A Day Job, A Poet & Other Labels

“A diary…” N.B.: Whining Post – like something J.K. Rowling forgot to mention in Harry Potter.

Mary Oliver’s new book of essays sits on my desk. It arrived last week. Today, Sigrun quotes from it on sub rosa:

“I was very careful never to take an interesting job. Not an interesting one. I took lots of jobs. But if you have an interesting job you get interested in it. I also began in those years to keep early hours. … If anybody has a job and starts at 9, there’s no reason why they can’t get up at 4:30 or 5 and write for a couple of hours, and give their employers their second-best effort of the day — which is what I did.”

Also this morning, I read the final consultant report on my new book, the report that also addresses the translator’s afterword, which is an overview of the arc of my writing career -so to speak. I’m thrilled to have someone take my writing so seriously. Most people have to be dead, or at least famous. However…

It’s difficult to translate the consultant’s words directly, but he refers to the fact that I’ve only four previous poetry books published in Norway: 17 years, 4 books. Not very impressive in terms of volume. (Thankfully, he’s on board in terms of quality).

Most Norwegian poets give out a book a year, since the Kulturråd will purchase up to one literary work from each author, each year. (The published book is sent to the jury of the DNF for consideration to reimburse the publisher and pay a minimum royalty to the author. Full disclosure: my books are considered on the merit of the translations.)

Most Norwegian poets lecture on literary subjects, write non-fiction, tour high schools, and supplement their tiny publishing income with other promotional gigs that deflect the image of a “day job”.

I did that for a year, and was thrilled to call myself a poet and feel confident about it. But I hated the day-to-day of it. And I didn’t find myself writing more.

When I was in the U.S., the path for me was pretty clear: I would be a professional poet when I was a professor at a university. I would have a list of publications in reputable journals, a few books, and I’d be invited to teach at retreats in the south of France.

I had a plan. I got my PhD. But I fell in love with Norway.

My image of being a particular kind of Poet is still so clear and difficult to relinquish, that I have considered applying to teach the one-year intro writing courses at colleges in Norway (Creative Writing is not taught in the universities here). But even if I got a job, I would have to take a 20% pay cut, which would necessarily mean giving up my mortgage, moving across the country and living in a 30 square-meter apartment: just so that I could say I was a poet without feeling like a fraud. (My writing wouldn’t improve. I know that.)

Talk about not having a solid sense of self at midlife: I find myself fantasising about this all too often – still!

When I worked for an international organisation for persecuted writers, I often travelled with the writers to present them at events. Some of them, however, had not published new work in over a decade. How much, how often, is publishing required to earn one the status of “legit”?


You see, I have thought of quitting my day job, finding an “uninteresting job”, as Mary Oliver says she did. But I’m not Mary Oliver.

I’ve had musician colleagues at the high school who have quit to work in offices or detailing cars, because they said that teaching was sapping their creative energy. But I  don’t believe (in my case) creativity can be sapped by other kinds of creative work – it all primes the pump. What I do believe is that being the handmaiden for other people’s creativity can be a source of envy  – and that needs to be dealt with. Again: in my case.

And, even though I do get up at 5 and write before “work”,  I would be upset if I thought my students believed that I gave them my second-best effort. I would be ashamed if I did that.

What I need to do, is learn not to give a damn about being a Poet.




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