceded such jobs would most likely offer a meager existence.  A couple years and one bankruptcy layoff later, I applied to MFA Creative Writing programs and had the great fortune of getting accepted here at UM, one of the few fully-funded programs in the country.


In another semester, I’ll be back out there again, a much stronger writer than I was, but not necessarily more qualified for gainful employment.  At least, as our current Poet Laureate Philip Levine puts it in his book of the same name, I’ll know What Work Is.  Work is balancing a tray of over-priced food on the fingertips of your right hand, straining to keep your arm erect and safely over the heads of customers crowded around the bar.  Work is being bent over for hours with a sledgehammer, knocking out rusted pallet racks in a vent-less warehouse in July.  And work is revising and revising a poem until you finally find the right words to tell your brother you love him, that “You’ve never / done something so simple, so obvious…because you don’t know what work is.”


By Chris Joyner, Mangrove Executive Advisor


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