One of the best decisions of my life has been to leave an academic career path in order to pursue a lifelong calling to write stories. And this was after investing five grueling years in a doctoral program at the University of Tennessee, studying literature and literacy.
When I started that program, I thought I wanted to go after the tenure track and publish academic work.
My attitude toward the academic life changed, though, when I saw the meager job prospects for people with PhDs in literature. And as I became more politically and spiritually active, I felt that my true place was in the “real” world outside of the university.
By the time my final semester at UT came around, I was working twice as hard to leave the academic life as I had to get into it in the first place.
Why did I want out?
The academic life wasn’t a bad one. It came with a lot of privilege and opportunities. I enjoyed my coursework, the research I conducted, and the projects I completed. I loved discussing works of literature with fellow students and professors. Two of my projects were successful enough to be published.
But I didn’t want to read literature and discuss it in the classroom only. I didn’t want to write academic material for academic readers only. I wanted to create literature that would inspire many readers to think more about their own place in the world.
My whole life I’d wanted to write novels anyway. How could I have forgotten my original dream?
So, when I wasn’t swamped with coursework and dissertation research, I started several creative projects and looked for non-academic jobs, promising myself,
‘I will finish my PhD, and I will create a new possibility.’
With the gears turning, I started envisioning a Julie Tyler in Miami, a cosmopolitan city where I could meet people from all over the world and write my way through a vibrant professional ecosystem.
And I held that vision in front of me, a vision of a Julie Tyler doing all the things and writing all the things in Miami, and set out to make the vision a reality.
The day after graduation in May 2014, I sold my furniture, my bike, half of my clothes, and all but a few of my books to finance the first few months in a very expensive city. When I got there, all I had was a three-month apartment sublease, one or two acquaintances, thousands of dollars’ worth of student debt, and a summer job.
I also had my laptop, and even though it was old and threatened to spontaneously combust at any moment, I made do with it and created new possibilities by typing out cover letters and the beginnings of a novel.
The first few months ended up being risky, stressful,and lonely, but an adventure nonetheless. The greater risk would have been to give up the adventure and plug away at the academic job market for a career I didn’t want (and that in all honesty probably didn’t exist).
What have I learned?
- I’ve learned that creating possibility is always a risk worth taking.
- I’ve learned that earning a PhD was time well-spent, even though I left the academic life behind. In those five years, I built a powerful skill set and made the best friends I’ve ever had.
- I’ve learned to be grateful for post-academic opportunities to make a living, from teaching part-time, to freelancing as an editor, and now writing for a social marketing company.
- I’ve learned that the life of the mind extends well beyond the confines of the university. In addition to participating in discussion groups and artists’ circles, I lead a writers’ critique group in the heart of South Beach. Every day, I encounter intelligent people working in diverse fields to make the world a better place.
- I’ve learned how to commit more energy to writing fiction than anything I’ve ever written.
What does creating possibility have to do with fiction itself?
At the heart of every work of fiction is possibility. Even when a story’s characters experience tragedy and disappointment, their journey begins with efforts to make their circumstances better. Fiction writers, like artists, activists, teachers, physicians, and entrepreneurs, possess the unique gift of envisioning new realities and presenting them to an audience hungry for them. From one day to the next, from one word to the next, possibility has to be as central to the fiction we write as it is in the lives we lead.
What I hope for our readers is that you’ll share with us at FromNothingToNovel all the possibilities you create in your Word files and any area of your life. We’d also like to be a part of your fiction’s success! Stay tuned for posts on craft, favorite authors, time management, and more.
Meanwhile, share your possibilities in the comments below!