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Writers who have day jobs outside the literature industry aren’t a new thing. Oscar Wilde wrote, “The best work in literature is always done by those who do not depend on it for their daily bread and the highest form of literature, Poetry, brings no wealth to the singer.” Essays at The Millions, Ploughshares, and elsewhere feature stories of folks who have made the double life of writer and Joe or Jane Worker fruitful and rewarding. Short story writer Lorrie Moore wrote, “First, try to be something, anything, else,” in her essay “How to Be a Writer.”
Poet Amy Woolard, named one of the 50 Best News Poets of 2013 by Best New Poets editor Brenda Shaughnessy, has tried “something, anything, else”—including, most recently, working as a child-welfare lawyer. But she has also kept writing. I spoke with her about what it’s like to maintain a career in poetry while also maintaining a demanding, white-collar day job. A condensed, edited version of that email conversation follows.
When did you first consider yourself a “poet,” and what was your job at the time?
This is one of those moments that kids face in a spelling bee when they’re unfamiliar with a word, right, and they furrow their brows and ask, “Poet. Can you use it in a sentence?” It’s a title I’ve never really taken on or have been comfortable with, but it has been used on me in different contexts. For example, at Iowa, we were often called poets but only really to distinguish us from the fiction writers, viz.—“The poets are going to the Foxhead for drinks, and I think some of the fiction writers will be there, too.”
Shorter story—I don’t think I’ve every really considered myself a poet, just someone who writes poems, I suppose.
One moment that stands out, though, as a moment when I thought the writing of poems would certainly come to define me in some significant way: as an undergrad at the University of Virginia, when I’d applied, via portfolio submission, for Charles Wright’s Advanced Poetry Workshop. Charles is someone who came to mean a great deal to me and still does. I’ve often called him my “poetry dad” because of the way he took an interest in me and supported my work early on. But in this moment, the first day of that workshop, nearly 30 or 40 students filled the room—we did not yet know if we’d been accepted into the class. And Charles came in, welcomed everyone briefly, and then without another word began writing names on a chalkboard: the 12 or 15 students he’d admitted. And when he wrote out my name, mid-list or so, it was one of those rare occasions when you know something will stay with you forever. That class was also the true beginning of a writing community that I’ve been tied to ever since—other students in the class included Mary Szybist, Heather Derr-Smith, Rebecca Dunham, John Casteen, Jen Scappettone, and I think Sam Witt might’ve been in there too. It was a great crew, many of whom went on to join the crew I was lucky to be among at Iowa.
Tell me about some of the jobs you’ve held while writing poems between that time and today.
Oh, lord. Well, I’ve always considered Shakespeare’s Henry IV to be one of my favorite plays—most specifically Hal’s dilemma between life at the Tavern and the Court. My own years have played out similarly (sometimes quasi-literally), with an overindulgence of grad school thrown in. During and since my undergrad years, I’ve bartended and managed restaurants a lot—probably a total of seven or eight years’ worth of that time. I love that life, but it definitely takes a physical and mental toll that just became unsustainable. I’m definitely drawn back to that scene again and again, though. I do love a good bourbon.
In between and amongst those jobs, I went to grad school for advertising/copywriting, worked as a writer and editor for a San Francisco dot-com (during the boom and just before the bust), did a financial journalism gig, taught online English Composition courses, did some project-based freelance writing and editing for a few organizations (including a company in SF who gave me “naming gigs,” where I had to come up with names and URLs for new companies. There were all these rules to watch out for. You had to make sure a phrase-based URL didn’t end up unintentionally reading as unsavory—like, oh I don’t know, if you’re doing a site for a therapist named John Smith, you don’t want a URL that’s http://www.therapistJohnSmith.com, that kind of Arrested Development-type humor). This was years ago, however, when the internet was really starting to multiply, and quickly. People are much more savvy about those things now (I hope).
And of course, law school. I’ve been a lawyer/policy wonk for about five or six years now, and it seems like (especially given my financial investment in it) that this is the one that will stick.
Tell me about your current job.
Right now I’m a policy attorney for a statewide non-profit research and advocacy group called Voices for Virginia’s Children. I’ve been there for a few years, and before that was a legal aid attorney representing kids with education and school discipline issues. The subject areas I cover now include child welfare and foster care, juvenile justice, child homelessness and some general child poverty issues—most recently child hunger. Essentially, I write, research, analyze data, advocate, lobby, and attend a hell of a lot of meetings in order to bring to Virginia good laws/policies and fight bad laws/policies around children’s issues. I absolutely love it. It lets me tap into my journalism background to write articles and op-eds, use my legal background to actually write laws and regulations at times—and I totally thrive off of the lobbying part. A lot of people find lobbying for social justice issues, especially at the Virginia General Assembly, to be frustrating, annoying, and painful—which it is—but it’s an amazing study in human behavior and the power of persuasion—my favorite part of the job, by far.
How does your current work affect your writing?
I’d like to say that it doesn’t, but I think whenever you have to perform a couple of different identities within your life, each is affected by the other in some way. My job provides a nice counter-balance to the anything-goes world of poems—it’s still a persuasion-based job, but definitely in a rational, intellectual, responsible, real-world sort of way. This may sound terrible, but in my day job, I have to be a good person—and don’t get me wrong: I want to be and like being a good person, but poems give me a path to wrestle with the terrifying, difficult, absurd, imperfect, uncontrollable parts of the world in a much different but incredibly important way. As an attorney and a policy advocate, I can focus on actual change for the better. In poems, I can kind of tear a hole in that continuum and play around more with the scaffolding of it all. In policy, “good” is always the desired outcome. In poems, “good” rarely has anything to do with my goals—and sometimes it’s just desire itself that I want.
