backhand stories the creative writing blog

A few years ago, when I taught English Composition at a community college, one of the first essays I’d assign students was “The Transaction” 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 “avocation” implies the doctor will never be taken seriously as a writer. At least that’s 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. I’d 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 Bachelor’s 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 “fill the well” with ideas and learn the craft by reading and discussing each others’ stories, as well as classic and contemporary works of literary value. And if that doesn’t keep you writing, there’s 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 did—a class or two a semester—on the side.

Only “on the side” took up a huge portion of what I’d 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 writer’s.

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 I’d 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 people’s 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 wasn’t writing.

I wasn’t the complete slug, or as my students would label it, slacker, that I’m 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, I’d lost my creative focus and along with it, the ability to enter my imagination to produce fiction, the literary art I’d 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 didn’t know what to expect. I’d had various jobs since birthing my first child, but I hadn’t 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 don’t want to take, mothering children who once they are teenagers don’t want to be mothered, and writing stories so many editors don’t 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. I’d 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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  • Alice Folkart

    Avocation Calling – by Peggy Duffy. Ms. Duffy has described my situation perfectly – just retired, time to write stretching out in front of me like the beach at Waikiki, and me immersing myself in on-line workshops, critique groups, and even messing around with poetry. . . .yup. But, nice as she makes it sound, I’m not going into Real Estate. Not even tempted. But, her essay has shined a light for me on what I’m up to, and I’m very grateful for that. Good essay. A fine read. And, who knows, maybe it will change my life.

    Thanks for publishing this.
    Alice Folkart

  • I too taught English, humanities and literature full-time and wrote poetry and short fiction “between” the demands of 60-70 hour workweeks. Now newly retired, instead of students, classes, and meetings shaping my time, I begin each day in front of my laptop. My current project, a historical novel of the clearances in Scotland began with a short story. Vocation or avocation, I can only say: What sheer joy!

  • Wesley

    Thank you.