Whenever I’m going through an emotional downswing, my therapist asks me how my writing is going. I find this more than a little ‘kick me when I’m down’-ish, since the usual answer is that my writing practice has suffered along with the rest of my self-care priorities – but, of course, that’s why she asks.
She loves to remind me that being a writer is a core part of my identity, regardless of whether I ever publish anything again. (My core identity is another topic she knows all too well, given that she helped me find and reconstruct it after it was nearly decimated by my breakup six years ago.) And to be perfectly honest, I need the reminder.
I have a habit of always adding and rarely subtracting: new dresses get wrinkles from being wedged into my closet among old favorites (whether they still fit or not); my potluck plate heaves with far more options than I could ever consume, and the attempt leaves me in pain; and, worst of all, various paying jobs and unpaid errands and tasks I’ve offered to do for other people crowd out the time I keep meaning to reserve for my writing.
The overfilling of my metaphoric and literal plates is its own issue, but my therapist’s concern when she asks about my writing is more one of prioritization and identity. Of the elements in my life that should matter most – my health, both mental and physical, the people I love, and my writing practice – only the one that involves responsibility to others gets its full due. Anything that requires prioritizing myself gets shoved to the bottom of the list.
I suspect this is not unrelated to being raised by a typical WASP mother, a martyr first and foremost. As I’ve become my own adult, I have tried to adjust my behavior to align with what I actually believe: you do more good for people being honest about your needs than you ever will martyring yourself. And yet, the people-pleasing instinct is strong in this one.
And it’s not just that – it’s also the world we live in. Yes, I am much more willing to devote my time and energy to someone else’s well-being than my own, but I also have to spend most of my time doing things for others and getting paid for it, because I have to pay my half of expenses and I like to buy coffee sometimes at the little drive-through espresso huts that make Washington such a wonderful place to live.
Which brings us to the explanation for the title of this blog post: I recently went through the process of getting my insurance license. So, yeah, I can sell Life and Disability policies now, instead of just filling in the forms and liaising between clients and carriers (which has been a large part of my job for the past year). It’s… exciting? Weird? A betrayal of everything I thought mattered to me?
Yes. All that and more. The past six years, since I left my full-time job in publishing and moved away from the only literary community that ever knew I existed, have been an existential nightmare, and this latest career move has both deepened my crisis and given me distance from it. Again, I find myself trying to force my internal narrative to get in line with my values: what a person does to earn a living has no actual bearing on whether or not they’re* a ‘real’ writer. In fact, at least in my case, the more writing-oriented a job is, the less writing I seem capable of doing on my own time. (Sadly, this includes teaching, but I still have dreams of a part-time career in higher ed that leaves space for and inspires my own creativity. A fool mustn’t give up on all her dreams.)
So, yeah, I’m an insurance salesperson now? As well as still being an administrative assistant, communications manager, and whatever else my boss needs (all in the same role). But I’m hoping adding the license will also beef up my paycheck, ideally without my hours encroaching on the small spaces I have managed to carve out for my writing – namely, 45 minutes before work every Thursday and at least a couple of hours on Fridays.
As for the emotional side of things, I’m not going to lie: literary Twitter has been a difficult place these past couple of years, and even more so these past few months. It’s been hard for me to see so many writers churning out work and racking up publications while I’ve been studying Medicare and learning about riders. But I’ve also found comfort in others’ honesty about what being a full time writer means for them, financially – especially how long it took them to achieve that status and how tenuous it often feels.
For now, working four days a week for a financial representative and tightening my budget until it bleeds is what allows me the mental and physical space to write anything, ever. Is it inspiring me to write fiction? Not so far. Am I churning out essays and getting them accepted at magazines and journals all over the internet? Also not so far. But I am making the time, and I am putting in the work, and if the stability of a job in insurance sales is what allows me to make that time/do that work, then I’m going to do my best to be grateful instead of angsty about it.
Because being a writer is a part of who I am; my job is just what I do.