Another double-life poet sent me an article about the day jobs of writers, using T.S Eliot as an example. Eliot worked as a bank clerk for Lloyds Bank in London, and as the blogger puts it, “he was really good at his day job.” The blogger goes on to admit that as a writer with a day job himself, he’d rather imagine that every writer is making a killing off of writing instead of needing to have a day job.
This, of course, got me to thinking: “Would I rather make a living from poetry or live the double life?” I can’t answer this question without considering the fact that the primary way I could make a living from poetry was if I taught at a university. I could have gotten an academic job after I got my PhD in 1998, but decided that life was not for me. After I got my MFA, I get the same question. I have the same answer: “Hell no!”
So then, what makes me want to continue to have a non-literary career, one that by its very nature of using my analytical mind, takes my mental energy away from something I love to do? Because I still get something good from my day job, things I can’t get with poetry alone:
1) Affords my current lifestyle: Yes, the money, health insurance, and retirement benefits are very important to me. I’m very thankful to have a job where I can afford the poetic life—writing retreats, workshops and conferences, submission fees for poetry contests, and all those books!
2) Satisfies my need for praise: There’s no pat on the back or “atta girl” every time I finish a poem. And getting rejection letters after 9 out of 10 publication submissions is the norm. As a poet, the most praise I could hope for is imagining that someone will read my poem and smile or pause with hand over heart or whatever one does when one reads a good poem. In the meantime, my non-literary career comes with professional recognition awards, annual performance evaluations, staff meetings where we applaud each other for doing a good job on presenting a report, and more often, verbal and written expressions of gratitude for completing a task while the project is still going on!
3) Allows me to interact with colleagues: Writing poetry (or anything else for that matter) is such a solitary venture. Sure you can gather a group of friendly poets once a month for a critique group or book club discussion, but the work of poetry happens when you’re alone with the page. The words show up, but sometimes, they are not very good. And that muse who is supposed to contribute the inspiration can be a very flaky co-worker—showing up late or not at all, making you do all the work and stepping in at the last minute to take all the credit. My real colleagues are not like that at all. We work on teams and pitch in to get a project done. I like working in an office where we can bounce ideas off each other, find a sympathetic ear to vent our frustrations, and crack ourselves up around the break room table.
Not to mention the endless poem ideas that emerge from the whole experience!