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Writing and Fate

I’ve just finished going through a momentous process this week: sitting down with the people at the center of my professional life and telling them that what I want to do 30-50 hours a week for the rest of my life is something other than a full-time tenure-track professorship in sociology. I’m still planning to finish my PhD (hopefully in the spring, gods willing), but the professional game plan after that now looks something like this:

1) maintain part-time teaching jobs here in the Bay Area to

a) give myself an opportunity to do the parts of sociology that I like best – blowing my students’ minds with stuff that they’ve lived around their whole lives and never considered before.

b) feel like I’m pulling my weight/contributing to my family’s success/etc.

2) get this cussed book series done and polished and out into the world with its head held high. And send other books  out after it.

I’ve been a long time coming to this decision, for a couple of reasons, the biggest one being that I’ve always been someone very concerned with “the plan.” Sure, I loved writing fiction; sure, it was what I’d wanted to do since I was five years old (or younger, even: my first recorded story, still preserved somewhere in my dad’s house, has illustrations by me, text transcribed by my mom, as my tiny perfectionist self apparently deemed my own handwriting too messy to qualify for inclusion in a “real book”). Sure, I’d been working on the groundwork for this novel project for years; sure, I’ve got 3 other unfinished novels in my files, and one finished one that I wrote in a flurry my freshman year of college that I’m not intending to ever let see the light of day; but I’d already broken with my working-class family’s norms enough by declaring that I was going to stay in school until I was thirty, preparing to “do the professor thing.” Endless school was only justified if there was a secure, solidly upper-middle-class job at the end and your education was directly related to that job. So, PhD in sociology = sociology professorship. Right?

Over the last year, though, I started coming to the conclusion that maybe it was time for my plan to change. Part of that had to do with learning more about what that professor life looks like. When I arrived at Berkeley, I thought I liked research; I quickly learned that the parts I like best – wandering out into the social wilderness to talk to people, look at stuff, and write down what you’ve learned so you can share it with other people – are only a piece of how academic research actually works. Part of a professor’s obligations are to publish in academic journals; to publish in academic journals, you need to always be thinking of your project in terms of how it’s going to enrich the scope of knowledge in your field, what existing theories you’re proving or disproving or expanding or arguing with. Saying “but – but this is COOL!” is hardly justification for getting your work published in an academic setting. I don’t enjoy playing the research-writing game; getting my hands dirty in that process – and seeing the expectations placed on junior faculty at research institutions, and the schedules that some of my advisors were required to keep to get their work done – convinced me that maybe what I wanted was a full-time job at a teaching-focused school. Maybe even a school where I didn’t have to do research at all (which would mostly likely mean a community college: liberal arts schools still expect their faculty to conduct and publish research, although my colleagues who work in that environment point out that finding the time to do so is a trick and a half).  It was a change in the plan, for sure, but the plan – an academic job, tenure, eventually moving away from the Bay Area – was staying fundamentally the same.

So at the beginning of the 11-12 academic year, I was thinking I might go for a community college job, or else maybe a liberal arts job where I could just deal with the research piece. Then a few things happened. Last summer, Husband got a job here in the Bay Area that ‘s literally perfect for him (pays well; lets him work with colleagues he loves; lets him do interesting, creative work); that added one more thing to our collection of sadnesses about eventually having to leave the area (Husband’s a bred-and-born local, and I’ve lived here six years now, long enough to put down roots). Then, last September, I lost a close family member to cancer: as I think often happens in these kinds of situations, it prompted me to take a look at my life and reevaluate my priorities. In that spirit, I decided to take the writing project I’d been tinkering with for the last few years and start thinking about what’d need to be done to turn it into a “real book.”

And then things took off. First, I realized I easily had enough material for several books – several BIG books – and started getting ideas for how I might hammer the story arc into place. Then I workshopped my first few chapters in a Bay Area writing class and saw the people there get excited about them; then I joined forces with a few other alumni from that program to form our own writing group, and I suddenly had a fabulous set of beta readers, willing to stick with me for the long haul. And they were, and are, excited and supportive and full of great ideas to help make this story better.

And then I turned to Husband, one afternoon, and said “I don’t think I want to do sociology for 40 or 50 hours a week.” And he asked: “Well, what would you want to do, then?” “Writing.” And my wonderful, sweet, supportive husband smiled and said “…then you should do that.”

I test-drove the idea in early June and July of this year, putting sociology on the back burner to work on my novel full-time for a few weeks. I loved it. When I had to go back to work, I cried. (Of course, those of you who know me in real life know that that’s not unusual for me, but regardless…) And then, on one fateful Saturday afternoon in June, sitting in an ice cream shop with Husband before we went to the movies, I decided that I was going to go for it, and said it out loud to Husband first: “I don’t want to go for a tenure-track position. I want to try to swing this writing thing.”

Ironically, we were going to see Brave that day;  the Pixar movie whose tagline is “Change your fate.” And I did. I started looking at part-time teaching options; I figured out how I could trim the scope of my dissertation back to finish it in a year; I kept hammering away on the novel.

And after a summer full of stewing, I talked to my dissertation committee this week, told them about my crazy change in plans. And none of them accused me of heresy, or threatened to light me on fire, or hit the ejector seat button to fling me out of their office. They said it all sounds great, and that they’d support me in looking for part-time teaching jobs, and that I’m smart to have realized what I want before I get myself trapped in something I don’t. And they recommended I try to write the dissertation with a book manuscript in mind, which I might just do, because who knows? Maybe I’ll get two book contracts next year. That’s not in the plan, either. But sometimes – if the stars seem to be lining up, and if you’re lucky enough to be able to take a chance – you’ve got to throw the plan out the window and go for it.

A late addition: For those who don’t read the PhD webcomic — this was posted today:

http://www.phdcomics.com/comics.php?f=1527

Clearly, it really IS fate. 🙂

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