from "Author, Author"
"But What Do You Really Do?"
by Wendi Kaufman
Early in his career, John Cheever would
get dressed in a suit, kiss his wife goodbye, and head down to his apartment
building's basement. There, because it was so hot, he'd undress, hang
up his suit, and write all day at a card table in his boxer shorts.
Cheever craved the appearance of a working man's ordinary life. But
many writers don't have that luxury--they have to get a job.
Edward P. Jones worked as a proofreader
at an Arlington trade journal for 19 years. During that time, he published
his first story collection, Lost in the City. Though it was
nominated for a National Book Award, he didn't leave his job.
A decade later, just as he took a five-week vacation
to begin work on his novel, The Known World, he was laid off.
Jones lived on severance pay and unemployment benefits while he finished
his first draft. The book went on to win the Pulitzer Prize.
"I love the law, and I adore literature,"
says Takoma Park poet Brian
Gilmore, an attorney at Howard University law school's
Fair Housing Clinic and author of several collections, including Jungle
Nights & Soda Fountain Rags. "The great poet William
Carlos Williams, who was a doctor, is my inspiration."
Of his own dual careers, Gilmore says, "I couldn't imagine not
doing both. They are what I am."
Thomas Mallon--author of 12 books,
including the novels Henry and Clara and Two Moons--is
deputy chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities. "I don't
know many writers who don't work in some capcity in addition to writing,"
Silver Spring novelist Manil Suri--author
of The Death of Vishnu, about the residents of a Bombay apartment
house--is a mathematics professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore
County. Suri says on his web site that writing has been a way to escape
the horror of being a mathematician--and that math is the only way to
escape the horror of being a writer.
Silver Spring resident Terence
Winch is the author of three poetry books, including Irish
Musicians/American Friends, and a story collection, Contenders.
He's worked for the Smithsonian for 21 years, the past 14 as head of
publications for the National Museum of the American Indian.
"I made my living primarily as a musician and freelance
writer for years," Winch says. "My band, Celtic Thunder, was
the house band at the Dubliner for nine years; I wrote book reviews
for the Washington Post for six. But I decided in my late thirties
that I was tired of the feast-or-famine life."
"Poets have to have day jobs," says Kim
Roberts, editor of the online journal Beltway Poetry
Quarterly and author of The Wishbone Galaxy. "All
poets, even the most successful, tend to lose money on their writing.
You migth have a good year when you win a grant, but even the most famous
are lucky if they break even when you add all the years together."
Is working at a job that's unrelated to your writing
bad for your art? Not necessarily, says Roberts. "Poets know we
can't make a living from our art--so there's a kind of purity to what
"People often suppose that working as a bureaucrat
must seem far removed from the work of a writer," says Arlington's
Schaffner, author of the poetry collection The Good
Opinion of Squirrels, "but I can't bring myself to think so."
For nearly 20 years, Schaffner has been a civil servant,
working for the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation.
"If it hadn't been for my career," he says,
"I might have spent all my time in workshops writing about other
writers and our deep, writerly feelings. It strikes me as good luck
that my income isn't dependent on writing or teaching. I don't have
to worry about whether something will sell or that I've led students
to privilege an ideal of 'creativity' above the often equally challenging--and
creative--work of the world. I can just write."
Copyright (c) Washingtonian Magazine, 2006.