I’ve spent maybe half of my working life underemployed. This is a polite term for “you could do better,” or another way to say “my mom is vague when she tells people what to do.” It wasn’t that Maternal Clause was raring for me to be a doctor, she just wanted to be sure I didn’t work in a bookstore all my life. (Although now that I think about it, she loved bookstores, and I got my love for books from her, as well as my father, so it was partly her fault. You hear that, Maternal Clause??)
I am a scientific copyeditor. This is the kind of thing the Parental Clauses would have been pleased about. It’s work I enjoy as much as I enjoy anything that doesn’t involve reading mysteries on the couch while sipping bourbon and eating bon-bons. But I’ve read articles about expanding your freelance business. You’re supposed to make business goals and increase your salary every year.
I should be looking for new kinds of work in addition to what I have. My eggs should be in more than one basket. I should be writing to people I’ve worked for in the past to drum up more business. But I’m not. New clients are stressful. Books are more editorial work than journal articles. And, really, I need to be writing.
I’ve always thought writers were ideal employees because we have few career ambitions. The director position for Second Job opened up a few years ago. “You should apply!” one of my colleagues said. “No way, too much bullshit,” I replied. And it wasn’t just that my administrative skills leave something to be desired, it’s that it would take up too much mental space. I saw how hard my former boss worked. It was all time when I could be writing.
(I’m lucky that my current jobs fit my economic needs, so I know that I write this from a place of privilege. I don’t need a third job to pay for health insurance, so on and so on.)
I watch colleagues go off and get Ph.D.s in English and struggle struggle struggle to make a career out of it. But I tell the creative writing students I work with to get a job that will allow them to write. Whatever that job is. The bookstore allowed me to write. My first in-house copyediting job got in the way of my writing at first, but then I adapted. They let me go to writing residencies. I continued writing. This freelance gig allows me to write.
My career ambitions are to keep doing what I’m doing; maybe teach a class or two. My writing ambitions are much sharper. Finish my memoir. Publish the fucker. Get another book of poems up and running. Write a biography of [redacted]. Get in Best American Essays/Poems. Publish my schlock novel.
What do you save your ambition for?