It has been more than a year since I submitted the grades for my final class, cleaned up my home office, and turned to face the great wide-open expanse of the writing life.
In that time, I’ve had a lot of adventures – most particularly a two-month-long research trip to the Southwest to work in archives and drive/walk/bike/hike through desert landscapes for my new book project. I blogged a little, published some articles, and finished a book proposal. I’ve also binge-watched a lot of television. And spent waaaayyyyy too much time on Facebook and Twitter.
For those of you considering this kind of change – as a life choice or because the dreadful job market is forcing your hand – I offer up these notes in the hope that they might help you navigate your own move into the wide open.
Structure and Discipline
Daily: I used to think that I was super self-motivated and disciplined, but apparently this was only the case when I had classes to prep and papers to grade. Now, I don’t really have anything but workouts and meals to shape my day. Some writers I know have established a daily discipline of writing (“get up at 6:00 a.m., write for 5 hours, have lunch,” etc.) but I have not been successful at this so far. If I have an external deadline, I am much more productive on any given day. But I still need to develop some sort of system in order to force myself to be disciplined. Suggestions are welcome.
Yearly: When you have lived on the academic schedule your entire life as I have, no longer doing so is strangely unsettling. I did not realize this until Thanksgiving, a holiday that before this year, I greeted with joyful glee. It turns out that the reason I have loved Thanksgiving so much is that it came at a momentous time: just a week or two before the end of the school year, that halcyon period between the prepping of classes and the grading of final exams and papers, when the students are doing all the work and you finally have some breathing room.
There are some benefits to being freed from this schedule, of course. You no longer have to plan family vacations for semester breaks. You can do research at all times of year. But I find that while I may not miss the grading, I do miss the rhythm and the rituals of the academic year.
I also miss my colleagues and students. Even when I didn’t see that many people on campus, I still had a sense of community and camaraderie at every university at which I taught. Now, I only get that via Facebook and Twitter, and at academic conferences. This is not the same.
In order to combat loneliness, I have joined two writing groups: one that brings freelance writers together to report on progress with projects; and the other created by Boston-area historians writing books for public audiences.
But still I worry that some day my husband will come home and find me in my writing garret, scribbling madly on scraps of paper like Emily Dickinson. So I need to get out of my house and work where other people are working.
Much of my research process – finding sources, reading and digesting them, taking notes and writing – has not changed. But there have been two major challenges:
Access. I do have a “special borrower” card for Harvard’s Widener Library. This is because I am an alumna, and because I can afford to pay the $250 that the university charges for this privilege. The borrower’s card gives me access to the library’s holdings, which are vast. But it does not give me access to e-resources unless I am on campus, which is annoying. I have had to rely on the kindness of friends to download academic articles for me – and I don’t like doing this. I now have a Boston Public Library card, which does include e-resources, but only a limited collection (no Project Muse, for example). Access — especially to digitized collections — will continue to be an issue, methinks.
Funding. Traditional sources of academic funding for research – department money, university fellowships – are no longer in the cards, of course. I have applied for a few fellowships this year but will ramp up that process next year. I’m not sure if untethering will hurt my chances or not; most of the traditional archival and library fellowships do seem to go to graduate students or ladder faculty. In any case, I think I need to assume that I’ll be paying for all research trips (and conference travel) out of my own pocket, going forward.
Affiliation and Identification
I’ve written about this issue before. It became clear almost immediately that without an academic affiliation, I needed to be able to identify myself with another profession: writer; historian; indie academic; blogger. And I needed to put this into print, in various ways. I wish I had thought to have business cards made before I went on my research trip; this would have been useful for staying in contact with archivists.
Building a website was vital. Without it, people who wanted to find me could not find me. I started Historista as a way to do the kind of writing that I wanted to do, to publish pieces that never would have been published in traditional academic venues. But the website also contains information about me and about my writing and speaking engagements; it enables people to email me with questions or regarding professional matters.
I also figured out a bit late that I needed to file a request with my former employers’ IT departments to take down my scholar pages on their sites – these were dominating Google searches and creating problems for department staff who received calls inquiring about my whereabouts.
The Writing Life
If you are contemplating devoting yourself to the writing life or even if you just want to start writing more for the “Big Public” in addition to writing for academic audiences, you will need to get used to a few things.
Pitching. Writing for magazines and online sites is a very different experience and process than writing for journals, edited book collections, or university presses. You need to pitch ideas for articles, at least 3-4 at a time. You may not have written these pieces yet, so be prepared to write them quickly if they are accepted (see below). Also be aware of differences in publication scheduling. I once pitched several book reviews to the online site The Millions; all of the books I pitched were award-winners that had come out the year before, and had not yet been reviewed on the site. The editor was quite nice about it when he told me, “Well, we like to publish reviews of books the day they come out, rather than a year after.” Duh. So embarrassing.
Writing fast. As an academic, I was used to researching for months and months before writing anything. I would think about my arguments a lot, and then think some more. When I sat down to write, I would have a meticulous outline, and all of my notes ready and waiting. As a full-time writer you need to be able to sit down and write without notes, to kick out 500-1000 words of lively prose in one day, often in response to events occurring at that moment. This takes a different mindset, and one you develop over time. But develop it you must, or you will be hard-pressed to publish anything online.
Saying no. At this point, book reviews and articles in academic journals will not reward me in the traditional sense (lines on the c.v., evidence for tenure). So I have to make choices. Now, I only write for academic venues (which means, for free) if the topic or book really interests me or if publishing in that journal or on that site will give me some kind of street cred or significant exposure.
