Balancing career and calling: insights from three writers

A few weeks ago I wrote a piece called Don’t Quit Your Day Job for Inside Higher Ed about the challenges of balancing a career in communications with one as an author. One of the writers I interviewed, Tom Krattenmaker, terms this a “bi-vocational” existence. To me, it feels like a high wire act, often precarious, but it’s something that most authors need to wrangle.

I’ve found that the day job is not something a lot of writers talk about. The lucky few have a trust fund or spouse to support them as Ann Bauer bravely notes in her Salon article where she discusses the luxury of having a gainfully employed husband: “But I do have a huge advantage over the writer who is living paycheck to paycheck, or lonely and isolated, or dealing with a medical condition, or working a full-time job.” She equates having full-time gig to a medical condition. I suppose that’s true…eating is certainly a chronic necessity.

The occasional bestselling writer provides a glimpse behind the curtain. In Headhunters on my Doorstep, travel writer J. Maarten Troost wrote: “Let’s say, hypothetically, that you are a modestly successful writer, and by this I mean you only need to work part-time at Denny’s to make ends meet.”

I didn’t interview any authors working at Denny’s for Don’t Quit Your Day Job, but the three writers I did connect with offered some thoughts, ideas and inspiration that didn’t make it into the final piece that are definitely worth sharing.

Brian Doyle

Photo: Jerry Hart

How does your job as editor of a university alumni magazine feed your personal writing projects? 

Hugely stimulating. I meet and listen to and am wowed by all sorts of people and ideas and creativity and theater and lies and performances and devious nonsense and brilliant generosity all day long. How could you not be fed by that? And because a good editor is a story-magnet, a story-nut, a story-junkie, and because a good editor is always absorbed by the best way to share and shape and trade and present stories, I am always being educated as a writer by my work as an editor. This is especially the case at a university, seems to me, where there is not only accomplished adult professional creativity, but the wild loose jazz of kids, thousands of them.

What about the reverse? What do you learn from writing fiction, poetry and essays that feeds into your day job?

To get to it, to punch deeper and harder, to be more direct and honest and genuine in the work; the best writing is that which connects, which moves the reader, which shoots for not just head but heart and soul and laughter and rage and prayer; and I think my efforts as writer have fed me as editor. I think our magazine is better, or at least much odder, because an essayist and novelist is the editor. It surely will be edited next by a sensible businessperson with excellent management skills, just as a swing away from the current dolt of an editor.

You’re a self-described ‘story junkie.’ But do you ever get burnt out on stories since you spend so much of your time immersed in them?

Nah. I do get weary weary weary of blood and murder and greed and arrogance and lies and sales pitches – an awful lot of the stories in common play are only that, or mostly that – I never get tired of other sorts of stories. And of course stories take all sorts of shapes, from music to little kids to hawks to basketball (narrative theater, isn’t it?) to lust to wine to dragonflies. Naw, I never get tired of stories. What else is there?

Sense of place is important in your books, whether it’s the Oregon coast in Mink River or the vineyards of the Willamette Valley? What’s the importance of sense of place in your creative work?

I find that I need to be grounded before I can soar, you know? A boundary allows for imaginative cheerful madness somehow. And to me the songs I want to sing here are about hereness, a lot – what’s the music here, the smell, the ambition, the dreaming, as my Australian friends say? Why is it different here? Robin Cody speculates that evolution is running a little faster here, what with good weather and plenty of food over the last 10,000 years – could that be? Could it be that our creativity here is looser, freer, less alert to past stricture?

What is the importance of sense of place in Portland Magazine? How do you create a sense of the Northwest, Portland and the campus through your work as an editor?

O, Portland and Oregon and the Northwest are integral to the University – our home is wet and green and bright and crisp, our city most unusual, our lives here spoken in the languages of this place. I am most interested, I suppose, in catching at that primarily through storytellers of the Far Corner – Barry Lopez, John Daniel, Ursula Le Guin, Tim Egan, Bob Pyle, Robin Cody, David Duncan, etc.; but also through art, especially – I love to run great NW art like Michael Brophy, Michael Schlicting, Dave Mensing. The university is a village, seems to me, and most of all I want to give the reader a sense of this place and its people and dreams and ideas and humor and struggle and grace under duress, so that, in the end, readers will be curious, and come closer, and be absorbed, and eventually give us their money and their sons and daughters, or all three.

Your bio on Amazon leads with your university job as editor of Portland Magazine…is that deliberate on your part? Are you and editor first who writes books on the side, or are you a writer of books who holds down a day job to pay the bills?

Well, the proper bio would be dad, dad, dad, husband, son, brother, friend, citizen, editor, writer, in that exact order of importance. But yes, I want readers to see that I edit the university’s magazine – partly so that curious folks, and there are many, will ask for a copy, which we cheerfully send to anyone. I am professionally an editor, and proud of it – a great old profession, and my dad was a newspaper editor – and I write books and essays for fun and small coin and bottles of wine, occasionally. Come to think of it I have been paid in fish, berries, beer, wine, wood, a deer antler, jam, chocolate, cookies, and excellent Irish whiskey, as well as the occasional coin.


Abby Phillips Metzger

What drives you to write? Where does that impulse to tell stories come from when you already have a career that fills your time?

