August 16, 2013

Working Writers Series: Wendy Fox

Welcome to our many-part series where we chat with Working Writers who have not had success in the traditional sense. No major awards, no books in print, maybe only a few or no publications, but are still writing. Our goal is to give voice to a wide range of writers, to learn from their experiences, and to open a discussion about living the craft. If you fit the description and want to be involved, please send an email to us at TMRWorkingWritersSeries@gmail.com

Today’s writer is Wendy Fox

me

Tell us a little about yourself.

I earned an MFA in 2001 (it seems like it’s so long ago! I guess it is.). I went for the MFA straight out of college because all I had ever wanted to do was write, and then, I guess I didn’t really think about what people do *after* they finish school. Like things that pay the rent. However, I am really glad that I had the experience of an MFA, and over a decade later, I’m still very close with some of the people I met there. I recommend it fully for anyone interested in community.

After MFA, I taught–because that’s what I thought people did. In school, I did not have a TA scholarship (and the funding that comes with it), but I taught in a community based program that placed MFA candidates in places of need, varying from elementary schools to mental institutions. I did classes at a women’s center and at a men’s prison. After I graduated, I spent a year in the community college system, and I took a chance and after a long and random story, moved to Turkey, where I taught at a government school (similar to state land grand schools) and a private, religious college. Out of this, I had an essay published in an anthology that I’m still very proud of.

When I came back, I decided teaching was not for me, because it used up the part of my brain–the language part–that I needed for writing. This was 2004. I took a job as an office admin, where I learned a lot about industrial permitting, at a construction company in Seattle. It was by my house, so that was easy. My roommate, who I knew from college, was in her last year of a Ph.D. I wasn’t sure how to feel about giving up academia, but there was also a kind of freedom.

My first magazine publication that was not in a student pub or where I personally knew the editor came in 2005, when I was really starting to get the hang of 9 – 5.

What is extremely significant to me is that in 2006, when I started working in tech,  even though I wrote a lot in my job, in the marketing department, it was a very different kind of writing. I found that if I could find time, I could find energy to work on fiction.

And, I had money for postage, and for copies — I started getting more things picked up. Not an amazing amount, to be clear, but enough that felt like going forward.

It’s strange to say this now, but that first tech, very career type job was thrilling. I grew up in a rural (800 people–in north eastern Washington: if you get to Canada, you went too far) town, and then, it felt like suddenly, I had lived abroad, come back, and was making my way in Seattle, a real city, and a great place for people who care about the arts.

There were things about corporate life that held me, like regular health insurance, and getting to travel both domestically and internationally on someone else’s dime, and the security of it.

So, fast forward a little, I’ve lived in Denver since 2009 (I moved when my now-husband and I got engaged, we met when his company acquired mine) and I’m the Marketing Director for a small-ish tech company. I still identify primarily as a writer, but it’s not how I make my living, that whole paying the rent / mortgage thing. I’ve been happy to publish in some good lit mags, and I’ve been happy to still be able to carve out space to work on my writing projects.

I still hope very hard for a book publication. I have a collection of short-stories (it was shortlisted once), a novel, and a novel-in-progress. There are days when writing feels like the only thing, but I would be lying if I didn’t say that I really love my other career, and also that I’m glad to have it. Sometimes I think about my work life and think I could be so much more successful if my writing life was not always interfering. More frequently, I think about my writing life and I think I could get so much more done if my work life was not always so present.

There are many great writers who have had day / night jobs as they slogged through their pages. I admire them and I hope I get to, someday, be part of that story.

Can you tell us a little bit about your work at the women’s center and the men’s prison during your MFA? Were you teaching writing classes?

I went to Eastern Washington University (it’s now the Inland Northwest Center for Writers), and Writers in the Community, a program through which students are matched to area schools, prisons, nursing homes, community centers, half-way houses, and other institutions, was one of the MFA internship opportunities. Writers in the Community is still around. It was perfect for those of us who did not have a teaching assistantship, but still wanted to get teaching experience. Often, candidates were placed where the need was, but there was certainly the chance to create a position if a student had a particular passion. I taught both years, but I was also able to direct this program during my second year, where there are other things besides just teaching, like managing placements and the budget. This was extremely valuable job experience.

Through both of my two MFA years, I taught at Airway Heights Corrections Center, which had a history with Writers in the Community. Airway Heights is a minimum and medium custody facility, and the entire population is male; it also (at least then) required inmates to earn their GED if they did not already have one, because this has a known, positive effect on recidivism, so some of the students in my writing class were there solely to fulfill their pre-GED test requirements. Still, some of them were there because they communicated largely with their friends and relatives by letter, and they really did want to become better writers; in particular, these students wanted to be more expressive with their language. Some others were serious readers and seriously interested in creative writing. Still more were bored and it filled an hour for them. At least a few thought I was insane–if I was free to walk around on the outside, why would I volunteer to be on the inside?

