By Kathy Flann
Baltimore, MD, USA

A student closes a laptop, gathers the cord, and zips belongings into a backpack. It’s the end of a conference in my office at the college. We’ve been poring over the student’s short story for an hour, shoulder-to-shoulder, talking, laughing. The student’s body language is light and happy, as if there’s a real prospect of breaking into song or whistling. This student is someone who thinks day and night about how to improve the story; someone who gets frustrated with peers in our classes who don’t share the passion, coasting along like tourists; someone who appears at my door frequently.  

“What do you want to do when you graduate? Do you know?” Graduation with a creative writing degree is, for this particular student, on the near horizon.

The question pierces the student’s attention. Eyes cut away from the backpack and lock onto mine, shocked, as if I’ve committed an assault. The smile is gone.

“Whoops. You don’t want to talk about the F-word,” I say. “The Future.” I make finger quotes, hoping this is funny.

The student relaxes, laughs a bit. Shoulders come back down. “No. I really don’t.” There’s a long sigh. “I sometimes think about teaching.”

It’s a typical exchange. How can one establish a life that provides not only the time to write, but also facilitates artistic growth? Even if one is lucky enough to enroll in a degree program that comes with mentors and peers to provide feedback, these programs last only a few years. Life goes on, and a writer still needs the time to write. The writer still needs a community of readers to say things like: That dragon in Chapter 3 is the character’s mother? Are you sure you want to do that? Our culture tends to depict writers as loners, but acknowledgement pages of published novels show how faulty that perception is. And in addition to tracking down a writing community, exchanging work with that community, and engaging in the actual writing, one must somehow keep the lights on.

Kathy Flann
If one must have a job to support a writing passion (and I assure them that one must), then teaching provides a life connected to that passion – or so the logic goes. The students picture flexible schedules and long breaks during which they’ll churn out their novels. There’s even the word writing attached to the job: Q. What do you do? A. I teach writing. That’s why the most dedicated creative writing students often gravitate to teaching careers. It’s certainly why I did.

My own college advisor, who was barely visible within the smoke cloud in her office, waved a cigarette at me and said, “What you want to do is write romance novels. That’s where the money is.” Her scratchy voice (not unlike Marge’s sisters on The Simpsons) and her ethereal appearance in the cloud gave the remark a magical significance, like I’d pilgrimaged to the cave of a sage elf.

But romance wasn’t the type of novel I wanted to write. I did glean from her advice that I could not support myself with literary fiction. This was crucial information. I needed an income stream. The only writers I actually knew were my own professors. Thus, in the subsequent months, I started to picture a future life as a writer and professor, strolling around leafy campuses in my corduroy blazers, smoking pipes. I would have deep, meaningful conversations all the time, most notably during my deep, meaningful classes. Yes, that seemed pretty good. In these fantasies, I am more or less Donald Sutherland from Animal House minus the getting high with students and having sex with them. But the bohemian salon spirit of it appealed to me.

The teaching profession held an allure for me, just the same way as it still does for my students and for so many other writers throughout the country. As a result, unbeknownst to many, it’s brutally competitive to get a job teaching creative writing. I once saw a statistic that only twenty percent of the writers who want university teaching jobs actually have them. When I have given presentations at writing conferences about how to land university jobs, there have been standing-room-only crowds with people sitting on the floor in the aisles. Clearly, there is a strong collective belief that teaching is a good gig for a writer. Some might even argue it’s the best gig.

But is it true? Is teaching, especially college teaching, the best gig for a writer?

Most writers who teach probably agree about the attributes that make the job awesome. Regardless of whom you might ask, these appealing qualities nearly always revolve around the interactions with students. My own favorites are the quiet breakthroughs. Sometimes these happen when students are alone in their rooms, thinking about something we’ve discussed in class. They tell me about their epiphanies later, breathless with excitement. Every now and then, these breakthroughs occur when I work one-to-one with someone in my office. It’s amazing when comprehension of a new idea travels from the brain to the face, the way that light and joy warms a countenance. There’s a bit of pride in the expression, too, at the brain’s accomplishment. To be involved in something as intimate as another person’s internal processes is humbling. There’s a great deal of trust involved when students take the risks necessary for growth.

From the prospective of nurturing one’s own writing prowess, there’s some advantage there, too. If noted psychiatrist William Glasser’s famous dictum is true, we learn 95% of what we teach, as compared to 10% of what we read and 20% of what we hear. For me, the act of explaining story structure to students, whether verbally or in writing, has always felt as if I’m teaching it to myself. Hemingway once said, “Writers are all apprentices to a craft where no one ever becomes a master.” I concoct elaborate drawings. I come up with analogies about carpentry or construction or anatomy or other fields that feature structure. In class, I search the students’ faces. Those moments when their confused, knit brows relax teach me more about craft than anything I learned in school.