Writing has always been a natural urge for me, as trite as that sounds, so it’s hard for me to trace its genesis. As I child, I was fascinated by the power of story, especially when I realized that power for myself. The constraints of reality vanished, and I could fabricate whatever world I wanted. Even though today I mostly write creative nonfiction, it’s still a freeing space. And it’s very different than writing for a day job where you have an institutional mindset. When you write creatively, the lens is so personal. Even if a story is not about you, you own it outright. That weight is intimidating and empowering at once.

What are some of the challenges of balancing a career as a higher education communicator while also writing and publishing books/articles?

To be a really good writer, you need as much time to write as to not write. By that I mean, you need the time and space to wonder, think, analyze, connect, reflect, and struggle internally. The problem with working in higher education as a communicator is that much of that musing is spent on professional endeavors. My creative urn is pretty empty by the time I get home. By necessity, I’ve turned to what I call interstitial writing, where you find small crevices of time and exploit the heck out of them.

How do you manage to find a balance?

Balancing professional and creative writing is not easy, and I’ve never been successful at it. I’ve had to be very intentional and even mechanical about making time for creative writing…knocking on the muse’s door even when she’s not home. Having an active writing group or a writing mentor has put the fire in my pen, so to speak, and there’s nothing like a deadline to inspire focus.

How do your personal writing projects feed into your work for the university (if they do)?

In terms of subject matter, there’s not a one-to-one mapping of my personal and professional writing projects. But I think the same techniques I use to describe a landscape relate to how I would describe, say, a scientist—it’s just a different topography. What forces shaped the person? What is the person’s trajectory, and what metaphor can help readers travel that trajectory? And most importantly, how can I tell a story about a person’s science that will make readers relate, to feel as if they truly know and care about the work? I would ask those same questions of myself when writing about a place.

What about the reverse? How does your work for the university inform you as a storyteller?

Because my professional writing requires that I translate complex concepts into something understandable and interesting, I’ve learned to chase the ‘Why?’ behind a story. Why should people care about Adélie penguins in Antarctica? Why should people understand how rivers transport pollutions? In the same regard, I work hard to get at the ‘Why’? of the natural world, specifically why we should care and engage as participants in the story unfolding beneath our feet.

You’re a writer with a deep connection to the natural world? Where does that connection come from?

I still live in the same town where I was born. When you’ve been in a place that long, you can’t ignore the seasons and subtleties that make up a landscape. Staying still has allowed me to marvel, year after year. And I think writing has been a cure to what otherwise would be a bad case of habituation. Writing renews my sense of awe about the place I love and inspires me to pay attention to the complexities unfolding every day.

Tom Krattenmaker

tomWhat drives you to write? Where does that impulse to tell stories come from when you already have a career that fills your time?

I suspect you know about this yourself, David – and know how hard it is to identify the source! All I can say is that people who write pretty much have to write. They can’t help themselves. Did you see the episode of Madmen where one of the junior staff guys is having writing success and Roger Sterling gets jealous and orders him to stop writing? It’s telling that later in the episode we see that character in his bed, pen and pad in hand, coming up with a new pen name, starting another story. So we have to write, and we sort of can’t be stopped, even if we don’t really have a lot of time or bandwidth for our writing.

What are some of the challenges of balancing a career as a higher education communicator while also writing and publishing books/articles?

See what I said just above about time and bandwidth! That’s the hard part. Then there’s the awkwardness that comes into play if you’re a communications director, serving as a spokesperson for your institution, and your extra-curricular writing involves punditry and on-going political debates. In that situation, you have to be very transparent with your editors, your readers, and your employer and be mindful of potential conflicts of interest. And even then you find that not everyone thinks it’s a good idea.

How do you manage to find a balance?

Not sure if this answers your question, but you have to remember your position at your college or university is your primary responsibility and you have to set your writing aside when you’re at work, both physically and mentally. The “mentally” part is harder.

What’s your process like? I remember you had a morning routine…has that process changed since you’ve changed universities?

You have a good memory. Now that I’m writing a book again I’m getting up at 5:45 and writing for about 90 minutes before going to the office. I’ve spoken with other bi-vocational writers who have wildly different approaches. A friend of mine at Yale works on his novels at night, for example. And I know others who take a short leave or use vacation to hole up at a retreat somewhere to bang out the bulk of their books.

Do you think you could balance two careers if your day job was in another industry besides education?

Probably. As I said, writers can usually find a way if they’re driven and obsessed.

How do your personal writing projects feed into your work for the university (if they do)?
They really didn’t relate before I moved to Yale Divinity School. Now, there’s a strong overlap, where the people and ideas I’m around every day inspire and inform the writing I do in my “other life,” which as you know is religion. So that’s been a very fortunate thing for me.

What about the reverse? How does your work for the university inform you as a storyteller?

Being at Yale and, specifically, at the divinity school is a kid-in-a-candy-shop situation for me. I am immersed in great ideas and books and projects and art, which all inform my writing. I’m in a situation now where some of the best theologians in the world, people like Miroslav Volf and Teresa Berger, are popping into my office, chatting with me in the hallway, etc. Pretty amazing.



Published by David

Writer (Vintage), filmmaker (Three Days of Glory and Saving Atlantis), bookreader.

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