As a writer and college professor, I've reached the stage in my career (read: middle age) where students and sometimes junior colleagues ask me for advice. They want answers to the big questions: like how to build a career that allows them to attend to their students without relinquishing their own desire -- and their institution's demand -- to research, write and publish. And they want answers to the small ones, too, like what's my process? When do I write? How do I keep going?
I wrote about this issue in "How She Does It: A Day In the Life of a College Writing Professor," but that post is less about advice than it is about pulling back the curtain on the demands of a profession that are often obscured from the general public. To answer some of these questions and to honor the women who mentored me early in my career (Wendy Bishop, Ann Dobie, Mary Ann Wilson in person, Paula J. Caplan and Emily Toth or "Ms. Mentor" on the page), I 've decided to put what I've learned in the past fifteen years in writing.
It may sound simplistic, it may sound ingenuous but it really does come down to this: follow your passion and have something to say. As writing teachers, we often tell our students that they're more likely to write well about something they care about; I'm surprised when we don't follow that advice ourselves. Success in academia isn't just about checking off the boxes required for tenure or the next promotion but about caring so much about your subject and your writing that you'd do it whether or not it led to the next rung on the ladder. What's more, in my experience, writing that comes into being because the writer had something she needed to say is, more often than not, the kind of writing that gets published.
Passion is also important because writing is hard, to wit the oft-repeated: "A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people." It's so hard, in fact, that people will do all kinds of things, from rearranging their desks to hosing down the insides of garbage cans, to avoid doing it. Passion acts like a gentle but firm hand at your back, steering you always towards your desk or your laptop to get the work done.
Passion is critical too because in many academic environments and in an age of dwindling resources, combining writing and teaching is more than a full-time job -- what job isn't these days? At the very least, it's a job-and-a-half (if you're in a better situation, consider yourself lucky and keep it under your hat). You really have to want to do it, because you'll need to cram in your writing whenever you can, usually on the fringes of your day-to-day teaching and committee work. Unfortunately, this means, if you're someone like me, or especially, like my husband, who gets up at 4:30 a.m. during the semester and is the most prolific writer I know, sacrificing sleep. It means you have to work nights and weekends and it definitely means you do not have the summer off. Sure, you can take that week or two of vacation; you can take a week with your family over the winter holidays (which by most standards, let's face it, is pretty generous) but after that, you need to get back to the work. Many consider summer the best time to get writing done, and I agree. Even though I have summer teaching duties, I still get more writing done then because the university as a whole quiets down; there are fewer committee meetings and fewer projects engendered by those committees demanding my attention. More than any other time, it is in the summer that I feel like the teacher/writer I aspire to be.
Once you have the passion and the willingness to put in the extra time that accompanies it, you need to cast a wide net and be patient. Building an academic career is a long, slow process not unlike sowing several handfuls of seeds, noting what takes root and cultivating those promising seedlings. It will not happen overnight. Nowhere is this truer than in the early years. Despite my best efforts, half of the essays and stories I wrote back then never saw the light of day. The other half did, however, and it was because I had produced all of that work that I began to gain some publishing momentum. Patience also came into play in the publication of my first book, with Kelly Ritter, Can It Really Be Taught?: Resisting Lore in Creative Writing Pedagogy. It took seven years for that collection to find its way into the creative writing canon; seven years of submission, revision, and re-submission, with a lot of waiting in between. But Kelly and I felt we had something really important to say with that book and we refused to give up.
Speaking of Kelly, collaboration and networking are important too. Even if you're something of an introvert like me, seek out people who are as passionate about your subject as you are. Follow professional blogs and twitter feeds, participate in list-servs and discussion boards. Join special interest groups at conferences; approach people who have the same professional interests as you do and suggest ways to collaborate. Organize conference panels with these people and look for ways to publish what you present together in journals and in books (make your work do double duty whenever you can). Tap into the power of the many. You'll achieve more than you would alone and you'll be more inspired to put in that time at your desk in the wee hours of the morning.
As you might have guessed, persistence is also a part of the equation. It's rare for a book or a journal article to gain automatic acceptance; revision and resubmission are part of the process. If you're asked to "revise and resubmit" a journal article, do it. I'm always surprised when people drop the ball at this point. If a reviewer has taken the time to give you extensive comments, they usually want to publish your work; it's just a matter of another lap (or two) on your part. And if they don't end up taking it, send it somewhere else -- don't let all that work go to waste. Likewise when you finish a book proposal or manuscript, celebrate with a quick breather but steel yourself for that editorial letter because it's coming; you're not finished yet. Finished means the book or journal is in your hands.
Passion. Persistence. Patience. Any editor worth her salt will tell you to avoid cloying alliteration but that's what thriving in academia comes down to; there's no avoiding it. Certainly there are many more successful in this arena than I am, just as there are those who have succeeded in different ways and their methods are worth a look too; if they feel inclined to share. But putting these three words into practice has gotten me this far. Alliteration or not, I'm sticking to them.