by Celia Bell
There are a couple questions that most people who’ve decided to pursue writing, whether in the MFA world or as a career, are probably familiar with: “Well, but are you going to do with that? Where do you see yourself in ten years?” In the first semester of my MFA, I remember sitting around a workshop table with Elizabeth McCracken and discussing the financial aspects of making it as a writer. Most of the class seemed to agree that this is something that’s not talked about often enough. We all know, or have heard, that it’s difficult to find academic jobs, that we’ll need to find a way to balance personal writing with outside work, but how, exactly, to do that is frequently something that we’re uncertain of.
I was maybe luckier than many people, in this regard, because I never faced much doubt from my own family—a nice side effect of having a family full of writers who have already gone through this stage on their own. I grew up on stories of my father’s adventures in New York in the days when you could rent an apartment in Brooklyn for two hundred dollars a month, when he survived by writing reader’s guides for libraries, doing a brief stint in film production, and working as a security guard at a clothing warehouse that had advertised a gig for people with martial arts experience. But while he was there, he struggled to get the momentum to write the manuscript that would become his first novel, The Washington Square Ensemble. “New York life,” he told me when I asked him, “was too interesting and distracting, and while I was in the midst of it I couldn’t get a grip to write about it.”
History clearly repeats itself, because I also spent several years in New York, fighting with a first draft of a novel and working as a private tutor and, briefly, as sales assistant in a perfume shop. At first, I thought I wanted a job in publishing, a chance to see the literary world from the other side. Then, after one interview that I had thought went well, the woman interviewing me—herself about to leave her position to get her MFA—asked if she could be frank with me. “I’ve looked up your work,” she said. “You seem like you’re serious about writing. If you take this position, you won’t have time to do work of your own.” I didn’t get the job, and, in retrospect, I think she probably did me a favor.
In the workshop, when day jobs and financial questions came up, Elizabeth McCracken talked about the ways that people piece together a living when they’re working on a first (or second) book, but she also said something else that has stuck with me: that when you’re working on a manuscript that needs time and privacy in order to blossom, you also need to seek out work that will give you the sense of immediate gratification that writing, as a long and solitary pursuit, often lacks. Supporting yourself is about finances, certainly, but it’s also about finding a space where you have the emotional and creative resources to do your own work.
Celia Bell was born in Baltimore and is currently pursuing an MFA in fiction at the New Writers Project in Austin. Her stories have appeared in Bomb Magazine and Five Points.