Taking Part-Time Writers Seriously Part II

by Jacob M. Appel

I know of one middle school writing teacher who asks her students to choose a famous author who enjoyed a second career and to write an essay explaining how that second career influenced his or her literary work. Needless to say, she drowns every fall in papers about Mark Twain’s days as a riverboat pilot, peppered with an occasional narrative describing Melville’s whaling ventures.

But the next part of her exercise makes this assignment worthwhile. She assigns the students to write a second paper, in which they describe the second career that they would pursue if they wished to become a writer. At an early age, this teacher plants the idea that a “second” career as an author is not the exclusive preserve of nineteenth century icons.

Similarly, I believe it is incumbent upon college writing professors to work with their most talented students on long term literary career planning. It is not enough to say: “Go get an MFA. Then suffer.” Rather, the university educator has an ethical obligation to talk with interested students about how one can balance literary ambitions with economic, social and familial expectations.

“Go get an MFA” is not reasonable advice to offer a gifted Pakistani immigrant whose parents have planned for him to attend medical school since birth—especially if that young man himself also wishes to become a pediatrician. Far better counsel would be to steer him toward the writings of other pediatrician-authors, such as Chris Adrian and Perri Klass, and even to encourage him to meet with physician-writers for further mentorship. I cannot promise that all physicians-writers are interested in meeting with would-be novelist-MDs, but I suspect that many are, even the busiest. Personally, I receive approximately a dozen such requests each year, from both medical students and physicians-in-training, and I make a point of speaking to or meeting with all of them.

In my own adult education class, I make every effort to bridge the gulf between creative writing and the outside professional lives of my students. On Day One, I have each student introduce himself—and describe what he does when he is not writing. Then I try to point out the specific advantages that each particular occupation affords a writer.

For example, if a student has a job where she visits strangers inside their homes, such as working for a moving company or offering music lessons, I note that such visits afford a perfect opportunity to “spy” or play “fly on the wall”—much like a nineteenth century governess. I then steer these students toward published fiction that relies on such visits by tradespersons, most frequently Tim Gatreaux’s moving story, “The Piano Tuner.” students who work in delivery receive Jason Brown’s “Driving the Heart,” a trenchant tale of delivering donor organs to hospitals based upon the author’s own employment experience. If a student works as a waitress, I spend several minutes discussing the literary benefits of eavesdropping.

Ironically, the only time I have ever struggled at this is the one occasion on which a rather determined (and somewhat mulish) woman described herself as a “full-time writer.” “These days, all I do is write,” she declared proudly. “The past is prologue.” I think it is rather telling that she was the only student for whom I could not manage to explain how her outside experiences might offer golden opportunities for improving her creative work. Without such outside experiences, after all, the creative well must eventually run dry.

Every writing instructor, at some point in her career, is asked: “Should I write what I know or what I don’t know?” I prefer to tell my students, “Write what you know and what nobody else knows.” For many of them, that means the knowledge and wisdom acquired in the practice of podiatry, or commercial litigation, or running a cheese shop.

I emphasize the importance of expert vocabulary as a method for gaining the confidence of the reader. Every profession and trade has a specialized language, a stew of unusual words and phrases that separates those ‘in the know’ from outsiders. Harnessing that vocabulary, and using it with care, can transform an intriguing voice into a convincing and compelling one.

Readers, who yearn desperately to learn something new, admire writers who can take them places on the page where they cannot go in their own corporeal lives—whether that means into the judge’s chambers at the courthouse or into the mind of a psychopath. A writer’s non-writing professional life often provides an excellent source of material that she knows well and that others do not know at all. That is not to say, of course, that one must never build a wall between one’s literary and non-literary interests. As one of my students, a professional mortician, told me: “I write to forget about dead bodies.” However, I believe there is value in reminding adult students that their everyday working lives may prove highly exotic to other people.

Read Part I.

This article originally appeared in The Writer magazine.