A Writer, After Many Drafts

Episode art by Hayden Barnes.

I could tell you that I write because it was the first dream I had. That even as a child, I knew what — or rather, who — I wanted to be. That I spent all my free time in the library, reading words of others aloud to myself, in case one day I might need to read my own. I could tell you that I write because I always knew I would.

Or I could tell you the truth.

While those statements are all true, passing them off as my origin story would be taking the easy way out. The truth is that I write because, after several other ill-fitting careers, I have no other choice. I write because I must. And that is the story worth telling.

Not a Teacher

You could say that I write because I don’t teach.

Sure, I received my master’s degree from a top-tier school of education. And I even taught for a short time after graduation. But in the long run, I wasn’t a teacher.

Why?

Because I had a smart mouth. Because I was more progressive than the field or my district would have liked — and neither my kids nor I had the time to wait for stragglers. Because I realized that most of the issues that drove me to teach were, in fact, best addressed outside the classroom.

And besides, the world could do without yet another token educator — a well-schooled, well-meaning white female just asking to be burned out before she ran the risk of making any real change.

Let’s be clear: it’s not like I thought I was better than the profession. Some of the best humans and effective change agents I know are teachers. The world is much stronger for their existence. But I was a bad fit among their ranks. Like, a really bad fit, and the reasons are simple and clear.

What are they?

I get too personally invested. I obsess over little details when teaching is, in many ways, about the larger picture. I am unwilling to do something just because someone in a position of power says I have to — especially if we know that it’s the wrong thing to do. And I hate, with a capital H, administrative work. So, for as much as my strengths told me I wasn’t a teacher, so too did my weaknesses. Self-awareness, dear readers, is a powerful thing.

That’s something I learned while teaching.

Not a Program Coordinator

So maybe I was a program coordinator?

Those who’ve ever done office work just started laughing because they already know the secret I’m about to share: “coordination” and “administration” are exactly the same thing. One role just gets paid a lot more to (here’s the kicker) take credit for the work of the other.

You should know that things like this never fly long in my books. And I mean business when it comes to setting the world right. But here’s the issue: for whatever limited power I had, there was simply too much corporate structure above me to change it.

I know that’s the case in many jobs. That’s why we’re talking about it.

While we’re talking, know what else is?

The unavoidable pressure to (at least once in your career) decide whether you’ll be a self-serving ladder-climber … or someone who does the right thing. The finer details of this pressure largely depend upon your chosen field, but no matter your field, it is nearly impossible to attempt both and live to tell the tale. At least not without considerable privilege.

Luckily, I had some.

Still, even working for an amazing boss, at an organization I would have died on a hill for at the time, not-for-profit America started to rub me the very-much-wrong way. Less because of the work itself — after all, I’d been working on issues that really mattered to me — and more because of how the larger system worked.

Practically speaking, you should know that non-profit culture is driven as much by self-preservation as it is by mission. And it has to be. But as we’ve just discussed, that kind of culture can also result in some less-than-just situations — starting with which organizations and programs are allowed to survive in the first place.

To make it very plain, non-profits rely on the generosity of donations — both to finance getting their work off the ground, and also to sustain it beyond a single tax or giving year. Many struggle to make it even that far, which is a shame.

Beyond the obvious, the problem then becomes that committing to any level of community engagement requires keeping financial backers — whether of the individual, institutional, or governmental varieties — happy. And that means doing your work to their liking, even if your goals are not fully aligned, or else risk not being able to do it at all.

Enter my real problems.

Without a personal background in fundraising, or a team that could help me do this well, my job very often became convincing others — including key internal stakeholders — that the program I coordinated should continue to exist at the capacity to which I’d been asked to help it grow. In case anyone is curious, that was exhausting, unsustainable work. And I was just blindly committed enough to stick it out anyway.

Not a Fundraiser

Then a series of fortuitous changes happened in my life. First, my then-fiance took a job in another state, hundreds of miles away. Second, I married that man, which made my relocation — job and otherwise — imperative. And third, when it came time to actually find a new job, I couldn’t have asked for an easier landing.