Yet, in many ways, prison is a good sink or swim test for a new teacher. My classroom had an audio / visual monitor in a room with windows instead of walls, for safety, but it also meant I got a lot of feedback from my direct supervisor, who was an excellent mentor. Also, because I knew that so many of them hadn’t exactly signed up for my class, I tried to be very careful about the readings I used, mostly short stories and short essays, because I really wanted to engage them, even if some were forced to be there. Like any class, some sessions were more successful than others.

And, it gave me a lot of confidence. Sometimes I still think about this when I have to give a presentation. I think, If you can talk about the comma in a prison where you have to collect their pencils at the end of class so someone doesn’t turn it into  a shiv, well, you can run this PowerPoint.

I was there long enough that I did get to see some of my students pass their GED, and I was able to get a permission to attend the graduation, in a gymnasium, with caps and robes, just like any other. I have no idea what happened to any of them, but at the time, it was a tremendous feeling to have contributed to what really felt like a major accomplishment in someone’s life. It’s everything that is good about teaching.

Because Writers in the Community is a diverse program, I also taught for the Spokane Drop-In Women’s Center (now called Women’s Hearth), which is exactly what it sounds like:  a place for women to “drop in” and get help with case work, see a social worker, use a computer lab, take a shower, get a meal, or participate in an enrichment class. At the women’s center, if we had enough people, we’d do a workshop or some free-writing, depending on what the group was up for, but sometimes I would just look at a resume or read a poem someone had written. In complete contrast to Airway Heights, the Center was really not about structure, more about just being available.

At the end of every year, Writers in the Community produced an anthology, called InRoads, and had a release party and reading, complete with contributor’s copies.

I think these community experiences–my first experiences with teaching–really did inform how I approach my own writing life today, in looking at creative writing outside the context of higher ed. I think I already knew that within higher ed was not the only place good writing was happening, but it was very valuable for me to see this first hand. In either setting, most of my students had limited access to or experience with higher, and sometimes even formal, education, but there were still very clear moments, when a Drop-In writer would create a beautiful sentence, when an Airway writer would absolutely nail a short essay.

Getting the words right, and then seeing your words in print, is exciting, no matter where someone is approaching it from.

Could you address the tension between success in your career and success in your writing life? Do you keep those entirely separate? 

It has been important to me, for a very long time, to keep a clear delineation between my writing life and my work life. Part of the reason that I left teaching was because I felt like there was too much crossing—again, it used up the language part of my brain—that I needed to have energy to work on my own writing. The other reason I left teaching, just to be perfectly frank, is because I didn’t want to do a Ph.D., and if that’s someone’s mindset, it’s easily to hit the ceiling fast, even with a terminal degree like an MFA, unless there’s a book in the mix, and I do not have a book.

Also, I wanted to keep writing life away from wage work because for many years I had a hyper-idealized  concept of what it meant to be a writer, so I didn’t feel comfortable conflating paying the bills with working on sentences. I’m not sure, now, that this was the best idea, especially as people’s work lives and personal lives have increasingly become less separated. Mostly, I didn’t want to be on deadline, and I didn’t want to write something that I didn’t believe in so I could get paid. Like I said, idealized.

Yet, still, even though my work life and my writing life do not always intersect in obvious ways, it’s impossible for me to divorce my identity as a writer from anything I do. For example, after I left teaching,  when I was employed as an office admin at the construction company,. I learned a lot about the private sector, It took over 200 applications, but that private experience was what helped me progress in the interview process with a software company. When I got to the end and they needed samples, I realized my business writing pieces were pretty soft; not sure what else to do, I sent them a creative non-fiction essay, and a piece that had been picked up in ZYZZYVA. I provided a caveat that I knew that creative writing was not what they were really after, but that also I was I was really confident in both, and they would get an idea of the way I thought. I got the job.

A lot changed then, and it was big. I suddenly had a career, and there was a new kind of pressure of long hours, and I traveled with a corporate Amex and a laptop and a Blackberry (it was 2006). I wasn’t teaching, and I wasn’t doing something in-between. It was even harder to find time to work on sentences–that become paragraphs, that become stories–but my work life really helped me with discipline. In the corporate world, there’s a lot of conversation about how to maximize time and get everything done in the day that needs to be done. This forced me to think about small, achievable goals, and consider the long way: write 150 words a day, for instance, and it ads up to 54,750 a year, getting beyond minimum novel-length. That’s a lot, and bonus if it’s a leap year!

What still startles me about this switch is that I actually started getting more acceptances–starting with magazines I really admire like Painted Bride QuarterlyThe Madison ReviewThe Pinch–because that idealism, even then, was fading. I began to feel about writing the way people talk about business: talent is important, but effort can mean just as much. I wrote more and kept more manuscripts in the mail than I had ever had, urged on by the corporate grail of productivity. Also, because I’d chosen, very consciously, to work for a living outside of academia, writing on my own was my strongest connection to the arts.

When I moved to Colorado in 2009, I was grateful, even, to be employable in tech even as the bottom was dropping out of many markets, but I was also isolated. I left friends and family, my whole life in Washington, but I still had stories. I cared a lot less about my job and a lot more about publications in PMS and Washington Square Review than hiking the Rockies.

