How to Balance a Full-Time Job and Being a Writer

Picture of Nina CorwinAuthor: Nina Corwin

When did you first develop an interest in poetry? How have you cultivated that love while maintaining another job?

Growing up with a musician for a mother, I had thoughts of pursuing a musical career. What stopped me was the awareness of how few the opportunities are for financial success and I knew myself well enough not to stake my well-being on such a long shot. Beyond that, it was a time of social action and I decided my life’s work would be as an agent for change, in some form or other. 

When I entered graduate school in social work, the arts took a back seat to learning the art/craft of psychotherapy. Afterwards, I worked in a mental health clinic on Chicago’s South Side and, having developed an expertise in treating victims of childhood violence, traveled around the country speaking to professional and survivor groups.

In my thrities, a confluence of illness, relationship and happenstance pushed me along the road to poetry. I’d continued to play guitar semi-seriously for years, but in the early 90s, encountered Chicago’s burgeoning performance/slam poetry “scene.” The power and music in this poetry captivated me. To this day, I love the performance aspect of poetry, love collaborating with other artists, especially musicians and dancers.

Compared to playing music written by others, producing original work is a whole ‘nother experience. There’s a high to the feeling of creating something, the feeling when a poem comes together, that has kept me going through hours of hitting my head against the creative wall until it does.

The earliest workshops I took around Chicago were with Angela Jackson and Davis McCombs. After that, I took part in a peer workshop with such folks as Tony Trigilio, Brenda Cardenas etc who taught me a tremendous amount. There was a period that I really wanted to pursue an MFA, but work makes this an impossibility. Nonetheless, I’ve been able to take a week here and there for summer writing programs at places like Sarah Lawrence, Provincetown, Wesleyan and UMass.

I’ve been lucky for the opportunities to exchange ideas, write, publish and perform that came my way. With a demanding career, I haven’t as much time to spend the nurturing environments that foster such opportunities as those who’ve made a full time commitment. Still, I’ve pursued the opportunities I could with the same initiative and persistence I’ve brought to my profession. I doubt I’d have reaped the rewards I have without doing so.

How do you find that your job informs your poetry and vice versa?

For several years before I started writing seriously, I found myself using metaphors and stories (often drawn from myth and fairy tales) in my work with clients. The paradigm of Orpheus (or Lady Orpheus?) who drives away her lover due to her compulsive need to check up on him was one of the first to find its way into my early writing.

My writing can’t help but be enriched by my access to the inner worlds of others. On the other hand, I’ve found that the kind of analytical thinking I do as a psychotherapist conflicts with the thinking that promotes good writing, especially poetry.

It’s like trying to play ping pong with the muscles and dexterity for playing tennis. The knack for one is in the wrist; the other, in the arm. The therapist needs to look beyond the particularities to understand underlying dynamics. Beyond that, the purpose of her words is to facilitate the process of the Other. Think how contrary this is to the poetic imperative of showing, of expression of sensory experience, the importance given to the poet’s “voice”.

Thematically, the concerns of my last book, The Uncertainty of Maps: uncertainty, imperfection and impermanence, reflect one therapist’s lifetime perspective on the challenges central to being human. The middle section of the book might be described as poetic case studies: the lonely, the disaffected, the schizophrenic, the addict, the hardship cases.

So yes, the influence goes both ways.

In your experience, are some jobs more conducive to pursuing writing on the side? If so, what type of jobs?

The term “day job”, traditionally refers to one that provides the flexibility needed for acting or music gigs, usually at night. While writing doesn’t work that way, many end up with piecing together part time or menial jobs to support their passion while not diverting too much mental energy.

I don’t know if demanding careers reallyundermine creativity. It probably varies with the individual. I’m a slow writer in any case, but I know any number of writers in demanding professions who are quite prolific. I can imagine that working in the academy or in editing can stir the creative pot in a way that provides advantages. On the other hand, work outside if these arenas can provide great material for writing.

Do you feel you have the same level of passion for your full-time job, as you do for writing? If so, how do you balance your time between the two?

The combination of healing work and creative work is perfect for me. I love the contrasts and moving back and forth between them. Psychotherapy is my calling and I am passionate about it. That said, I’ve been doing it for many years and, as in any long term relationship, passion ebbs and flows. It’s not possible for me to operate from a peak of passion for both at once.

As writing became more important for me, I set aside giving workshops and lectures in my field. It was the right time to do this. My practice was on a secure footing and I’d attained a high enough level of expertise that I didn’t have to focus as much emotional energy on developing these.

Since the release of “The Uncertainty of Maps,” my writing has slowed and I notice a different kind of energy picking up in my “work work.”

When I’m with clients, everything else falls away. When the writing fires are stoked though, it’s easy to procrastinate on the unpleasant work, like fighting with insurance companies to make sure I get paid.

Do you feel there is a stigma attached to writers who don’t work in academia?

It’s impossible to know if I’d get more recognition or support for my writing if I were in the academy. I get a reasonable amount of both, but it’s true, I am on the outside. Is that because of an actual stigma or (more simply) because I don’t have as much opportunity to develop these relationships?

The academy is rife with in-groups, politics, exclusivity and exclusion. I suppose there are people inside the academy that don’t accord me the same level of respect they would to colleagues, but if that’s true, I’m more likely to be ignored than actively stigmatized.

What tips can you offer to someone who needs to work a full-time job while writing?

First, I’ll repeat: There are very few people who can make a living at their art, especially poetry. Teaching in the academy is a close second, but given the declining numbers of full time tenure track faculty, replaced with frightfully low paid part-time positions, the opportunities are fewer than ever. Paying off loans? You have my sympathy. Remember, though, that before the age of the MFA in creative writing, many of the most distinguished poets got by without the academy.

The academy DOES provide a ready-made support system, and without it you’ll need to cultivate your own. This will probably mean seeking out workshops, collaborative writing projects, attending readings, becoming an assistant editor or book reviewer for a journal. Nothing you wouldn’t think of on your own. If you don’t have a daily writing practice, you might need to adopt one to keep from losing your “chops.” Whatever works.

The choice to pursue a career in the arts involves more risk and sacrifice than almost any other field I can think of. As a therapist, I’ve worked with many artists grappling, not only with the practical questions but the feelings about not having the artistic recognition or success they dreamed of. How long to spend trying to “make it” before adjusting your expectations or going another route. In the face of disappointment, some people give up their artistic practice altogether, while others come to terms with a modified picture of what it means to be an artist, a modified relationship to their artistic practice.

I’ve opted for the latter, though I had the fortune (foresight?) to be “called” to a viable and rewarding career before becoming serious about writing. I see it as a question of how to wear more than one hat. Something easier for some than for others. We have a relationship with our art, and how to manage that relationship is a choice and a challenge.

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Nina Corwin is the author of two books of poetry, The Uncertainty of Maps and Conversations With Friendly Demons and Tainted Saints, and co-edited Inhabiting the Body, an anthology of women’s poetry. Her poetry has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including From the Fishouse, ACM, Drunken Boat, Forklift OH, Hotel Amerika, New Ohio Review/nor, Southern Poetry Review and Verse. Corwin has performed her work across the country, regularly collaborating with musicians, dancers and other poets. Corwin, a 2008 Pushcart nominee, is an Advisory Editor for Fifth Wednesday Journal. In daytime hours, she is a Chicago psychotherapist known for her work on behalf of victims of violence.

She is featured on the website From the Fishouse where you can read and listen to her work http://www.fishousepoems.org/archives/nina_corwin/index.shtml. Her most recent book can be found at http://www.readcwbooks.com/corwin.html