By Susan Perabo
In early 2017, in the months leading to the publication of my most recent novel, I had a brief but intense period during which I was certain that being a tenured college professor had destroyed my writing career.
This life crisis was unwittingly triggered by my "team" at Simon & Schuster. You have to understand that I’d never really had a team before. None of my previous books had requireda team. But this new novel was to be a featured fiction title in the spring, and as such it was granted a group of talented publicists and marketing professionals whose job it was to position the book for a big release and — hopefully — big sales.
Part of that positioning involved finding famous writers who would agree to blurb, tweet, post, and talk about my book in very public, exciting ways. Thus, understandably, one of the first questions from my team was: OK, who do you know?
Career writers know other career writers. I interact with these people from time to time, but mostly I view them from afar, so my assumptions about them are exactly that: assumptions. My ideas about the real lives of career writers are probably approximately as accurate as my ideas about the real lives of giraffes.
In my mind, career writers are confident and clever people who live in New York City. They attend literary events several times a week and go to parties where writers display their confidence through prolonged, spirited mingling. They publish a new book every two to three years. As a result of their talent and consistent productivity, many of them seem to be frequently on "the circuit." I see them in ads on the pages of Poets & Writers magazine. They go from writer’s conference to book festival to short-term workshop, developing relationships with other career writers that (while no doubt genuine) double as networking.
Who did I know? I looked around. I knew Professor Su. I knew Professor Seiler. I knew Professor Bates and Professor Edlin and Professor Blyth. These people were my friends and colleagues, but none of them were going to help me position my novel. I was trapped in the ivory tower with a whole bunch of great people who were decidedly not famous.
Very few "career writers" are professors, because both are full-time jobs. Being a full-time professor means you struggle to find time to write. Period. This is true no matter what kind of writing you do. You have to fit ("cram" would be a more appropriate word) the writing into your life between classes and committee meetings and advising and campus events and class prep and grading and the 75 emails you have to write every single freaking day.
So finding time to do all those other necessary "career writer" things — establishing a strong social-media presence, contributing to industry blogs, visiting bookstores to connect with booksellers, publishing a professional website, appearing at festivals and conventions, pursuing guest spots at elite residencies, steadily, actively, deliberately making connections — to do all that on top of consistently (not just summers and sabbaticals, but consistently) generating publishable stories and novels, was simply impossible.
Dammit, I thought, if only it weren’t for this pesky teaching job, maybe I could have written my way into that "career writer" world, could have worked my way onto that circuit. Instead of walking across the academic quad every day, I could be jetting from prestigious workshop to book festival to …
"But you hate stuff like that," said the smart adult who lives with me, when I shared my thoughts with her during my crisis last winter. "You’re miserable when you have to be social with a group of writers."
It is true that I am the world’s worst social writer. In 50 years, I have never once — not once! — been the life of the party. I’m always that person who crouches in the front hall petting the family dog for as long as my knees will hold out. I’ve been at parties where a group of writers spend all night in an unspoken competition to see who can be the most entertaining, the most hilarious, the most intense, the most compelling. Usually those parties make me want to die.
"But maybe I should have done it anyway," I whined. "Think of all the famous people I’d know. I don’t know anyone. Who’s going to talk about my book?"
The team, I sensed, was disappointed by my very short list of useful connections. They would never use that word, "disappointed" — not to my face, anyway. But they said falsely cheerful things like, "Well, we’ll work with what we’ve got!" I suspected that in private they were saying, "Where the hell has she been for the last 20 years?"
Now, you may recall that there were some other things going on in the world in early 2017 besides the looming publication of my novel. A fact about the publishing industry — maybe true of every industry — is that uncertainty breeds uncertainty. Everything in the book-publishing industry was affected by the outcome of the 2016 election, and the months that followed. Foreign book sales were down. Movie sales were down. All the things that could signal a big release were down. No one was willing to take a chance on anything because the whole world seemed so impossibly fragile. That January, who knew if we’d even make it to March? "Give us a known quantity," said book buyers across the nation that winter, to publishers trying to sell books.
Sitting in a fourth-floor workshop room, teaching Chekhov’s "The Lady With the Pet Dog," I was not a known quantity.
My novel was set to release on March 16. My team had gotten me a launch party at one of the hip bookstores in Brooklyn for launch parties (because, honestly, they were amazing at what they did). This was a pretty good gig for an unknown middle-aged college professor.
About a month before the launch party, my publicist wrote me and asked if I would be willing to move my event to March 15, even though the book didn’t go on sale until the 16th. Why? Because the actress and now writer Gillian Anderson (of X Files fame) had a new book coming out the same week as mine and March 16 was the only day that week that she could appear.
"What if I’m not willing?" I said. "I’ve already told a lot of people that date. If I say no, then what?"
"Well, then you don’t have a book launch," my publicist said
I mean, of course they’re going to bump me for Gillian Anderson. I’d bump me, too. She’s Scully. She’s a movie star. She definitely didn’t spend her days talking about Chekhov with a room full of 20-year-olds.
"Sure," I said. "No problem."
Blizzards aren’t supposed to happen in the middle of March, but the week before the book launch the Weather Channel started using the phrase "Storm of the Decade." I went to New York with my family having no idea if there’d even be a book launch. As the forecast firmed up, it appeared that the snow would begin late in the evening of the launch. It would not prevent people from getting to the event, but it looked like it surely might prevent people from getting home from the event, which was just as bad really — what fool would venture out with the prospect of not being able to get home?