Otherwise, I only write for publications that pay cash money. They don’t have to pay me much (and usually they don’t) but when you make the leap to the writing full-time, you need to get paid for it.
It’s a strange thing, this new life. Many aspects of it still make me nervous, and I’m not sure when I’ll be able to settle down into a rhythm that results in optimal productivity and personal happiness. There are many aspects of academia that I miss, elements of it that I did not adequately appreciate before. But negotiating all of this has been interesting, and often exciting. I’ll keep you posted on how it all turns out.
16 thoughts on “A Year Untethered: Notes from the Writing Life”
Megan: Can you secure a courtesy faculty appt with any of the unis that you’ve graduated from (esp PhD) or where you’ve previously worked? That would give you e-access to library/journal resources.
Thanks so much for sharing this example. My trajectory out of academic teaching/research has been somewhat different, in that I was the “following” spouse of a dual-academic couple, perhaps due to being a couple of years behind my spouse, or due to the 2008 crash, but I recognized much of what you were saying about the difficulty of managing two careers in one family as similar to what I experienced. There are no easy paths! I’ll look forward to your part 2, and thank you again.
I’m seeing your posts out of order Megan, but I just saw this and so appreciate your chronicling the emotions of your first year out of academia. I’m a historian too, out a year, and I truly identify with everything. I’ve tried to get access to digital stuff however I can, and it’s impossible without using others’ passwords. Access is one of my biggest issues–for the first time it has become my primary consideration when choosing topics of research. The isolation–that too I feel. It’s weird to see former colleagues on facebook or whatever, and you’re out of the loop. I miss my students, but not the class prep. Pitching books is hard. One of the best things about being an academic was that I didn’t have to be that proficient at salesmanship. I have a book coming out next month, but I’m having a hard time lining up the next. And yes, I still come up on the department website–not as disgruntled, but as ‘former’ or ’emerita.’ I have mixed feelings about that. Thank you so much for writing.
Access seems to be a huge issue for a lot of people who are either transitioning out of academia or who work at small schools/public institutions without the funding to have a huge e-resources database. I wonder if we can create some sort of alt ac collective, that can bring all of us together and provide services like this at a reasonable cost. That might help with the isolation too, although face-to-face contact, I have found, is the better strategy for combating the loneliness.
And there’s no doubt that this emotionally difficult — especially when you’ve been in the academic game for so long!
This is a wonderful essay, and as you recognize, many of the struggles you have found as an independent scholar are shared by scholars at non-elite schools. You are also correct, we are given no context for promoting our work. Most of us feel self conscious about what seems like the constant demands of self-promotion.
Jonathan, my apologies for my much delayed response! And for noting that profs at non-elite schools (and adjuncts everywhere) have many of these struggles. It’s a great point, and worth talking about.
I really hear you on the anxiety (and annoyance) that comes from losing access to major university library resources. I’ve been completely detached from interlibrary loan twice since graduating and it completely crippled my ability to research in both instances. Digital access is also critical but, even if you still have an affiliation, the number and quality of digital resources can vary widely from institution to institution. The database subscriptions at my current employer is much lighter than those of my alma mater and that’s also had a significant impact on the breadth and efficiency of my research. The possibility of these sorts of absences doesn’t really occur to you when you’re attached to an R1 school as a student or faculty (or at least it didn’t to me until I suddenly found myself cut off from it).
Christian, you make a really good and important point here about the unequal distribution of access to sources across the academy as well as outside of it. Digitized collections are prohibitively expensive for so many smaller public universities, liberal arts colleges, community colleges, libraries, and historical societies/museums. And because the bulk of academically trained historians work in these contexts, this really shapes (mostly, curtails) the ability of historians to do their research.
Thanks for this–you describe the best moments of my time-dedicated-only-to-writing routines, and the struggles against the normal academic calendar.
Until I became the sort of person who might be grouchy if I can’t sit down at 8:30am and be there until I have churned out 1500 words, I found setting deadlines for chapters to go to my writing groups was the best way for me to feel an appropriate amount of pressure to do something other than nap.
Yes! I’m clearly going to need some external pressure. Also, I’m waiting to see how the book proposal does; if I’m able to secure a contract (that will include a deadline), this will give me the impetus to really lay out a writing plan in order to finish the book in the next two years.
Good on you for sitting down at 8:30 and churning out 1500 words a day! That’s hardcore.
Does it help to do speaking engagements? How does one find writing groups–not that I will ever find one like your Boston group!
I am afraid to not be enrolled somewhere, as I will lose access to all those resources that come with being a student. This ought to have some solution.
I had hoped to attend something at which you were speaking, but I live in CA. I am just as perplexed as you seem to be, although you are far more focussed. At least I will have retirement to fund those trips.
Forward movement must be made, however–without movement, life ceases! EEEK!
It does help to speak to people formally about the new project — this really forces me to get organized, do some research, and articulate my arguments. Writing groups also work like this. Finding a group, in my experience, is a bit organic. You meet someone in your position, that person knows some people, you all start having coffee together. For me, that someone was Liz Covart, a historian, blogger, and podcaster who lives in Boston. She’s a “social node” in the sense that she has contacts in a lot of different communities.
See Christian’s comments above re: enrollment and e-resources access. This is a problem everywhere, for both academics and post-acs. If only those digitization firms didn’t have to make money — then they could provide all of these resources for free. But alas.
It looks like you’re really getting the hang of this, and there’s lots of good advice here for others trying to carve out this kind of writing career.
I’m still in academia, but am having my first round of experiences in trade publishing. It’s been interesting.
Oooh, do tell! What are your trade publishing stories?