My process went something like this: I wasn’t a teacher because I needed to do community-based work. So then I was a program coordinator. But I wasn’t that either, because I became too bothered by the prevalence of good work being put at-risk by dwindling funds. So where did that leave me?

If you’ve been keeping track, you might have deciphered that the next logical step was to become a fundraiser. And not two minutes later, that’s exactly what I did.

While you’re probably not surprised to see that I’m no longer fundraising either, I’ll bet the reason why will command some attention. See, it turns out that fundraising isn’t that dissimilar to being a teacher or program coordinator. And at least for me, that was not a good thing.

Ask any honest member of this community and they’ll tell you: being a fundraiser means you wear many hats, and while that is sometimes sold in interviews as “the ability to immerse yourself in cross-functional work,” or other sexy-sounding “opportunities for growth,” most fundraisers will also tell you that this actually means you’re going to be held accountable for a lot of things you probably shouldn’t be, and appreciated for very little of what you should.

Put another way, what I expected and what I got from working in this field were two very different things. While I’d hoped to build an understanding of how programmatic sustainability gets built, what I ended up with instead was a firm grasp of the reality that, more often than not, sustainability was the furthest thing from a fundraiser’s purview.

Please hear me: this is not the result of some gross professional failing. Most fundraisers are simply too busy saving the immediate day — every day — to earn the privilege of concerning themselves with anything future-minded. Once I understood this limited framework, it was only a matter of time before I started to doubt my happiness within it. Spoiler alert: that didn’t take long.

Not Sure, No Way |or| A Woman Remembers a Conference

See, what I was starting to realize — very uncomfortably at that — was that I was meant for other things. Trying to squeeze myself into a traditional career path had not only done me no favors, it was also entirely useless. Like jamming square pegs into round holes, it would never work. I’d just exhaust myself trying.

And so it was that I became very depressed.

Thankfully, I took a cold-water slap to the face soon thereafter, in the form of a complete and total stranger.

To this day, I wish I’d gotten her name.

Dear Stranger, on the very much off-chance you’re reading this essay, then thank you for changing my life — professional and otherwise.

Now, for the rest of you, the climax of today’s story goes like this:

One weekend, less than a year into my Terrible Mistake, I managed to rouse myself enough to attend a cross-industry conference for people who communicate for a living. The hope was that I’d eventually be able to talk my way into another career. And at that point, I knew I needed one.

What I didn’t know was just how right I’d be.

As the conference came to an end, a woman approached me with a look on her face that told me — before her words ever could — that she intended to set me straight. Ordinarily, I might have stopped her. But depression is a mysterious force that causes people to do all sorts of unlikely things, and so I entertained her sermon.

“Look,” she said, “I don’t know you. But I know you’ve got a story to tell, and when you’re ready to share, the world better listen.”

I was floored. Terrified. Speechless.

Instead of anything elegant, the only response I could muster was a surface-level statement of appreciation. She’d literally scared all the other words right out of me. Without much else to say, we promptly said our goodbyes and I let her walk ahead of me towards her next destination. Then I walked as fast as I could in the direction of home — and whatever absurd future she’d been moved enough to foretell.

A Writer

Do you want to know the best part about deciding to make your own way? Once you reach that place, action becomes much, much easier. There is simply no room for complacency, fear, or defeat.

While those emotions may occasionally surface — especially if you’re working in a field that aims to support justice — what eventually drives you forward is the realization that change isn’t possible if you give up in the first place. And from that place, action tends to be what follows.

So, fear of my own voice? Gone.

Fear of speaking truth? Gone.

Fear of success? Gone.

And replacing those fears? A deep and abiding sense of peace, knowing that I’d no longer be working to support others’ missions … while doing everything possible to ignore my own.

This isn’t to say that my journey on this new path has been easy or even entirely clear. My lord! It took two more years beyond that life-changing conversation for me to save up enough funds, gain some much-needed practice, and liberate myself from the realm of the American workforce — just as a start.

But that start? That was three years, two blogs, and a manuscript ago. And just like that — damn — the library-loving little girl was right.

Mine is the story of a writer.

Published by

rv mcgonigle

A Curious Southerner Does Life on Both Sides of the Line.

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