In “Worstword Ho,” a 1983 parody of Charles Kingsley’s “Westward Ho!”, Samuel Beckett writes the oft-quoted line, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” If I can successfully convey craft concepts to the students, I can gain a deeper comprehension of them, too, internalizing ideas that might help me the next time I sit down to write my own fiction. I “fail better” as a result of explaining the same concepts repeatedly, as well as noting repeatedly what does and does not work in students’ stories.

But herein lies the rub. “The next time I sit down to write my own fiction” can be months away (for some people, it might be years), depending on the particular job I’ve had. Teaching writing requires hours and hours of commenting on student stories. There’s a lot more of that written preparation for workshop than there is time spent in class with students – arguably the fun part. For much of the semester, one must work seven days a week to keep up with the load.

Another consideration is that the act of grading always has the potential to breed conflict, even in creative writing classes where grades tend to be high and students tend to be happy. These conflicts can be exhausting, even when relatively minor. They happen virtually everyday. Students struggle with time management, punctuality, distractions, etc., and one has to decide a thousand times a week how to handle that stuff. 

Even the class sessions, even when they go perfectly (whatever that means), are totally exhausting. When I started my first full-time job, I would go home at the end of the day soaked in sweat and lie on the couch and stare at the ceiling for two hours. Lying on the couch staring into middle distance does cut into one’s writing time.

Moreover, higher education is changing all the time, requiring more work from faculty in the form of heavier teaching loads, more recruitment work, more advising, more documentation, more meetings, more committee work, and longer contracts (i.e. shorter breaks). These days, one would be more suitably attired in running shoes than a corduroy blazer. And let’s not get started about pipe-smoking, which might be allowed if one lurked 25 feet outside the front gates, out by the highway.

So I say to the student, “Why do you want to teach?”

The student frowns a little and shrugs, like the answer is obvious. “It will give me time to write.”

I fold my hands on my lap. I say, “But what if it didn’t? Would you still like it?”

The student blinks, thinking about this. “I’m not sure.”

I nod. “Well, it’s something to ponder.” What I don’t say to the student is that I think you probably have to like teaching and like it quite a bit. If you don’t, you’ll hate it because indifference isn’t really possible. I don’t say that there’s also a danger of liking it too much, that it can consume you. It would be easy slip toward a situation where one never writes again and foregoes even a personal life. These kinds of opinions are only opinions. I’ve seen my worldview challenged often enough to be cautious about doling out platitudes. “What else do you enjoy?” I say.

The student sits up brightly and says with renewed enthusiasm, “I’m becoming a certified yoga instructor right now.” (Or I like computer science, or I’m training to be a midwife, or I’m a dog walker, etc.)

“Could you do that and write your novel?”

“Huh. Maybe.” The student has not considered this as a real pursuit. To the student, real pursuits must involve writing in some way. I’ve been talking to the student since sophomore year about adding a minor in a subject that has a booming job industry or doing an internship in field like that. This has not been appealing.

I try to re-frame the issue. “If writing is your passion, your day job needs to allow time and energy for it. Do you prefer to do work that uses the same part of your brain as writing does? Or a different part?”

The student looks worried, like this is a pop quiz, but my question is genuine.

“There’s no right or wrong way to do this,” I tell the student. “Well, actually,” I say, catching myself. “There is.” I take a moment to gather my thoughts, deciding to allow myself to give this advice. “The right way is whatever gets your writing done, whatever that looks like for you. It’s possible that something unrelated to writing works better for some people.”

The student nods, taking this in.

“Your paid work powers your laptop. You should probably like it enough to be content. Beyond that, really, anything goes.”

What I want the student to understand is that there is no perfect writing life. Writers tend to think that they struggle because they are in the wrong job and/or because they aren’t smart enough to write the book.

What I would tell every last writer, including myself, is this:

You struggle because it is hard. It is universally hard.

At the same time, you struggle to manage these challenges because you are not a replica of anyone else. The strategies that ease my burdens may not ease yours.

This is where platitudes do have a place, and here’s one I play on repeat:

We must keep moving, friend. Ever forward. Westward Ho!


Kathy Flann is Associate Professor, English (Creative Writing) at Goucher College and an award-winning author. She will soon debut a new Imprint with Stay Thirsty Publishing entitled Unblended with a mission to “serve up stories, fiction and narrative nonfiction, pure of spirit, brimming with humanity.”

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.