[Editor’s Note: This is published author Lauren Sharkey’s first column at DIY MFA. She will be focusing on the business side of writing. We are so excited to add our new columnist! You can also check out Lauren’s recent DIY MFA Radio episode here.]
In an episode of Sex and the City, Carrie says she used to buy Vogue instead of food because it “fed her more.” But for those of us who don’t have a column that somehow pays for designer shoes and a one-bedroom on the Upper East Side, the reality is we eventually want to stop depending on variations of instant noodles as our main source of sustenance. Yet with tenure-track positions going the way of the dinosaur and the ever-changing landscape of the publishing industry, how does one actually avoid becoming a starving artist?
This was one of the questions I thought my MFA program would answer. On the first day of class, I was surprised when I wasn’t handed a copy of How to Make It as a Writer, complete with a step-by-step guide on how to secure an editing position and a book contract. I was even more surprised as graduation inched closer and I still had no leads on a job.
Unlike most of my cohort, I didn’t have my sights set on a professorship. Even though adjuncting is where most of us start, I needed a gig with health insurance, a 401k, and – if possible – paid time off and sick days. As I went on interview after interview, I realized the two semesters I spent reading submissions for the literary magazine didn’t even qualify me to read the slush pile at any publishing house. Today, I’d like to share some tips that might help you find a career path and be a writer.
Think Outside the Classroom
Many MFA students have dreams of securing professorships post-grad. However, an even larger percentage of MFA students consider teaching to be their only option. For those seeking full-time employment, an adjunct position may not be the best fit.
Websites like Upwork, FlexJobs, and others allow writers to look for remote writing gigs. Additionally, some sites allow you to set your freelance rate to make sure you’re making the most of your time and effort. Additionally, websites like Patreon allow writers to capitalize on their editing, teaching, and other writing talents in a new and innovative way.
That being said, fields like marketing, web development, and advertising are always in need of writers to help get clear and compelling messages to the masses.
Job vs. Work Mentality
During one of my job searches, a writer friend of mine said to me, “Why are you so stressed? This is just your survival job. Your real work is your writing, and you can still do that while you look.” The more I thought about it, the more I realized I had to change the way I thought about my job and my work.
The culture of America fuses together your identity and your job – you are what you do. Whenever I meet someone, “What do you do?” is usually one of the first questions I’m asked, or that I ask someone else. As a society, we think this knowledge somehow tells us everything we need to know about a person.
However, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to think of my 9-to-5 not as my job, but as my survival job. It’s the thing I do to keep the lights on, food on the table, and pay for WiFi. It’s not who I am. My work – my real work – is the endless number of post-its with “great ideas” all over my apartment. It’s the open Word doc I occasionally flirt with and never make time for. It’s the ever-growing TBR pile in the corner by my bed.
You Got Skills
Two of my favorite hobbies are baking and posting pictures of my creations on Instagram. I was surprised when my aunt’s friend DMed me one day asking how much 100 cupcakes for her daughter’s bridal shower would be. I gave her a quote, and was able to pay more of my student loan balance that month.
Think about the things you’re passionate about – whether it’s baking, reading (yes, there’s a market for bookstagrammers and paid promotions!), or underwater basket-weaving – it is possible to turn your hobby into an income source.
Often, writers tend to think that if they’re not teaching, editing, or otherwise connected to writing in their work lives, their writer card is somehow rescinded. Just because you’re not punching in and out of a writing-based job Monday through Friday doesn’t mean you’re not a writer. So start thinking outside the classroom, alter your thinking when it comes to being what you do, and consider ways to capitalize on your other talents.
LAUREN J. SHARKEY is a writer, teacher, and transracial adoptee. After her birth in South Korea, she was adopted by Irish Catholic parents and raised on Long Island. Sharkey’s creative nonfiction has appeared in the Asian American Feminist Collective’s digital storytelling project, First Times, as well as several anthologies including I Am Strength! and Women under Scrutiny. Inconvenient Daughter is her debut novel, and loosely based on her experience as a Korean adoptee. You can follow her at ljsharks.com.