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.