Taking Part-Time Writers Seriously

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.

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.

It is also essential to emphasize that, much as a writer can draw upon one’s “day job” for inspiration, creative writing can also enhance a writer’s work in her other primary discipline.

I am a better physician because I write short stories. I can hear a patient describe his symptoms, often haphazardly, and then impose a linear framework onto his disjointed collection of assorted ills. The Narrative Medicine movement, pioneered by Rachael Naomi Remen and Rita Charon two decades ago, has increasingly converted medical professionals to the unorthodox belief that understanding storytelling is a crucial component of effective clinical care. Trisha Greenhalgh’s now famous article, “Narrative Based Medicine in an Evidence Based World,” sums up the benefits of understanding narrative far better than I can:

Appreciating the narrative nature of illness experience and the intuitive and subjective aspects of clinical method does not require us to reject the principles of evidence based medicine….Far from obviating the need for subjectivity in the clinical encounter, genuine evidence based practice actually presupposes an interpretive paradigm in which the patient experiences illness in a unique and contextual way. Furthermore, it is only within such an interpretive paradigm that a clinician can meaningfully draw on all aspects of evidence—his or her own case based experience, the patient’s individual and cultural perspectives, and the results of rigorous clinical research trials and observational studies—to reach an integrated clinical judgment.

So I am not alone in believing that creative writing makes better physicians, a well-studied subject largely beyond the scope of this essay. What I would like to emphasize here, however, is that the benefits of writing are not confined to a handful of ‘learned’ professions like medicine and law.

I once gave a reading where the other reader worked days as an auditor for the IRS. Over our post-performance drink, I proffered the offhand remark that her job and her writing used “different parts of the brain.” To my surprise, my companion explained that writing her novel had made her into a significantly more effective tax agent. “I spend more time thinking about people and why they say what they say,” she told me. “I know this may sound strange, but now it’s easier for me to tell when people are lying to me.”

The Ancient Israelites demanded that their rabbinic sages, or Tannaim, earn their livings through non-sacred work. Rabbi Joshua was a blacksmith and needle-maker. Rabbi Yochanan cobbled shoes. Shammai, one of the fathers of the Talmudic mishnah, labored as a bricklayer. These men held day jobs, when they easily might have acquired greater wealth by charging for their teaching, because they did not wish to sully or debase their scholarship by receiving compensation for it. At the same time, I cannot help believing that these men became great scholars, at least in part, because they knew the toil and sweat of an honest day’s labor.

How can one preach to the world, I have always wondered of today’s clergy, if one is not of the world? Likewise, how can one describe the world if one does not live in it? An Ivy League teaching gig may give a writer more time to write. But one day with me in the insane asylum offers far more to write about, as far as I am concerned, than ten thousand years cloistered on an elm-shaded New England campus. This is not jealousy speaking. I have taught on any Ivy League campus—and I confess, I rather enjoyed the experience. But the literary public can tolerate only so many tales of Ivy League college professors sinking under the weight of their own angst. Occasionally, they would like to hear about the triumphs of a blacksmith or a cobbler or a scholarly bricklayer.

I have taught introductory fiction to over five hundred students in my nearly fifteen year long career as a writing instructor. These include two Protestant ministers, two rabbis, one nun, one Polish priest, a retired judge, a pensioned naval officer, an airplane pilot, a professional stripper, a paroled burglar, several self-proclaimed drug dealers, two dozen physicians of various specialties, a veterinarian, a concert flautist, more than fifty lawyers, a carpenter, a great-grandmother, a handful of nurses, and far too many new journalists, web designers, financial analysts, stockbrokers, high school teachers, homemakers and unemployed college graduates to enumerate.

Many of them displayed considerable talent and serious commitment to writing. They did not view their hours crafting stories as manifestations of a hobby. Often, in fact, their greatest challenge as aspiring authors has not been generating ideas or polishing prose, but dealing with the co-workers and relatives and even prior writing teachers who have treated their creative work as the products of a mere hobby enthusiasts. Yet these men and women, who write part-time, are no more writing “for fun” than Rabbi Joshua studied Talmud “for fun.”

Many Tuesday nights, after leading my writing workshop, I return to the hospital around 10:30 pm to finish up my medical paperwork or even to meet with patients. Sometimes, if inspired by the creative maelstrom of my class, I sit at the nurses’ station and generate stories of my own. I wonder if the doctors and nurses at the other work stations suspect what I am doing.

And I wonder if they are doing the same—writing stories about their long days treating the mentally ill, trying to create coherence out of madness. This is the is the future of creative writing, I believe: Not a handful of “trained professionals” churning out prose like Dahl’s Great Automatic Grammatizator, but millions of ordinary people, scribbling their secrets behind pharmacy counters and in firehouses and at interstate truck stops, trying to capture the magic of an infinitely diverse and ever-changing world.

This article originally appeared in The Writer magazine.