What do your co-workers think about your writing?
They don’t. I mean, for whatever reason, I just don’t tend to share much about that side of my life at work. The two versions of me–work self and writing self–seem like such different entities that it almost feels too vulnerable to share that part of my life in an environment where I need to have a kind of commanding presence, you know? Or else, it plays into my superstition that the more you talk about something, the less likely it will go the way you want it to. I know—it’s the least rational thing about me, but I think I’ve always been that way. I remember not even telling any family that I’d applied to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop until I knew I’d gotten in. Ditto with law school (control issues much?) And aside from that, I just think that there’s something a little too incongruous between law and poetry. In the legal world, it tends to make sense to others that someone would be a fiction writer, but no one really knows what to do with a poet (although that’s probably true everywhere outside the writing community/academia).
When do you do most of your writing?
I’ve persistently had a terrible writing schedule. By which I mean, for the most part, I have no schedule. I’ve never been a “write every day, even if it’s crap” kind of writer, and I’m a slow producer—ridiculously slow. Part of this, I think, is because I used to think about writing the way you’re supposed to think about credit card debt: Pick the highest interest rate card, and pay it down until it’s done. Then move on to the next. But in writing, that strategy was leading me to a kind of paralysis—getting hung up on the most challenging, wrenching piece was keeping me in a persistent stall mode. Finally finding a way to allow myself to move between projects was completely liberating—it was the best thing for my overall process to learn how to jump between work-writing, lighter poems, other essay ideas, and those heart-sucking poems that won’t ever leave you alone. Once I did that, it felt less excruciating to make time to sit down and write, and I stopped creating all the procrastination traps to keep me from the hard work of it.
I actually stopped writing altogether for about 10 years, for various reasons, beginning with the unexpected, sudden death of my closest friend, which led into the creative purgatory that is law school—a place that can kill both time and any adventure the mind might want to wander into. I’ve only picked it up again in the last two or three years—which, I think I knew I’d always come back to it, but needed to feel ready and able. Luckily, I think it’s been worth the wait—I feel much more confident in what I’m doing now than I ever have.
And now that I’m writing seriously again, with an eye toward a cohesive collection, I do some kind of writing work every day, whether it’s reading or dreaming or just chiseling away at a piece that’s in progress—I give myself more permission to see different kinds of work as writing. I usually write early in the morning, which is also kind of a revelation, because before my decade hiatus, I was mostly doing night shifts at restaurants, which meant I never really experienced mornings for the productive times they can be. I also write a lot on weekends, at all times of day, depending on my energy level and how close I am to finishing something.
Have you ever written at work? (I won’t tell anyone.)
Well, as long as it stays a secret just between us… Sure, I have, but only in the sense of jotting down a line or word or image I want to work on later. The paid job I do and the job of writing poems require me to be in two totally different brains, so it really only happens when my neurons slip a gear every now and then and something will stick with me enough that I just have to type it out so that I can get it out of my head for a while and get back to doing my job. And since I have an hour commute to work and back most days, sometimes I’ll turn on Siri on my iPhone and just talk some ideas out in the car as they happen. And sometimes it turns out Siri is a better writer than I am.
What would be your ideal job while writing poems?
I’m nearly there, I think—or else it doesn’t actually exist. Someone asked me this question recently, and I think my answer took the form of something like: having six months out of the year to just write, say April to September, with no other work obligations, and then the remaining six months to work on policy campaigns during the legislative session (which in Virginia runs from January through March). I’m not sure there’s a joint-advocacy/poetry foundation out there who would fund that, though. Is there? Call me.
this xkcd comic satirizes the different ploys social media sites like buzzfeed use to get you to visit their pages (via the atlantic). similar to tabloids that decorate the grocery checkout line or the teases on your late-night news, too often the stories that follow these headlines fail to meet the expectations relayed in the title and/or are simply a waste of time/attention.
i pulled a couple of the comic’s rewrites to further highlight what makes this approach to media both attractive and repulsive. think about how the headlines/stories fall in line with ones that you’ve heard, read, seen or maybe even written:
“HOW A SHOCKING NEW THEORY, DISCOVERED BY A DAD, PROVES SCIENTISTS ARE WRONG ABOUT EVERYTHING!” (1905)
inspired by: albert einstein discovering the theory of relativity
what makes the rewrite attractive: “shocking new” (something you haven’t seen/heard before); “dad proves scientists are wrong” (posits einstein as a common man outsmarting brainy establishment); “wrong about everything!” (that theory isn’t just “shocking new” but also earth-shattering).
what makes the rewrite repulsive: intentionally underselling einstein as just a dad instead of calling him another scientist; the use of “everything!” deliberately exaggerates what the scientists were wrong about.
“THIS VIDEO OF A TERMINALLY ILL CHILD WATCHING THE CHALLENGER LAUNCH WILL BREAK YOUR HEART” (1986)
what makes the rewrite attractive: “video of terminally ill child” (faulkner once wrote “between grief and nothing i will take grief.” speaks to why some people will knowingly gravitate toward things that will make them feel sad); “will break your heart” (beyond the aforementioned pursuit of grief, it’s also a challenge to see if this will actually affect you as much as the headline suggests).
what makes the rewrite repulsive: using a terminally ill kid watching a tragedy to make the circumstances around said tragedy seem even worse. as if, the death of seven people isn’t sad enough.