Thursday, July 12, 2007

Be Careful What You Wish For: a Guest Blog By Rosina Lippi

Rosina Lippi’s first novel, Homestead, won the Pen/Hemingway award for literature and was nominated for the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction in 2001. She went on to publish the Wilderness saga under the pen name Sara Donati, garnering fans world wide. Her newest novel, Tied to the Tracks, hit the shelves on July 3rd in trade paperback. She left a successful career in academia to write fulltime—a dream many writers have—and what follows is an essay on the what happens when you get exactly what you wish for.


Just about twenty years ago I got a PhD in linguistics at Princeton. It was a big deal. That fall I started as an assistant professor on the tenure track at the University of Michigan. There were only three jobs in my area of specialization in the whole country that year, so getting that job - the cream of a very small crop - was a big deal.

I worked my rear off at UM. I taught, I advised, I directed dissertations, I sat on committees, I published. And published. Then tenure review came along. The turn-down rate in the humanities (at that time) was about 80%. I got tenure. Huge deal.

Twelve years after I got my PhD and started on an academic track, I walked away. I gave up tenure, I resigned all my responsibilities, and I said my farewells. A lot of hard won big deals, but I made a conscious decision to simply stop.

Here's what I was giving up: a regular salary; job security; a really good benefits package; the social stuff that goes along with the title and the rank. But I was also giving up the excruciating politics, the infighting, the jockeying for position, the cultural snobbery, the endless committee meetings about (believe it or not) things as trivial as whether THE should be capitalized in a title.

I gave up the good parts of teaching. Watching the face of an eighteen year old as a completely revolutionary concept takes hold. The students who asked really hard questions that made me think in new directions. The funny ones. The ones who had beat terrible odds and horrendous personal histories but never tried to cash in on those experiences. The kids you reached.

So sure, there are things I left behind reluctantly. But it was my decision, and I left academia to write full time. I just had no idea what it would be like.

Someone who has been in prison for thirty years is so habituated that they find it hard to function in a world without the prison day routine. Sound like a stretch? I was in one academic setting or another as a teacher or student from age five to age forty-four. My
year began in September and was divided by semesters; my day was divided into fifty minute class segments.

But all that was gone. No structure at all, beyond a far-off publisher's deadline. Freedom.


For at least a year I woke up regularly in a panic. What was I teaching today? Who was I supposed to advise? Had I prepared the lecture? Adrenaline pumping, I would jump out of bed and then remember that I was done with all that. I could work this morning or go for a walk; if I wanted to write in the cool of the night I didn't have to worry about getting up the next morning. My time became endlessly flexible.

It sounds great, doesn't it? But here's the fly in that otherwise enticingly fragrant ointment: motivation. If you write full time, the only pressure to keep on schedule is what you can inflict on yourself. You can go for days, weeks, months failing to get anything
written, but nobody knocks on the door to read you the riot act. Nobody even KNOWS unless you tell them.

You may yearn for somebody to impose structure (where is Sister Maria Terese when I need her?) but it's all up to you. Of course, when a scene is giving you terrible trouble, it turns out that the bathrooms haven't been cleaned, or you need to call about the newspaper delivery, or the dogs are in need of a bath or you really have to get that review written or the deepest, darkest sinkhole: when did I last check email? Or: Let's have a look at traffic to the website.

It takes a huge amount of self discipline to stay seated with your eyes on the page. Self discipline sometimes just isn't enough but somehow or another, you've got to muddle through. Every book seems harder than the last, but never mind: the mortgage calls. Now you have to pick between the two extremes: *just do it* or *the corn also grows while the farmer sleeps*.

I gave up the stress of a university setting, but stress is a universal in abundant supply. Am I happier now than I was as a professor trying to find time to write?

I think so. I look at the line of novels out there with my name (or my penname) on them and I know I've somehow managed to keep writing, even through the most difficult times. There's a real sense of satisfaction and renewed hope every time a new book comes out (Tied to the Tracks in trade paper is just a couple days away as I write this). Sometimes I am nostalgic for academia, but on the whole, I'm better off where I am now. I am fortunate to be in a position that allows me to write full time. Hundreds -- maybe thousands – of people would give just about anything to have the same opportunity. I am very aware of my good fortune, but I am also reminded daily of that old chestnut:

Be careful what you wish for. You may just get it.


Thank you, Rosina, for taking time out of you schedule to guest blog here today.

She’s graciously offered up a signed copy of Tied to the Tracks—which Booklist calls “an effervescent tale of a trio of offbeat Yankee filmmakers plunked down deep in the heart of Dixie”—to be given away to a randomly chosen commenter on this blog (to be chosen on Monday).

I’ve often wondered how writers are able to muster the self-discipline necessary to accomplish a finished novel, and I would love to hear from those of you who write. What gets you to the computer? What keeps you there?

Maybe I’ll be able apply them to getting a regular blog out while I’m here.


47th Page & Light said...

Wonderful, revealing piece, thank you! However, I bet that hundreds of thousands would give just about anything to have this wish realized, and writers who are managing to actually DO IT are always inspirational to hear from. The rest of us continue to soldier on...

Mystery Robin said...

I recently quit my job to stay home with my kids and write full time. I know exactly what you mean about structure. I don't find that I impose it very well, and I keep hoping someone will do it for me!!

Anonymous said...

I get to the computer because the story isn't finished. I stay there because I love every minute of it, even the revisions. There's always a new discovery to be made. It's like reading, but but at the end of the day, it's my name on it.
-Christine, Maryland.

charleneteglia said...

Don't enter me, but I wanted to say what a big move, from academia to freelance writing! It must've been hard to make that decision and walk away.

I have a lot of structure built in, since I write around small children who like life to run on a schedule. And they are a lot of what gets me writing and keeps me there. I need the sanity break escaping into fiction gives me. I also need to find out what happens, and the only way to find out is to write the book.

Kevin Radthorne said...

Speaking as a writer who also still has the 9 - 5 job, the answer I always give for the question, "What get you to the computer" (or just, "How do you keep writing") is to treat it like a second job. When you're holding down the bill paying job with the office politics and meetings (plus still have the bathroom and dog to clean, etc.), it can be just as easy to find excuses not to write. So I assume that the writing is a job, and just like a job I have to show up on time and do as good a job as I can. That means structuring time in my life to make sure the writing happens (in my case, I've arranged a 9 - 6 work day for the 'real' job, and write for one hour each morning before going to work and one hour during lunch). It's tough to have to stop writing when the little dinger goes off on my laptop, but that's one of the compromises of the "two-job" writing life... :o)

Worderella said...

To be honest, I can't imagine not writing. There are times when I may not be writing narrative, but always in the back of my mind I'm thinking about my novel. Brainstorming, coming up with backstories, twists in the narrative. It is just as important as my schooling (yeah, still in undergrad) and my job.

Dwight's Writing Manifesto said...

I can't imagine quitting my day job. Ever. My brain just doesn't go there.

Although... If I made a mint in publishing it would completely change my outlook on my day job.

"TPS reports? Due today? Right now? Mmmm. Nah. I'm busy reading Bookseller Chick. Maybe Monday."

RandomRanter said...

That's interesting. My mother has a theory that time seems to move faster as an adult because you are no longer measuring time in class periods.

Anonymous said...

I left my secure but dull job in publishing to go to law school in my 40s and am now beginning a career in litigation so I relate to Lippi's apprehension at getting what she wished for. However, I hope I am as successful in coping as she has been!

ABBAGirl said...

love the post. i found it very inspiring. to leave the structure behind in favor of a life wide open -- takes a lot of bravery indeed.