“A writer has many heads, all troubled,” wrote Jim Harrison, the acclaimed author and poet. He’s a lyrical novelist with a big heart and an even bigger appetite. He’s summered in Montana’s Paradise Valley for decades, with a winter home near the Mexican border. Birds, which appear frequently in his work, are his feathered muses, and he evidently spends a lot of time watching them. He chain smokes, haunts the local bar in Livingston and cooks rugged approximations of classic French dishes in his farmhouse for other writer, chef and artist friends, among them Russell Chatham, Mario Batali and Anthony Bourdain.
I once wanted to be Jim Harrison. Honestly, I probably still do.
But like other “many headed” writers, I’m not in Montana’s Paradise Valley. I’m in a Starbucks south of Chicago trying to chip away at emails from my day job as a communications professional at a big research university. I’m burning vacation time and trying to plan how best to thread city traffic to get to a series of stock signings at area bookstores so that I can arrive in time for an author appearance across town. My new novel, Vintage, was just released last week, and I’m trying to do what I can to get the word out, one city at a time. It’s a challenge trying to build a writing career and attempt to stand out as a debut novelist in a flood of fall book releases by big-name authors, celebrities and politicians.
But while writing fiction plays a big part in my life and takes up a lot of time, it’s not my only career. It’s a pursuit I have to balance with my work for the university. Chicago traffic and the prospect of a room full of empty chairs at my appearance tonight aren’t my only concerns. I’m also worried about a video shoot for our new broadcast commercial that will take place this weekend on Oregon’s Mt. Hood. I’m worried about the launch of our new university website, scheduled a few weeks from now, not to mention the fact that this little “vacation” caused me to miss teacher conferences at my daughter’s new middle school.
What does a many-headed writer do when faced with too many worries? Start yet another project…perhaps a blog post on balancing creative and professional lives.
I’m not alone. One of the best-kept secrets about literary careers is that most writers have day jobs. Many of the shiny hardcover books you see on the shelves of Barnes and Noble were written by people whose lives look a lot more like mine…and yours…than Jim Harrison’s. And even Harrison took a range of jobs to support his writing career before holing up in Montana: he hoed corn, taught briefly and worked as a script doctor in Hollywood for years before finding balance in a seemingly idyllic writer’s lifestyle.
Many writers turn to teaching to support their writing habits. Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Olen Butler directs the writing program at Florida State University and the prolific National Book Award winner Joyce Carol Oates had a rich teaching career at Princeton. Even prizewinning authors need health benefits. In fact, publishing is often a requirement for faculty who want to teach writing. Universities encourage press junkets for faculty authors, sometimes offering media training and professional development funds to help them promote their work.
But the English department isn’t the only office on campus where you’ll find writers with active publishing careers. As universities add to communications staff to deal with fierce competition for students and declines in public funding, they’re bringing more and more storytellers on board. And for someone wired to write, you can’t simply turn on the narrative impulse at eight in the morning and shut it back down again at the end of the day.
“I’m a story junkie,” says Brian Doyle, author of 13 works of prose, fiction and verse. Doyle also edits Portland Magazine, the quarterly alumni publication of the University of Portland. “In the morning I get up early and write stories. Then I go to the office and spend the day collecting more stories. When I get home I read stories, or I watch them,” Doyle says.
Looking at Doyle’s list of critically acclaimed, imaginative novels like Mink River and Martin Marten, alongside his work editing an award-winning magazine, one has to wonder how he manages to find balance. But when you realize what a rich field for stories we have at universities, it starts to make sense. It’s not so much about finding balance between opposing forces, but allowing the various aspects of our storytelling careers to braid into one another.
Doyle’s work crafting fiction, verse and essays informs his editorial choices for the magazine. “The best writing is that which connects, which moves the reader, which shoots for not just head but heart and soul an laughter and rage and prayer; and I think my efforts as writer have fed me as an editor,” Doyle says.
You might not expect an alumni magazine produced by a university marketer to inspire laughter, rage and prayer, but that’s exactly what Portland Magazine does, issue after issue. And he has collected the accolades and fan mail…and the occasional angry screed…to prove it.
The formula also works in reverse. Doyle’s role as editor feeds his personal writing: “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?”
