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Fear at the end of an era

The semester break has been very good to me, but it is ending on a note of sadness and apprehension. I’ve been able to write 54 new poems in the last month. I’ve posted 12 new essays on this website. I’ve written tens of E-mails, not one-liners or simple notes, but long, letter-like missives to my most trusted colleagues and critics.

Along with this, I’ve sent five lengthy letters to one friend in a federal prison and two to another friend in a different prison. My third book of prose, Ferment: Wine, Vineyard, and Manic Depression, has now made the first of many hurdles. An editor with Skyhorse Publishing, a big New York house, loved the project and passed it up his chain. The people in his editorial committee are considering it for publication. Spartan Press published my latest book of poems, When the Titans Sleep and Other Dreams in December.

Wow, what a great month, I sit here now looking back. The time has been ripe for my creative center. It took a while to get into a new discipline after the end of last semester. I spent the first days trying to get into a groove and wound up wringing my hands. But I’m used to this. A new regimen takes a little while to get into. Once I practiced a while, I soon became an old hand at it.

I think forward to the coming semester. I’ve thought about my new discipline, the one that will fit around my teaching. I often go through this exercise. I see the changes coming and ready myself for them, seeing where I might establish a routine that includes the writer’s work—the actual writing and the more prosaic work of promoting it.

I have to give both sides of this writing game the time. I’m not a J.D. Salinger. As much as I might like stacking up manuscripts in the basement, I don’t have the money, notoriety, or heft to write just to write. I have to put it out to the public, regardless of what readers may see in it. This means posting new work on this website, submitting stories to magazines, setting up and marketing events. In pursuit of these activities, I do my best and follow the dicta I prescribe to my students and my young son:

“Head down. Do Work. Get grade.”

It’s good advice for me in writing, as in life.

In doing the writer’s work, I must also remember something a journalist friend of mine once said to me:

“Inspiration comes with composition and not before.”

In other words, sit down with regularity and write, regardless of whether I feel like it or not. If I’m waiting around for inspiration to strike, I may be very old before I get anything written at all.

When the break began, I thought to myself, great, I have all this time in front of me. But as I penned some pieces that satisfied my creative instinct, I saw my wife working as hard as she does. Our household income is down for this year due to the vagaries of changing jobs and getting a new benefits package that’s quite a bit more expensive than the last.

The deeper we got into break, the guiltier I began to feel. I was doing whatever I wanted to do, which was writing every day. I had the privilege many writers do not have—a spouse whose income basically supports this house and the things that go on in and around it.

I had applied for a job I thought I’d like and would do well. The people called me for a phone interview. I followed up with an E-mail and then a phone call. But I never received a call back. While mildly disappointing, I marked it up as a good try.

You see, I don’t have to find a job. Between part-time teaching, writing workshops, and book sales, as well as library events, I make a pretty chunk of money. It’s not what my wife makes, but it’s respectable considering I like doing it all and wouldn’t have what I have had I not worked so hard to get a Ph.D. But I work less than most people with full-time jobs. I must also be careful about what I’d take as a job. Why would I go to work full-time to make what I’m making now? I have to hold out for something that pays well.

That puts me in an uncomfortable situation. I’m a 56-year-old man with a Ph.D., both facts of which may be hindrances in the job market. The Ph.D. is impressive. The experience I have is also remarkable. But many company managers might think a doctorate over-qualifies me and will cause problems over time. In other words, they are looking for longevity and not for a person who might find the confines of the job too constraining. Companies are also looking for people they can shape. An oldster, they might perceive, is less than resilient. Plus, they may not have a job above entry level that they see as appropriate for someone of my age and education.

So, all I can do is cast the net wide. I have a notion I would like to be a trainer for a public organization, like a government department. I will also consider trainer jobs for corporations, though this is less desirable, as I really want to feel I’m contributing to more than a company’s bottom line. But at this point, if the right job comes up with the public or private sectors, then I’m in.

My attitude toward work is also much changed since the last time I had a desk job in 2003. The job I get now will be practical. The kid is off to college in a year and a half, and the extra money will go a long way in paying tuition. We need to do some work around here that will allow us to stay in this house comfortably for the next twenty years. We have to get a roof in a year or two. The furnace will need renovation or replacement in four or five years. The kitchen and baths need ceramic tile or stone, as well as new counters and vanities. We want hardwood in the living/dining room area and good quality carpet through the rest of the house. The point of all this is for the house to carry us into retirement and beyond.

And then there’s bolstering the retirement funds. A job for me today will be practical. Useful. A means to an end.

I will also see an ending. I will only have to work a job for the next eight or ten years. I will be the best worker anyone can find. I’m good that way. It’s not like the old days when I looked up from my desk and down the barrel of thirty years in that same seat with the same routines with the same people. Ten, I can imagine. In thirty years, I’ll be dead or close to it.

Until recently, I called my writing a selfish habit. But a friend of mine, Max McCoy—and experienced writer in his own right—assures me that writing is a helping profession. The things I put on paper or in the ether help people connect with their everyday lives. It gives them hope, allows them to know they are not alone in the universe, and entertains them.

I’ve thought about that quite a bit. This isn’t just for me. It’s for the family, for society, for the individual who finds some truth in what I put to paper.

And I’ve thought already about what my writing routine will be if I get a regular job. I will fulfill my workday, come home, and take a nap. After, I’ll write for two hours and then spend the rest of the evening with the family. I can do that.

I go out from here saddened that the most bountiful time of my writing years will soon fade with the devotion of forty hours to a job. I’m scared I won’t find a job I can live with, one that will be practical and useful. I fear I will not be able to settle in behind a desk. There’s an anxiousness hanging over my days.

But I will do what I always do. I will walk into the storm and deal with the problems as they come up. My fear and apprehension are merely selfish expressions of my desire for things to be easy. With that in mind, I go out with three priorities: Head down. Do work. Get Grade.

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