6 Things Having an Unconventional Career Path Taught Me About Creative Writing
I never planned to be a bike messenger. Or the Human Resources Manager of a successful international e-commerce auto parts retailer. Or a warehousing and logistics aficionado. Or a cocktail server for a Caribbean-themed bar and restaurant. Or a jewelry salesperson. Or even a marketing professional. But, I have worked in all these roles, and more, continually compromising my writing. "Well, at least I get to write sometimes...when I write synopses of situations into angry customers' order notes." I’m lucky to now be pursuing an MFA at a low-residency program and writing, both creatively and for work, full time. I took a long road here.
In college, I wanted to write novels and short stories, but I was willing to "pay the bills" by working for large-circulation glossy magazines. Their mastheads assured me that the people writing for them had "real" jobs, with titles and, presumably, salaries and health insurance. At precisely the moment I embarked on this path, destined for success, the journalism and publishing markets experienced dramatic upheavals. Magazines shuttered or let themselves be bought out to avoid imminent financial doom. Newspapers consolidated, ceased to exist, or went online-only. I was a 20-year-old intern at BusinessWeek in Summer 2007. We toured the Federal Reserve the day before the Fed cut the rate to stave off the Great Recession and a deluge of subprime mortgage defaults. As we all know, that didn't work out so well.
Print and online journalism, personal essay publishing, and even creative writing have changed SO much since I was an intern. Sometimes, I'm not certain whether what I'm reading on magazine websites now is news, entertainment, or advisory journalism. I'm not sure it matters anymore. I'm able to rely on my own media literacy and news judgment—hammered into me as an undergrad in UW-Madison's School of Journalism and as a daily reporter and editor for The Daily Cardinal—to determine what matters most, what is worth my attention. I stayed in love with writing, even after I realized I no longer wanted to be a journalist. Like so many writers before me, I believe my true preparation for a writer’s life began when I started working—at the age of 14. I scooped frozen custard at a popular local shop in my hometown, developing a knack for artful sundaes and quickly mixed malts. So, while my path away from journalism led me to some unconventional career choices, I learned so much about myself, about humanity, and about storytelling. The top six things I learned about creative writing in my unconventional career path include:
1. People of all kinds—rich, poor, difficult to deal with, easy to talk to—will cross your path.
Some of these people will be more distinct than others. Every person’s memorable personality and behavior can inspire aspects of a future character. Try to be kind to everyone. But, if they’re unkind to you, as long as you’re not libelous, their bad behavior can serve as prime writing fodder in your later fiction writings…
2. Speaking of bad behavior, corporate jobs are ripe with potential inspiration for fiction writing.
The sociopathic boss who screams at employees in an open-office setting. The athletic, mean-spirited boss who leaps over you after you fall in the mud in a park with a camera around your neck, trying to capture a photo of a festival sponsor. He says, “You almost got the shot.” You think, “This is going in a short story.”
3. The knowledge you gain and the research you conduct on every job can and will inform your future writing.
I now have free license to spout about bike messenger street races in my short stories. I’m working on a flash fiction piece about boating, and having engine and propeller specifics helps. Warehousing and lift truck operator safety knowledge informs another of my in-progress short stories. Food safety, compliance, and food rights figure into some of my fictional work. I’m working on another short fiction piece about workers’ and union rights. And, I can make a middling latte and a damn good sundae.
4. Exercise is important.
For your health, for your mind, and for your creative inspiration. I’m delighted that I can still hop on my bike and ride for 12 hilly miles without stopping. My daily walks around my neighborhood keep my mind fresh and clear out literary cobwebs. I often see goings-on in nature I would never notice from a car: red-tailed hawks mating; a muskrat facing off with a seagull over a hunk of forgotten bread; a baby turtle pit-pattering around a bike path. The human world is not the only one that informs and inspires my writing.
5. Journalism may have changed entirely in the past two decades, but credibility, fact-checking, reliability, and ethics have not.
The need for these in nonfiction has only increased. Alternative facts are not facts. I still write nonfiction, and I find myself fact-checking my words and statements even more vigorously than before. “The truth is more important now than ever,” as the New York Times so eloquently stated in an in-house ad in late February 2017.
6. If a project like a novel isn’t working out or taking off, try a different point of view.
Switch from first person to close third. If, after all that writing, the project still isn’t working out, it’s okay to leave. Shelve it for six months. Work on other short stories. You’ll leave the project a better writer and with a clearer view of your future goals. The same goes for jobs. If you’re floundering at work, try streamlining your tasks, delegating unnecessary ones, or finding opportunities within your role to let your strengths shine. If the workplace simply isn’t a good fit—if it’s a toxic environment or too much stress for the money or, like me in my bike messenger days, you’re simply too accident prone—it’s okay to move on to the next thing. Don’t hang on until the bitter end. Sometimes, you can find success through leaving and trying something new. You’ll leave the job with a stronger skill set, maybe a couple bylines, and a greater awareness of what you want in the world.