I have a two guests this week, so I’m doing for the first time ever morning and evening posts. This morning’s is Elizabeth Collison, whom I met through her editor at HarperCollins, the amazing Hannah Wood. Elizabeth’s debut novel, Some Other Town, is “Wry, peculiar, and compelling” according to NPR.org, which goes on to say, “The novel asks: how do you restart a stalled life? It’s not a new question, but Some Other Town is certainly a funny, fresh, and real answer.” Elizabeth received her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has worked as a graphic artist and technical writer–experience that has served her well as a writer in ways she shares here today. – Meg
Elizabeth Collison: Writing while holding a day job
Until recently, I worked full time for a large corporation. I had in fact worked there for years. But then a few months ago, I left my job. And last month my first novel was published.
I did not quit my job because of the novel. I do in fact need to work, in many ways it makes the writing possible, and not only because it feeds and houses me while I am at it. You could say that really what I work for are the company benefits, something that I will get to. But first, some background on workplace. That is, my particular experience with workplace.
My recent job at a corporation was not my first. Among other jobs I’ve held, I have worked as a bartender in a pizza joint, also as a restaurant part-time grinder of fresh meat. I have worked planting seedlings in a tree nursery. And for a couple of years, I was an adjunct college instructor, teaching classes in fiction writing and poetry.
For the most part, I did not mind the jobs in restaurants and nurseries, they were easy to excuse as just day jobs. But I did not much care for teaching writing. It cut too close, and I could not help feeling it was, at its heart, a con job. At the time that I taught, I was too young, I knew too little, had published almost nothing at all. What did I know of writing? And at any rate, can you really teach writing? How dare I tell undergraduates what is what. I felt like a clown and one day a student said that it showed. “You are always half smiling at the things that you tell us. It’s like you are in on a joke.” And I knew then I had to quit. I was not taking it seriously—how could they?I resigned at the end of the semester, and because I was living at the time in northern California, people told me I should move south to look for a job. There was this place, they said, Silicon Valley. You’ll find work there that pays well.
So I did, I moved south and found a job, if one not particularly well paid. I became a writer of marketing material for a mainframe computer corporation. Mainframes no longer exist, haven’t for years. But at the time, the company I worked for was one of the famous mainframe makers. So I figured they knew what they were doing, and I watched the others there to learn how things worked, what the corporate rules were, what was expected to be said and done. Then I did the expected, and at the corporation’s quarterly meeting a few months on, I received an award for my first project, brochures for a new set of mainframes to be called the Navigator Series. And yet, I myself did little. I supervised. I directed. I consulted on copy. But I did not write a word. As it turned out, the Navigator Series did not do much either, it never happened at all. And later the company was gone too.
I moved on to work for other corporations. I began writing more, but in a technical, not marketing, vein. And corporations became my day job, my big-girl waitress job. I told myself the work did not matter to me. Certainly, I knew, I did not matter to it. On my floor, I was simply the wordsmith, a dismissive term among engineers. And eventually, just as with the adjunct teaching, our mutual disregard began to show. On my annual review, this demerit in the category Teamwork: Rolls eyes in meetings.
And yet, all this work in the world has been useful to my writing, and I would not trade it for what some call the writing life. The reasons?