A few years ago, when I taught English Composition at a community college, one of the first essays Iâd assign students was âThe Transactionâ by William Zinsser. In the essay, Zinsser writes about a doctor who has recently begun to write and has experienced some publishing successes. He compares his way of working with the way the doctor works. Zinsser points out that to him, a professional writer, writing is a vocation, while to the doctor, it is an avocation. The assignment of the term âavocationâ implies the doctor will never be taken seriously as a writer. At least thatâs the impression I always came away with each time I re-read the essay in preparation for discussing it with a new group of students.
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I always wanted to call writing my vocation. Like many people, I had a lifelong dream of being a writer. I returned to school as an adult, when my youngest child was in first grade, to pursue that dream. Iâd read and taken to heart the words of another professional writer, John Gardner, that anyone serious about becoming a writer should first get a liberal arts education. After earning my Bachelorâs degree, I went on for my MFA in fiction writing. Creative writing programs are ideal in granting students the time to write amid an atmosphere of creativity. You âfill the wellâ with ideas and learn the craft by reading and discussing each othersâ stories, as well as classic and contemporary works of literary value. And if that doesnât keep you writing, thereâs the additional pressure of having to produce a book-length work for your final thesis in order to graduate. I walked away with my degree along with a few awards and visions of writing grandeur.
But after seven years in school, supported emotionally and financially by an encouraging husband, I felt a need to justify all that time spent earning my undergrad and graduate degrees. So I began to teach. I never viewed teaching as my vocation. First and foremost, I was a writer. The teaching was just something I didâa class or two a semesterâon the side.
Only âon the sideâ took up a huge portion of what Iâd anticipated would be my writing time. I am conscientious and hard working by nature, and approach everything I take on with gusto. Teaching was no different. I was dedicated to helping my students discover and develop their individual voices. I wanted them to love writing the way I loved it, to recognize the strength and power of the English language. I spent hours at home reading, thinking about, and marking up their assignments, not only grammatically, but in an attempt to push them to dig deeper into their individual stories. I gave their work the same time and attention and respect that I would any fellow writerâs.
I found teaching rewarding. To clarify, I found being in the classroom rewarding, but the politics of academia not worth the budgeted dollars they were paying me. One semester I ended up teaching 11 credits, one credit shy of a full-time load, miserable that I had no time to work on my own stories. I decided to take a break the following spring to put into practice the subject Iâd been teaching and pursue my vocation. I was going to write.
What happened that spring is as unsurprising as a predictable plotline. With time stretched out endlessly before me, I filled it just as endlessly with writing-related activities, all of which provided a pretext of writing but produced little new work. I surfed the Internet in pursuit of suitable publications. I wrote cover letters and submitted to those publications, garnering my market share of rejection slips. I joined an online critique group and spent more time reading other peopleâs stories than writing my own. I signed up for a number of online writing discussion lists and used up hours responding to the posts which poured into my e-mail. My fingers were striking the keyboard, but I wasnât writing.
I wasnât the complete slug, or as my students would label it, slacker, that Iâm making myself out to be. I did write a few essays, a form I became interested in while teaching, and placed them, along with some older stories, in decent publications. I became involved in fighting an attempt at censorship in the public schools in my county. This led to a bit of national exposure for my work; I was invited to write a guest column for The Washington Post. Although I was writing passionately about something I cared deeply about, Iâd lost my creative focus and along with it, the ability to enter my imagination to produce fiction, the literary art Iâd studied for years.
I am an impulsive person and impulsively one day, five months into my vocation as a full-time writer, I picked up the newspaper, studied the want ads and started to send out my resume. I quickly progressed from applying for part-time to applying for full-time positions, reasoning in my non-writing angst that as long as I was going to compromise on my dream and work for someone else, I might as well be well paid for my efforts.
When I began my new position as a contract administrator for a real estate broker, I didnât know what to expect. Iâd had various jobs since birthing my first child, but I hadnât worked full-time in twenty-two years. I took the job more out of self-disgust and frustration than a desire for self-growth and fulfillment.
So what did I discover? After years of teaching freshman English Composition, a class the majority of students donât want to take, mothering children who once they are teenagers donât want to be mothered, and writing stories so many editors donât want to publish, it was a refreshing change to work hard and have not only my boss, but all his clients tell me what a great job I was doing. I grew to love the real estate business. My communication skills, both oral and written, and the requirements of the job were a perfect match. Iâd found my vocation.
Maybe the ending is to be expected, a plot twist in what continues to be a predictable storyline. I still write. Now that writing has become my avocation, I have become more prolific despite, or maybe because of, having to squeeze my writing into narrow periods of time.
Peggy Duffy’s short stories and essays have appeared in numerous publications, including The Washington Post, Newsweek, Notre Dame Magazine, Smokelong Quarterly, Octavo, Three Candles, So To Speak, Literary Mama, Main Street Rag, and Brevity, as well as various Cup of Comfort anthologies. Her fiction has been recognized by the Virginia Commission for the Arts as a finalist in the Individual Artist Fellowship program for literary artists and her short stories have been selected by storySouth for the Million Writers Award, Notable Online Short Stories. She has an MFA from George Mason University
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