I was fortunate enough to receive a Graduate Assistant position at my university, and while the pay is below poverty wages (no joke), I wanted the experience of teaching and researching at the university level, so that was another change I made—leaving behind my full time teaching job for a G.A. position. One thing I gained from leaving behind my full time job was the gift of time.
I mention this because I’ve recently become aware of Steven Pressfield’s concept of the shadow career. In his book Turning Pro, one of the examples Pressfield uses is “Are you getting your PhD in Elizabethan Studies because you’re afraid to write the tragedies and comedies that you know you have inside you?” First of all, I’m getting my PhD in Teacher Education, not Elizabethan Studies, thank you very much, and second of all, no, I’m not afraid to write the tragedies and comedies I have inside me. Then I realized Pressfield isn’t speaking to people who have a go at realizing their dreams—he’s referring to people who don’t pursue their passions. He points out the dichotomy between artists and addicts, an addict in this case meaning a self-sabotaging amateur who distracts herself away from her true passion with distractions, displacement activities, and meaningless jobs. Instead of pursuing our true callings, Pressfield says, we hide behind shadow careers.
I’ve spoken to many people over the years who have a burning desire to be something but they’re too afraid to pursue it. I know many people who want to write yet they don’t write. I have a friend, a fellow teacher, who has been wanting to write a mystery novel for as long as I’ve known her (nearly 10 years now). She reads mystery novels, reads about how to write mystery novels, and she even travels across the U.S. to attend the Sisters in Crime conventions. I’ve often wondered what’s really holding her back. Whenever I think of people like my friend, I remember that quote from Maya Angelou in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” I wish I could help my friend realize it’s okay, you can do it, you don’t need permission from anyone, do what you can do right now. I think sometimes people are so afraid of making any kind of change they make excuses and talk themselves out of doing something that’s calling to them from deep in their hearts.
The funny thing is, I don’t think being a teacher is a shadow career for my friend. I think she genuinely enjoys teaching. The problem isn’t that my friend isn’t making a living as a mystery novelist. The problem is that she isn’t pursuing her passion. Yes, it’s hard to find time to write when you’re a teacher (there’s always so much lesson planning and grading to do), but I believe that if you want to do something badly enough you’ll find a way to make it happen. I wrote seven novels and edited The Copperfield Review while working as a full time teacher. Why? Because I had to. I had untold stories burning holes in my innards and I couldn’t live with the agony of not sharing them. Pursuing my PhD isn’t my way of turning from those untold stories. I’m still writing novels—yes, it takes me longer these days to finish one, but I’m still writing them. You might have several passions as I do, and yes, it’s a challenge to juggle them, but it’s worth it. I will insist, always, that you are not less of an artist if you have a day job. As long as you make time for your art, you are an artist. Even if my friend writes 500 words a day, 250 words a day, 100 words a day, whatever it is, it’s allowing her to pursue her passion at a pace that’s right for her. Don’t listen to the people who want to tell you how to be a writer (or a painter, or a dancer, or a photographer, or an underwater basket weaver). Don’t listen to the people who want to tell you that you’re not a writer unless you write a certain number of words every day. You get to decide how to be an artist for yourself.
Not everyone’s journey is the same, but we’re all going to need to make changes at one point or another. Yes, changes are scary, but if you need to make a change, make it. If you have a passion, pursue it, in whatever form you can right now. Life is too short not to listen to whatever it is that makes your heart sing.