Beltway Poetry Quarterly

resource bank

current issuearchivesabout Beltwaypoetry newswashingtonart

from "Author, Author"

"But What Do You Really Do?"
by Wendi Kaufman

Washingtonian Magazine
May 2006


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," he says.

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 we do."

"People often suppose that working as a bureaucrat must seem far removed from the work of a writer," says Arlington's M.A. 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.