Doyle isn’t alone in his symbiosis between career and writing. Abby Phillips Metzger directs communications efforts for Oregon State’s College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences. She released her first book, Meander Scars: Reflections on healing the Willamette River in 2013. She’s also the editor of the upcoming Wild in the Willamette: Exploring the Mid-Valley’s Parks, Trails and Natural Areas. With degrees in both English and environmental science, she finds that both of her careers require the same fusing of storytelling with translation of the natural forces that shape the earth.
Tom Krattenmaker is the award-winning author of Onward Christian Athletes and The Evangelicals You Don’t Know. He writes frequently on the topic of religion in public life for publications ranging from Salon to USA Today, and he has a new book due out from Random House next year. While establishing his writing career, Krattenmaker also built a reputation as a higher education communicator, working at Princeton, Swathmore College and Lewis and Clark College. He now directs communications for the Yale Divinity School.
Krattenmaker’s job requires him to speak on behalf of the college. But he also serves as a pundit and media figure as part of his writing career. “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,” he says.
Discipline is part of Krattenmaker’s formula for balance. He rises early, writes for 90 minutes before work, and then strives for focus while on the job. Still, his work at the university provides benefits to his second vocation: “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 project and art, which all inform my writing.”
As a writer, it’s so easy for me to cast a wistful glance at my Harrisonian ideal of a writer’s life: a cabin in the woods at the edge of a meandering stream filled with leaping trout. I once dreamt of shuffling out to the mailbox in my slippers every morning with a mug of coffee in my hand to collect a bundle of royalty checks. When I landed an agent and a major publisher, I thought I was finally getting close. But then I started receiving advice: don’t quit your day job. It takes a long time to build a writing career. But it’s more than mere economics. The cabin in the woods sounds nice, but it’s also a bit hermetic. Is that really the best sort of existence for a writer? Even Jim Harrison once cautioned that it would be a mistake for a writer to retire to the country too soon. He built up a lifetime of adventures before settling in Montana.
To write, you need to be engaged with life, to be inspired by it. And what better place to soak in the variety and mystery of the world than on a college campus where we’re surrounded by scientists, artists, starry-eyed idealists and students and faculty from a range of backgrounds, economic circumstances and countries around the world? In only the past two weeks I’ve worked with a promising young writer in our MFA program, traveled with a renowned paleoclimatologist to a retreating glacier and chatted with the captain of a research ship who will soon be tagging whales in Alaska. I’ve talked to experts on subjects ranging from evolutionary biology to the films of Francis Ford Coppola and the increasing acidity of the world’s oceans.
It is easy to forget that the stories swirling around my day job aren’t separate from my writing career, but instead are woven into the fabric of it. And it’s a good reminder, as I scour the Internet for press mentions of my novel to repurpose on social media, that I should strive to gather the some of those same sought-after adjectives for the work I do on behalf of the university: spellbinding, evocative, beautiful, audacious. If I can’t find stories that embody those qualities on campus, where will I ever be able to find them?
As writers, we’re obligated to try to move and inspire readers through the stories we tell both on and off the job. Given the richness of the materials we are handed, there’s no excuse not to. Bryan Doyle approaches his day job with a missionary zeal: “The university is a place of challenge and debate and diversity, so why aren’t our communications more challenging? What you really want is to get into people’s house and their heart and their head. This work freaking matters. We’re not selling shoes. We’re selling opportunities. Lives.”
It’s a comforting thought as I drain the last four ounces of coffee and leave the Starbucks behind. I’ve scanned the last of my unread emails and punched the address of my next bookstore visit into my smartphone’s app, and I notice that more emails in need of answering have already popped into the queue. I breathe deep and think of Doyle’s words: this work freaking matters. Stories matter. They are the currency of human experience. They are what define us as a species. They are the tragedy of retreating glaciers, of warming oceans, of racial injustice and political violence. They are the aspirations of young people with the audacity to think they can solve these problems. They are our only hope.
Stories matter. It’s time to go tell a few more.
David Baker is a writer and filmmaker whose debut novel Vintage was recently released by Simon & Schuster’s Touchstone imprint. He also works as Director of Interactive Communications at Oregon State University.