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Working For The Arts; Creating Your Own Art

September 13, 2008
Typewriter, Photo-Collage by Jules White, borrowed without permission but with a nice link

Typewriter, Photo-Collage by Jules White, borrowed without permission but with a nice link

On Thursday night, my friend Kyle — a fine fiction writer and now an accomplished translator as well — was talking about his still relatively new job as Publications & Communications Manager for The Writer’s Center. Kyle seems to love the job and strikes me as being good at it: at generating new ideas for building the Writer’s Center’s audience and its exposure throughout the community, at building connections and partnerships with other arts organizations, at networking generally. He talks passionately about the organization and about his work for it. But when asked how his own writing was going… well, he says he just hasn’t had time lately. Translating he can do, but the act of writing new fiction or revising his novel-in-progress requires some time and mental energy that he just can’t find at the beginning or the end of a long day working in the arts.

I echoed his feeling. My own novel-in-progress was very much IN progress until about a month ago when school started up (and lesson plans and grading) and when the literary festival that I work with, Fall for the Book, began requiring more time and attention. I told Kyle on Thursday, without much exaggeration, that as soon as I answered one email query or completed one task on my to-do list for the festival, another — or often two — popped up in its place.

On Friday morning, the day after our talk, a Washington Post article announced that Dana Gioia plans to step down as chairman of the NEA in January. He said that he’s accomplished most of what he set out to do in his six years at the helm of one of the nation’s hallmark arts institutions, but he also said that he needed more time to work on his own poetry: “I really want to get back to my writing,” he said. “I haven’t had time for my own writing. I write all the time for the NEA, official writing. Since I have become chairman, I have not published a single poem.”

I don’t mean to compare too closely the level of work and responsibility that Dana Gioia does with the jobs that Kyle and I and others like us have, but I couldn’t help but be struck by the common refrain: We work for the arts at the expense of our own arts.

Other friends, fellow aspiring writers, have purposefully sought out jobs where they don’t write, don’t work in conjunction with the arts, and (in many cases) don’t have much of a heavy workload at all. Day jobs, they call them, and they like just those qualities: check in at the beginning of the day, check out at the end, save the real work for later. Some of these jobs are tough, of course, and even the greatest, most successful writers have led double-careers: Everyone points to Wallace Stevens, of course, and his long career for the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company. (But then you also have Faulkner, who lost his job as a postmaster because he ignored customers and dumped people’s mail in the trash rather than sell stamps or deliver letters at the expense of his writing time.) 

For those of us working in areas which seem most in tune with our passions — literature in our cases — it’s odd that the very organizations we serve can also exhaust those passions, replacing our commitment to our own work, our own writing, with a subservience to others’ works. Tough to feel bad about spreading the word on good reading and good writing — it’s a great gig! But also tough to come to terms with pushing your own work to the side to do it.

Not a complaint entirely; just an observation.

I wish I was headed back to my novel now, but there are seven student stories waiting to be read for Monday’s workshop and another to-do list that’s probably grown while I’ve taken this quick break here.

— Art Taylor

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