Writers on Writing #26: Lori A. May
Out of a Suitcase and Into the Vortex
I am a vagabond. There is nothing stable about what I do. I am a traveling salesperson with a piecemeal career and I collect MISC-1099 forms like sensible folks collect baseball cards.
In addition to the ‘creative’ stuff, my writing life is composed of freelance assignments, short-term Visiting Writer spots, the odd adjunct contract, and a string of speaking gigs at conferences and residencies so scattered that I sometimes forget what state I’m in—geographically and mentally. Yet there is nothing I would rather do with my time.
There is also nothing special about my writing career. This unpacking and packing of the suitcase is not unique to me. I am not the only writer I know who is constantly working for, pitching to, and acquiring that next gig. I suspect part of this has to do with the economy, but—in my case—there is no greater thrill than the adrenaline rush I experience in always doing something different, always meeting new writers and visiting new places.
My fear of commitment has consistently played a role in my life—writing and otherwise; ask my non-writer husband, Chris, who received a crinkled nose in response to proposing death do us part before I decided I would rather live with him than without. In my writing life and against all advice to the contrary, I write across the genres and never settle into one direction. Some may view that as a lack of dedication, or a “lack of focus” as my former agent used to say, but my productivity level counters those arguments. The more dexterity I allow in my life, the more well-rounded opportunities come my way.
In keeping my mind open to possibility, I get to enjoy a variety of adventures I never would have imagined possible. In one stretch of my highly-planned schedule, I may fly off to South Carolina or Oklahoma to be a guest speaker at a low-residency program, send in a few freelance assignments to magazines like The Writer, proof and copyedit a poetry book like Lana Hechtman Ayers’ A New Red, and return to Michigan for a roomful of students eager to learn how to approach framed narrative in the personal essay. Some months, my schedule is laid back and I have one or two simple engagements to attend; other months, I rotate suitcases and pop in and out of three, four, five or more states with little breathing room in between. It’s breathtaking for all the right reasons.
My vagabond lifestyle was in place long before I met my significant other, as a means to piece together an income mostly derived of writing related activities. Now, even after combining incomes and knowing I don’t have to work so hard if I don’t choose to, I work even harder. I’m just more selective about what I take on. More selective, yes, but I am a self-proclaimed hoarder when it comes to opportunity. The more diversity I add to my calendar, the better-rounded I become.
In reviewing for publications like Los Angeles Review and Rattle, in copyediting books like Georgia Ann Banks-Martin’s Rhapsody for Lessons Learned of Remembered, I am exposing myself to a world outside myself, to words that exist outside my personal vocabulary. In showing up to teach for a day or a week at a conference or residency, I am reminded of why I am a writer—and how hungry we are for that dream when we’re just starting out.
“I want your life,” a student of mine said just last weekend. “I want to write and teach and travel like you do.”
I laughed and said, “You can have it. I need a break anyways.” Then, I shook my head and said more seriously, “You can have it because anyone can. There’s always room for more writers.” Because there is. No matter what we hear of an overabundance of books, of too many graduates without jobs, the world can always use more writers. We are a unique breed, each unique in what we bring to the table, and each a necessary and valued link to one another.
This is what I love about my job. When I meet writers—both new and those new-to-me—I am constantly reminded of why we do what we do: sure, we are drawn to this art, perhaps called upon by something outside of and bigger than ourselves whatever that may be, but we are also hungry. We are hungry and driven to express what is inside of us and find one reader, one ear that lights up when we speak. Just one. One reader, one audience member is enough to keep us going, moving, packing and unpacking.
My spouse calls me on it when I tell him, “Things will settle down. When this (fill in the blank) clears from my plate, I’ll have some downtime.”
Without fail, he consistently responds, “Until you fill the void with something else. That’s what you do.”
I do. He’s right. Every time I think I’ll slow it down and pace myself a bit more, a door opens to an opportunity that I cannot pass up. I am a sucker for being involved, for being in the heat of it all. I have a hard time passing up a new way to engage with others, paid or unpaid. As long as I can still manage my own writing projects, I will always gravitate toward the vortex.
Yes, there is downtime. There is a time for calm in this stormy life. Chris loves what I do. His job is stressful. Not like my self-induced chaos. His is truly stressful and so he looks forward to my piecemeal contracts that provide an excuse to get out of town. If I have a workshop in Washington, he’ll book time off and join me. When I work he stays out of the way, but the moment my commitment is through we treat the journey as a vacation, adding an extra five days to the one I teach. We explore, we dine, we immerse ourselves as locals and breathe in ocean air.
Even at AWP, Chris comes along. “I’m the muscle,” he’ll joke to a booth attendee in the bookfair, then lug my purchases and swag around so I don’t have to, so I can mix and mingle and network—socializing, yes, but always on the hunt for my next gig.
Because…I am a vagabond. There is nothing stable about what I do. And, yet, there is nothing I would rather do, no greater peace of mind in my role as a writer than feeling I have another suitcase packed, another window of opportunity waiting in the wings.
Lori A. May is the author of four books, including The Low-Residency MFA Handbook: A Guide for Prospective Creative Writing Students (Continuum 2011). She has contributed to magazines including The Writer, Writer’s Digest, and American Road. Her poetry and literary nonfiction have appeared in Phoebe, Caper Literary Journal, Hippocampus Magazine, Steel Toe Review, and qarrtsiluni. Her website is www.loriamay.com.