This is likely an instance of retroactively justifying something that I initially did out of desperation, foolishness, or because of a minor stroke, but . . . the reason I've spent the last six years pursuing a PhD is that I want a life that allows me to write. As much of an assault on the ego as being on the job market is - as much as I feel threatened by the grim prospect of ending up with a 4/4 teaching load, or some other situation where writing isn't officially part of my job - even these grim scenarios include a quarter of each year spent with no competing responsibilities, in which I can work on the passel of essays on obscure topics knocking around in my head.
After I graduated from college, I made some brief, abortive attempts to become a freelancer for magazines. I wasn't successful, and part of that was because
I didn't know the ropes and, to be honest, might not have had the drive at that point in my life. But another big part of it was that I knew the kinds of things I was interested in writing about, and most particularly, the way I wanted to write about them, wasn't what magazine publishers were looking for. I've been very fortunate since then to find a number of outlets for my writing - big props to Pete Gershon at Signal to Noise, to TinyMixTapes, to Popmatters - but none of those will pay the bills. Then again, maybe the whole academic track is just attractive because I'm fundamentally soft, lazy, and willing to compromise - a possibility that has been made to confront even more directly as I struggle to fit my Writer self into the constraints of the academic publishing world, with the explicit goal of getting a Good Job, while maybe not writing exactly what I would like to be writing.
So, it's with all these thoughts in my head - and as I sat to keep plugging along on my dissertation, which also may or may not be What I Really Want to Be Writing - that I ran into this. It's several years old, but it's worth reading for anyon with ambitions of being a Writer. As I think is typical, the author of the piece didn't take the plunge until she turned 35 - still a ways off for me, so this is still shades of a possible future, and it ain't pretty. It's a story of the instability and ego-damage of a semi-successful midlist author, trying to scrape together a living from diminishing advances and magazine writing. The piece is dated in one really crucial way - the publishing industry continues its decline, but thanks to thinking about the "long tail" and the rise of print on demand, new avenues for success have opened up. Things look a little brighter as the machine well and truly crumbles, and we hail the new machine.
But in the end it all comes down to a question of personal fortitude. To truly commit to certain careers - writing, music . . . inventing? - you have to fly off into the wild blue yonder, get a divorce from institutions, from support systems. Thousands of Americans do it every day - and of course, hundreds fail. What's the calculus between stability that steals some time that could be devoted to creating, and a freedom that's also a free-fall? And, of course, required to solve that equation is a variable that will remain unanswered until you throw the equation aside - are you good enough?