By Jacob M. Appel
Every Tuesday evening, I leave the locked psychiatric ward where I treat patients for fifty hours each week to teach a three-hour fiction course for adults at Gotham Writers’ Workshop.
I do not do this for the money. I also do not teach my class to improve my own writing. While a decade ago, I did indeed learn craft techniques from analyzing my students’ stories, I am now at the point in my literary “career” where, if my only goal were self-improvement, time spent analyzing the writing of novices would be better devoted to burnishing my own work. I would like to pretend that I teach my course solely to give back to others, that my time at Gotham is the literary equivalent of volunteering at a soup kitchen or reading to the blind. The reality is that I teach to connect with a community of artists, precisely because literary endeavors are so far removed from my professional life at the hospital.
I certainly consider myself to be a serious writer: I have published over one hundred short stories in respected journals. But I am also a part-time writer. My students, who range from recent college graduates hoping to apply to MFA programs to accomplished lawyers and entrepreneurs seeking creative outlets, are also resolute about their imaginative work—but few, if any, intend to abandon their days jobs. So while my course offers instruction on plot, voice and point-of-view, I also have a larger agenda: Persuading my all-too-wary students that their current careers and their literary pursuits are not mutually exclusive callings.
Many of our most celebrated authors earned their livings through extra-literary means. What financially impoverished young poet (or culturally deprived young insurance agent) has not envied the versatile Wallace Stevens, who spent more than two decades as vice president of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, and even turned down a teaching job at Harvard, after winning the 1955 Pulitzer Prize, because the post would have demanded an end of his business career? And what narrative-inclined law student does not dream of following in the footsteps of Louis Auchincloss, who published fifty volumes of fiction while a partner at the Wall Street law firm of Hawkins, Delafield & Wood? My own field, medicine, has produced a pantheon of literary geniuses, from Chekhov and Conan-Doyle to William Carlos Williams and Walker Percy.
Unfortunately, I find many of my older students have been warned—by college writing professors, by professional colleagues—that pursuing two callings in a parallel manner is no longer possible in today’s intense literary world.
If any biographical model resonates with adult writing students, it is that of Sherwood Anderson, who famously disappeared from his office at the Anderson Manufacturing Co. in Elyria, Ohio, in 1912, and after four days of soul-searching reflection, deserted his career selling roofing supplies for a full-time literary life. That all-or-none romantic archetype has been embraced by some of our greatest contemporary authors, such as ex-attorney Ben Fountain and ex-physician Ethan Cainin.
But the men and women whom I teach are not looking to leave their days jobs. Is there a literary role, they want to know, for the “weekends-and-evenings” writer? For years, often since high school, they have been warned that literary success on such terms is not possible. My goal is to convince them that is it.
I make a point of sharing with my students one particularly disturbing experience that I had as an eleventh grader. Our suburban high school had recently invested in some cutting-edge computer software that was supposed to help college-bound adolescents choose their careers. Like the literature-generating machine in Roald Dahl’s “The Great Automatic Grammatizator,” which churned out stories and novels when supplied with basic raw data regarding plot and genre, our school’s algorithm allegedly whipped a short survey into a lifelong trade.
I answered the questions honestly: I wanted a job that involved creativity, reading, working with people. Although I am now a doctor, at the time I sought nothing mathematical or scientific. My guidance counselor, Dr. M., fed my data into the infallible program and the “Career Giver X” supplied its hallowed wisdom: I should become a clergyman. Since the questionnaire had not asked after my religion—an inquiry probably too politically incorrect for a public school during the 1980s—it could not tell me whether I should become a priest or a rabbi or an imam. My guidance counselor, a rather benevolent if never particularly insightful woman, appeared unfazed when I reminded her that I did not believe in God and that I considered organized religion to be a crutch for the mentally deficient.
“Okay, then. What would you like to do with your life?” she asked.
“I want to be a short story writer,” I declared confidently.
Dr. M. smiled at me across her oversized desk—a sympathetic, indulgent smile that bordered on pity. “Do you really think that’s realistic?” she asked.
I didn’t write another word of fiction for nearly a decade.
I do not blame Dr. M. for attempting to steer me away from a literary career. Even when I returned to writing, while taking “pre-med” classes as a resumed education student, I found that my teachers viewed fiction and healthcare as an “either-or” choice. One established writer at Columbia University, with whom I took an advanced workshop, sat me down in his office and said, point-blank, “Honestly, I think your work has promise. You’re talented. But writing isn’t only about raw talent. You still have to make a decision. Are you going to be a writer or a physician?” At another college, a well-meaning junior faculty member was even more direct.“Why in the world would you want to be a writer when you could be a doctor?” he asked. “I have relatives who went to medical school. I look at their lives and I’m envious.”
Nor were my professors in medical school any more accepting of my dual career goals. One prominent internist discouraged my extracurricular writing by reminding me: “Being a physician is a fulltime job. I know people say you can be a physician and a playwright, or a physician and a painter, or whatever. I call that being a dilettante.”
Nearly all of my students at Gotham have endured similar admonitions during their careers. Being a writer, they have been taught, means throwing caution to the wind and embracing monastic poverty. One can only wonder how many brilliant talents—what the elegist Thomas Gray would have called “mute inglorious Miltons”—have given up writing entirely, as a result of this counsel, before enlightening the world with their literary gems.
The world might be otherwise. We could teach aspiring writers, from an early age, to integrate creative work in their non-literary careers. Imagine, for example, if Dr. M’s “Career Generator X” had produced two results: both a trade from which to earn one’s livelihood and also a calling to generate intellectual fulfillment. Or if Dr. M had said to me: “I think being a writer is a wonderful ambition. Are there occupations which might dovetail with creative writing to make the literary life easier?”
Hamline University in Minnesota has recently pioneered a combined JD/MFA program for students wishing to pursue careers in both law and fiction. In an ideal world, similar combined-degree programs would offer dual tracks for students wishing to pursue combined MD/MFA and MBA/MFA degrees. And graduate schools need not stop there. I would much rather hear unidirectional small-talk from a dentist who has a DDS/MFA hanging on his wall. I cannot say for certain whether CPA/MFAs would prepare better taxes or if PE/MFAs would build stronger bridges—but I suspect that many of them would have compelling stories to share and make the literary landscape more exciting for sharing them.
Admittedly, an “all-MFA society” may be a long way off. However, every writing teacher—from elementary school through the post-graduate level—can help integrate questions related to professional balance and part-time writing into their curricula.
To read Part II, click here.
To read Part III, click here.
This essay originally appeared in The Writer.