Patience and Persistence: Making a Living With Writing
Interviewer: Dale Louise Mervine, Wilkes University Creative Writing MA
Interviewee: Lori A. May, King’s College MFA mentor, author and teacher
Writing can be a lonely endeavour. When working on an individual piece, writers might easily find themselves cocooned up in their own world. Eventually a writer may work with editors, agents, or others to get their writing into print, but the initial creativity and reshaping and editing the work is done in a somewhat lonely place.
Not that we necessarily mind. We often need that quiet and alone time to get ideas down and to shape our writing. But then there are times we need each other, and we need a community to remind us that we share our lonely pursuit with many others. For those who have jobs outside of “just” writing, we share in those communities and can learn and grow in them, but these places are filled with all kinds of people, not just writers.
When we come together at Wilkes for residencies, we are hyper-focused on our writing, our writing peers, and our writing experiences. We push aside the day-to-day issues of running a household, of working a non-writing job, of caring for aging parents, growing children, and various pets. We take that time for ourselves, to focus on and revel in the one thing we all have in common: our love for writing.
The Wilkes community is strong, and we feel that strength in January and June during our residencies. For the writers with non-writing careers, they need to shift their focus back to their regular lives once they return from residency. For those with writing-careers, perhaps they slide back into their lives a little more slowly, being able to savor the momentum they picked up at residency. In either situation, the time comes to turn back home and get back to work. Instead of waiting for the next six months to pass, however, and the next residency to begin, there are things a writer can do to enhance their creative side.
Lori A. May, Wilkes alum and faculty member, has crafted a career out of her writing and has built that career out of patience and persistence. Below is an interview with Lori about her many hats as writer as well as how she balances her professional work with personal writing, and advice for those just stepping in to freelancing shoes.
What are your “writer” hats?
I’m a big believer in diversifying one’s portfolio, so I practice what I preach and wear many different writer hats. My main focus, of course, is on my own work: creative nonfiction, poetry, and fiction, occasionally. My work extends into freelance writing and editing, and I also travel extensively to guest lecture and teach at a variety of conferences and residencies across North America. Those are activities specific to my personal writing life, things that are important to my own development and role as a writer. I also teach and my primary gig is being a mentor in the University of King’s College nonfiction MFA program in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I have a wonderful cast of students I adore and it’s incredibly fulfilling to work with them as they craft their nonfiction books. Of course, the Wilkes community also knows I teach at the Wilkes residencies and I supervise publishing internships for River & South Review, our student-run literary journal. So, yes, I diversify my workload, and always seem to be shuffling and adding shiny new things to my plate.
What local communities do you involve yourself in as a writer versus “writer” as a job?
It’s a challenge being a “local” writer when I travel so much. I’m on the road for about 30,000 miles each year, and then in the air several thousand miles more, attending and speaking at a variety of events, so my “region” is North America. I’m a Canadian writer, transplanted to Seattle now after a near-decade in Detroit, and never seem to be in one place for very long. That being said, I feel it’s important to involve myself in my many communities, so I have a sense of place and belonging among my peers.
Wherever I am at the moment, I participate in reading series, both at the mic and attending in support of other writers. I’m also a member of a number of writing groups, both online and in person, that keep each other motivated and informed about writing craft, publication opportunities, and more. This can be incredibly fulfilling, and I value these connections I maintain. That sense of belonging in a community is important to me as we feed off one another’s successes and cheer each other on during challenges. I hope I contribute to others’ writing lives as much as others contribute to mine. I’m also a fan of book reviewing, and contributing to the conversation about contemporary publishing. Book reviewing keeps me connected to what’s current, and is also a way I offer my time to the community. I also have to say how much I have valued the Wilkes community, both the experience of being at residency and keeping relationships with faculty and alums during the terms away. We have a great source of inspiration among us and I am grateful for the many lasting friendships that have developed over the years.
How do you balance your own writing: do you set aside time every day for journaling, for a specific writing piece you are working on, for this job, for that job–and how do you get yourself to focus on each individually and not get hooked up by one or another?
Maintaining a specific schedule is not my forte, thanks to my travel itinerary. What I am consistent about, though, is making sure the writing always comes first. That may mean focusing on one larger project for the bulk of the day, or dabbling at a few smaller writing tasks, but writing is always number one. Whether I am traveling or at home, I try to start my day with writing new draft material each morning. This is the really rough stuff that wouldn’t see the light of day, possibly for a time, or perhaps ever. This is my time to create, to be inventive, and to give myself permission to play. After that, I focus on the projects at hand, and that may mean an entire morning is spent on editing or revising a book project, then the afternoon is spent on promotional work or business matters. When I have student work come in for review, I schedule my time accordingly so they become a priority on my to-do list. When that happens, I’ll usually do my morning writing first and then work on student material for the rest of the day. I also carve out a great deal of time for play and napping. Finding balance is always a challenge, but if I feel good and treat myself well, I work so much better.
For those just getting into freelancing, or attempting to make writing their job, what advice do you have? What have you found works when it comes to balancing the work side of writing with the job side of writing?
My biggest advice is to take it one thing at a time. A writer can’t do everything all at once. Even though I am an advocate for diversification, I am not a big fan of multi-tasking. Writing, and its related activities, takes focus and time. Beyond running the laundry while I edit, I am not a very good multi-tasker. It makes me feel too disoriented. Instead, I tackle one to-do list item at a time, pay it the attention it deserves, and then move on to the next. For new writers, it can seem especially overwhelming to consider the writing, editing, pitching, social media and more that comes with the job, but everything is manageable in steps. Set goals for what you want to accomplish, then create a plan to make it happen. Strategic planning and realistic goal-setting are critical to keeping my writing life in order. That to-do list should also include friend and family time, quiet thinking time, and time for anything else that’s important for self-care. That will help create a sense of balance.
Any other anecdotal insights into making writing a full time job, or how you weave your various hats together?
I often have emerging writers come to me for advice on how to make a living and how to make writing their full-time profession. I’m always happy to hear about their goals and share some of my experiences, while perhaps offering insight into how to get things off the ground. What is most frustrating to me, though, is the impatience factor. So many times, a new writer wants everything to happen all at once, without paying mind to how long it can take to make a living out of this craft. Sure, for some people, it can seem to happen overnight. That was not my experience. My first paying publications were more than twenty years ago, but it has taken me years—decades—to get to where I am today. A livable wage didn’t come to me overnight and even after my first and second novel, I was still maintaining non-writing jobs to pay the bills. I definitely want to encourage emerging writers on their paths, but I also hope to offer some reality checks that patience is necessary, and so is persistence. Writing can be a long-term profession if you go that route, but like anything else it takes perseverance to build a career. It’s incredibly rewarding, but it takes time to make writing a full-time career.
Lori A. May writes across the genres in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. She edits, teaches, and travels as a frequent guest speaker–all the while drinking copious amounts of coffee. Her latest book, The Write Crowd: Literary Citizenship & The Writing Life, is now available from Bloomsbury. Also new from 2014 is Square Feet, a full-length poetry book, available from Accents Publishing. Lori is also the author of The Low-Residency MFA Handbook: A Guide for Prospective Creative Writing Students (Continuum/Bloomsbury), stains: early poems, and two crime novels. She’s polishing up a travel/immigration memoir and, under the influence of caffeine, is at work on another manuscript.
Originally published in Revise This!, the Wilkes University Creative Writing Newsletter, May 2016.