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?


19 responses to “Underemployment

  1. Career ambitions are an American myth. Why do you think you’re underemployed? You are employed —- science editor, college-level teacher, writing a book —- you have insurance, you can pay for the roof over your head, and you make awesome cheese biscuits. You are doing fine, Indy, just fine.

  2. Listen to Teri, dear Indy.
    If you were to interview the people who have ambition, serious hardcore ambition, you may notice a trend that they are never satisfied. There is no amount of money that is enough and at every stage of power there is another career option with a little more power.
    You write and you get better and you have that roof over your head and if you’re lucky you can save a little here and there in case of emergency.
    For every parent that may have wished for a more “capitalist” job for their kid, there are probably some out there that wished their kid didn’t listen to them when they did, and didn’t turn into a bit of a sociopath, because that’s what certain jobs do.

  3. It takes focus and consideration to discard what culture is telling you (sidebar for my favorite unattributed quote about culture: “What is culture? Culture is your mother”).

    I often feel that same push to do more/better/bigger things with my career. It comes from colleagues, students, friends, and it’s usually in the form of a “You could totally apply for/win/enter that.” I know they mean it as a vote of confidence in me and my work, so it takes real clarity to stay out of that particular fray.

    I have to remind myself all the time that my goals are: studio time, family time, and teaching, in just about that order. Fancier jobs, juried exhibitions, gallery shows, and fellowships are always showing a little skin and fluttering their eyelashes at me, but at this point in my life, they are just a distraction from what I really want to do with my time.

    Stay strong, Indy! Misanthropic underachievers unite!

    • “Culture is your mother.” Holy shit. This explains so much. Although in my case it might be “Societal expectations are your mother.”

      Yes. I have a little ominous voice in my head that acts like a mantra. When I say “I should do X” it pipes up and says “…and never write again.” This is very similar to your goals and their order.

      Yes, misanthropic underachievers unite!

  4. My immediate boss gathered us together a few weeks ago to tell us that she’s going to be moving over and up into a higher position with the library. She also said that they were going to look to hire a replacement who had recent experience in X,Y,Z and could move our department forward and so on.

    She kept giving me little sideways looks as if she was afraid I’d be upset that I wasn’t being offered her job and now wasn’t actually qualified to apply (I have little X,Y,Z experience and haven’t bothered to gain any over the years, as those things don’t impact my responsibilities much). It was almost funny—she’s never believed me when I’ve told her that I have no ambition beyond being a good reference librarian and I know perfectly well I have no talent for management.

    I save my ambition for other things.

    • Supervisor at a previous job: I’d like to see you take on more responsibility.
      Indy: Would responsibility involve having to attend weekly (and famously contentious, not to mention interminable) production meetings?
      Supervisor: No.
      Indy: In that case, I’d love to take on more responsibility.

      • Yup. Sounds familiar. I enjoy new responsibilities, but not ones that interfere with my ability to do my actual job.

        Of course, her defection means we have to break a new boss, which is sometimes more bother than it’s worth…

  5. For a brief time (two months) I was associate editor of the most prestigious magazine in my city. It was my dream job. My writing career ambition. I quickly found out that I hate, hate, hated it. For a number of reasons I quit that job with no other prospects waiting for me. But one of the things I learned was that it sapped my creative self. I couldn’t write my own stuff because I was writing for others, for the man.

    I’ve since found jobs that make no demands on my creativity, which leave it intact and fully fueled for my own interests. I no longer want a “career” but merely a job that pays the bills so I can have the rest of my life free to devote to what personally interests me.

    • That makes a lot of sense. I think about this a lot in the context of teaching. I see people put in a massive amount of work to be able to teach writing, and then they stop writing. Too much of the same part of the brain? Not holding enough of themselves back for their own work?

      • Yeah, I taught freshman comp at the local community college for a couple of years too. Nearly slayed my writing. And I think it’s where I developed my aversion to too-strict grammar adherence.

      • I hear you. The students have to figure out what they are saying, then once they have that nailed down, they can make it sound better.

        Not just students. That has been true of my own writing this week.

  6. I’ve been on both ends of the spectrum; from burning ambition to pure laziness. Honestly, I am in awe of you, Indy. I admire you. So there.

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