"The team will be there," I was told. "No matter what." I suspected there would be few others. My sister traveled with us, and we met up with my cousins for dinner and went to the bookstore. The sky looked like it was about to cave in over the East River. The forecast was for two feet of snow. New York schools had already been canceled for the next day. Most businesses, including Simon & Schuster, would be closed.
The team, as promised, was there. All of them — seven or eight people I knew mostly from email. They were warm and kind and supportive, and they were also surprised. They were surprised because — despite the dire weather warnings — there were other people at the reading, too. Who were these other people?
They were my students.
There were students of mine there who had graduated in 2016, in 2006, in 1999. There were students I kept in touch with on Facebook, and students I hadn’t heard from in years. There were students who were writers and editors and teachers, and there were students who were stockbrokers and lawyers. They came out in force, and they stayed out in force. After the reading, the team threw me an after-party at a nearby bar, and the students came to that, too — and stayed long after it started snowing. It was the best party I’d ever been to, and there wasn’t even a dog there.
Over the next few weeks, I went on a six-city book tour, and everywhere I went: There were my students. In Washington, the bookstore employees had to carry extra chairs from an attached restaurant to accommodate the crowd. The manager apologized for being unprepared, admitting that they had not anticipated such a large audience. (He managed to not say, "for someone I’ve never heard of.") But he did say, "Who are all these people?"
"They’re my students," I said.
After every reading, I went out with a group of students to some nearby bar or restaurant. We talked about what they were doing, what I was doing, about the country, about Dickinson College, about books, about old classmates, about stories. They were all nostalgic about their undergraduate workshop, remembering individual stories and discussions vividly. Remember that time Tripp said this? Remember that story Emily wrote? Remember the line about the watermelon in "Lady With the Pet Dog?"
If this were a short story, that snowy night in Brooklyn would mark the end of my crisis. But of course I’ve packaged this essay in order to manipulate you: The fact is, my crisis ended long before the book launch, long before those reading dates in Washington, Philly, and Boston. If I ended this on that snowstorm, then the takeaway would be that teaching is a good career for a writer because at least your students will show up to your public readings.
But of course that’s not the real takeaway. That’s just the gravy. The fact is — and the thing I’ve always known, though I forgot it a few times that year when I suddenly really, really wanted to be a famous writer — is that, as a person and as a writer, there is nothing better for me to be than a teacher.
Many years ago, maybe as many as 15, a student sat in my office and admitted that what she really wanted as a career was to have my job. "I mean," she said. "Basically, you just get to sit around all day talking about stories."
I stopped her before she could go on. "There’s a lot more to my job than that," I said. "I have to go to meetings. I have to grade. I. …" Here I stopped. I thought for a second.
"Actually, you’re right," I said. "Basically, I just get to sit around all day talking about stories."
When I was growing up I didn’t want to be a teacher or a writer. I wanted to be a baseball player. And we’ve all heard baseball players say in interviews, "I can’t believe someone pays me to play this game."
Honestly, most days, that’s how I feel about teaching. I can’t believe someone pays me to play this game. That stressful winter, I found solace and inspiration every single time I stepped into the classroom. Every single time. I’d stop looking at my email — questions from my editor, requests from my publicist, advice from my agent — and walk up the stairs to the fourth floor, and with every step I felt lighter. The solace and inspiration came from the students themselves (their enthusiasm, their generosity, their vulnerability), but it also came from the stories — both the stories that we read in our anthologies (Chekhov, O’Connor, Joyce, Baldwin) and also the students’ own stories.
It has always been a magical combination for me: students and stories.
Sometimes people who do not teach ask me how I don’t get burned out reading so many students’ stories — especially ones by beginning, undergraduate writers. Doesn’t it make you weary?, people ask. Seeing the same mistakes over and over again? And doesn’t that weariness affect your own writing?
The truth is, just the opposite. Maybe I would feel burned out if I were editor of a literary journal, and spent most of every work day rejecting flawed stories. But teaching workshop is about accepting flawed stories — not dismissing them, not tossing them back into the slush pile — and working with a smart and engaged group of people to figure out how to fix them. That’s not tiring; that’s thrilling. Not to mention, incredibly instructive for me as a writer. I learn from teaching. I learn and relearn, every single week, from every single story.
What is a writing career, anyway? It’s not writing. You don’t need a writing career to be a writer. I’m always telling my students: All you need to do to be a writer is write. Recently, I considered other writers who did not have so-called writing careers, and I found myself somewhat ashamed by the first and most obvious example I thought of. Imagine Chekhov saying, "Being a doctor ruined my writing career." It’s preposterous. For Chekhov, being in the company of human beings in that intimate and intense way, trusting and being trusted, stakes high, fears apparent, emotions raw — he took all that to the page. Not as material, per se, but as nourishment.
Teaching has always kept me nourished, kept me connected to the world in a profound and meaningful way. Meaningful to me personally, of course, but also meaningful to me as a writer.
I never meant to be a teacher. Twenty-two years ago, to support my writing, I started teaching at Dickinson College. My workshop room was on the fourth floor of East College, overlooking the academic quad. I was 27 years old. I had no books and no kids and no clue. If you’d told me that 22 years later, I’d still be teaching workshop in that same classroom, I would have said you were crazy. But here I am. My writing career, elusive. My true career, evident.
Epilogue: Gillian Anderson’s book launch was canceled due to inclement weather.
Susan Perabo is a professor of creative writing and a writer in residence at Dickinson College. Her latest novel, The Fall of Lisa Bellow, was published by Simon & Schuster in 2017