Sitting at my desk Friday afternoon, freezing in my cubicle, I kept turning over the phrase Do What You Love! And it struck me just how unfair and exclusionary that phrase can be.
I’ve been working my “day” job since 2009. Prior to taking my position, I was an English adjunct at three schools in Southern New Jersey. I drove all over the state teaching English 101 and Introduction to Literature. I took that position fresh out of graduate school in 2008, full of dreams of a tenure track position. And then I learned that adjuncts got the leftover courses and little to no benefits. So then my dream shifted to being a full-time instructor who got to teach creative writing. And then I realized that I was exiting my twenties and making so little money left me with a tiny amount of wiggle room to eek out a life. And then the breaking point occurred. I reached my level of narrative essays and the like. I got discouraged by the pay, the lack of support from the full-time faculty, and the nearly impossible chance of advancing.
I took my job with the federal government for the healthcare, the salary, and the ability to build a retirement fund. I knew there would be very little creative writing, just the black and white letter of the law. I also knew my parents had sacrificed their dreams, and their bodies, in steel mills and factories to make sure my sister and I never had to know manual labor as a career. Who was I to turn down a “good government job” to be a writer and an adjunct making less than $25,000 a year?
Writing became my “night” job. I was no longer “doing what I loved”, but I was able to launch my literary journal, travel to conferences, study in foreign countries, and squeeze in a creative life between the hours in my cubicle. But it’s disheartening to hear that phase wielded as a weapon. It implies a level playing field, a life free of concerns that require a day job with health insurance, or an existence that doesn’t spread your salary out to help family. It lessens the sacrifice of doing both in favor of the romantic notion of being a writer, a struggling artist who is on the cusp of “making it”.
I’m not Carrie Bradshaw. I’m Athena. I can’t sustain myself on freelance fees. I don’t have family who can supplement my expenses while I work my way up through the ranks or take internships. I’m a first generation college student from a working poor family in Northeast Ohio. My writing, and the time I dedicate to it, is just as valid as someone able to do the same full-time. I’ve heard writers, in creative settings and at large, toss out the idea that you are dedicated to your craft when you invest money. What of the writers who are barely keeping the electricity on, food on table, who are in default on student loans? They aren’t serious?
Thankfully, my “day” job offers me more than enough to balance my monthly expenses and my creative pursuits. I know that I am fortunate and I guess that’s why I’m so offended when I hear “motivational” speeches about doing what you love. If we all lived by that philosophy, how would the world turn? How would some of us eat, afford families, stay on our medications, have a place to live? It’s unfair and it’s ignorant to equate someone’s worthiness as a member of our community to how much money or time they have to invest.
We exclude so many with this idea. We exclude even more when our writing workshops meet at times people with day jobs could never attend without taking personal time (if you have a job that actually offers that option). Even more when we hoard the information we gather at meetings and workshops like some sort of magical elixir that the less fortunate shouldn’t be privy to. Even more by assuming everyone in the room has read the same books, knows the same articles, understands the same backstories. Even more when we pay lip service by “acknowledging” these issues for a few fresh days in our minds and then going back to the same patterns.
I know I’m rambling, but I am always flabbergasted by the assumptions we make and how those assumptions ripple. In the end, I’m just hoping we continue to be mindful of our words in public just as much as we are mindful on the page.