I’ve kept going in my other career, but it feels more and more blurred. . One of the things I like best at my current job and past jobs is to interview and draft copy for customer case studies, and I find myself thinking about it in terms of the narrative, the story, and when I work on my own fiction or essays, I consider much more about the occasion for the telling, about the “so what” factor.

So, I believe, it circles. I thought I wanted separation, but there is no separation. A commitment to writing has made me a better and more productive worker, and more importantly, a commitment to work has made be a better and more productive writer.

I like what you said about the impossibility of separating the writing life from the career path. Does this also hold true for the themes/topics that you write about as well?”

Of course there is the reality of every day that informs, at least for me, what I’m working on. In Colorado and we’ve had a series of intense fire seasons, and so when I think back to what I’ve written, especially in summer, there’s a lot about fire—though I should probably also say that I‘m already obsessed with the burning of the west. For those of us who live here, it’s always present. And, it’s also a personal perspective, if being interested in landscape.

Yet, now that you’ve asked the question, I realize that I do have many characters who feel an awful lot of pressure in their own career situations, for different reasons, and characters for whom work is an almost ridiculously strong distraction from what they want to or should be doing.

Still, it’s only recently that I’ve felt comfortable in spending more time on pages that are more obviously grounded what I do at my job. My novel-in-progress that opens with a software company being acquired, which pulls heavily from my own experience in tech. Writing it feels very different, and challenging; I’ll go back and re-read and have whole sections about answering email—how boring is that—but my career is part of who I have become, so I’m trying to find a way to draw on it rather than it be a constant tension.

I like the idea of writing what you want, and calling it what it is. Sometimes, it’s just processing or journaling, but sometimes there is some real story there. I don’t always know the difference until it’s out.

How do you measure success as a working writer, and how does this compare to what one imagines right after an MFA?

Getting an MFA is not like getting an MBA, for example, where there’s a much clearer track for what happens next. I have actually been on job interviews where I have been asked about my MBA, and it’s always a little awkward to start explaining the difference that F makes–no, it doesn’t stand for finance. In fact, many classmates from my program are working outside of academia and are not full-time writers: one is in the medical field, one is a librarian, one (a Ph.D) is a full-time father. One has just had her second book of poems come out–Janée J. Baugher, author of the excellent collection “The Body’s Physics”–and while she teaches, she supports herself with a full-time corporate job, like me.

This makes me frequently consider  how we measure what we’ve done. Publication is one part, but it’s not everything. When I was finishing my MFA, I didn’t really think that 12 years would pass and I still wouldn’t have a book out. I’m not really sure what I thought, other than having an awful lot of hope. Yet, now that those years have gone by, I will say that it is frustrating sometimes to not have had more traditionally defined successes as a writer, like winning a big prize or publishing a novel, but it’s also extremely important to recognize that it’s not zero sum. I’m proud of the work that has been accepted in literary journals and anthologies, and I’m also proud of the career I’ve built, even though I couldn’t have guessed this would be my path.

Maybe the hardest thing for working writers is finding time, and this includes academics. It can be difficult to stay focused. For years there’s been this discussion around writing programs and the question of can writing be taught? The farther I get away from school, the more I think this isn’t the question. The question is a question about discipline. It’s a question of how can students stay motivated once they aren’t students anymore? How can they be impressed upon how important it is to keep writing new work and keep sending it out, even after logging a dozen and then a hundred and then many, many more rejections? How have they been given tools to figure out how to arrange their lives to make writing time and still be able to have some financial stability? I feel like I wasted a lot of time when I was younger because I didn’t quite get all this, and I didn’t even know it was out there to get. There’s not one right way to build a writing practice, but the only guarantee I’m sure of is that there will be no manuscripts accepted if there are no pages to pitch; so much of writing is just sitting down and doing it, even when it’s really hard, and even when there isn’t a deadline.

For people who are coming out of writing programs or just starting out, I wonder if some of them might look at folks like me and some of my peers and think that we actually haven’t been that successful, in the way that we think about success (myself included) when we’re in a program. Yes, we still have day jobs, and some of those day jobs are very removed from writing. Here, I think it’s important to just be very honest. Not everyone will go on to get tenure. Not everyone will write a hot shit manuscript and then sell it. Not everyone will get even a big or even a little break. Some of it is moxy, some of it is luck.

So, I keep going, working at my job, working on my words, celebrating acceptances here and there. I know I am happier with this than if I would have just stopped writing–people do this, and I can often even understand why. What matters the most to me is the feeling of being productive. It’s better when stories find a home in print, but even when they don’t, it’s okay. They are still mine, because I made them.

Wendy Fox earned her MFA in 2001 and has been working in the technology industry since 2006. Her complete bio and publication list can be found at wendyjfox.com. Follow her on Twitter @wendyjeanfox. 

About Alison Balaskovits

A. A. Balaskovits is a Ph.D. student in Fiction at the University of Missouri and the curator of the Literature on Lockdown series for The Missouri Review. You can follow her on twitter @aabalaskovits or at aabalaskovits.com

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