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Before Covid-19, as a freelance writer, I spent so many days a year on the road for work that I did not have routines and was hardly anywhere long enough to consider a place home. But I felt lucky to be making my living from the written word, which I had wanted to do since I was a child growing up in rural Arkansas. Covid has threatened to make this work more challenging for me as freelance budgets are cut, but recommitting to it every day, and to helping younger writers with diverse life and work experiences, has helped me remain hopeful.
At the beginning of the pandemic, I wrote a quote from my Berea College classmate, the writer CE Morgan, in my notebook: “You do your work for years when it garners no attention, and you continue to do it once it does. No difference.” The pandemic upended many of the structures on which we staked our lives and identities – work, money, in person relationships with friends and family. In the first month of the pandemic, there were days when I worried about my livelihood disappearing, and I did cry imagining the end of my career as a freelance writer. But my will to write is tied to life itself, and remembering that gave me a measure of peace.
Early in the pandemic, I embarked on another positive endeavor: I decided to distract myself from panic by helping other writers. On social media, I offered to edit pitches and provide advice to anyone who reached out to me. An immigrant writer who had been evicted from his home sent me a pitch. A month after I sent him feedback, he reached out to me to let me know his pitch had been accepted by the New York Review of Books. This good news lifted my spirits. The writing world, like so many creative spheres, privileges individuals with family money, those who can afford unpaid and low-paid internships and jobs in cities like San Francisco and New York. Another writer, who was raised in the rural US, reached out to get advice about how to pursue writing given that her family had little money and was not supportive of her pursuing a career with no promise of stability. I wanted to share with younger writers that there were many ways to become a writer, including having experiences that are not writing, all of them – eviction, dishwashing and physical labor included – worthy. The strength derived from those experiences makes its way into the written word, gives it weight.
I wrote and worked my way through Berea College in rural Kentucky, which was founded to educate students with limited economic resources. Berea is one of the few work schools in the US, and it charges no tuition to students who are employed by the school in work ranging from janitorial duties to carving brooms and making pottery. Through the years, I waitressed and served coffee and spent my summers picking tomatoes and okra for minimum wage. Although I made the least money working in the fields, the farmers I worked for gifted me bushels of heirloom tomatoes and fresh flowers. I think a lot about the jobs I did in college, because all work confers dignity, and because I like to remind myself that I can and will write, no matter what job is paying my rent.
In college, I wrote for myself, and for my professors. I had never been published, and hadn’t figured out how to sell my words. My audience was the poet Nikky Finney, the professor of a class I took on the Harlem Renaissance. My audience was bell hooks, who I served coffee to and pestered to sign books. After I graduated with a degree in English, I continued to serve coffee at a local Berea, Kentucky, coffee shop. At the time, to save money, I lived in a cabin in the woods that had an outhouse, and paid rent by doing maintenance for the owner. I still wanted to be a writer, but it would take me years to figure out the economics of my chosen field.
Over a decade later, after I had published my first book, I attended a poetry reading by Nikky, and I stood up in the audience and said, “I am here today writing because of you.” I have been thinking of these moments during the pandemic, because I want to remind myself that writing is not something that anyone can take away from me. After the poetry reading, Nikky wrote me an email, “I could see this moment 13 years ago. Get out of your way and live your writer life. Don’t be stopped or slowed down by the word ‘Writer.’ A writer is one who writes.”
Magazines can fold, newspapers can lay off staff, media outlets can cut freelance budgets – but I will continue to write, and to help others succeed with it.
Alice Driver is a writer currently reporting a story in rural Arkansas with funding from the National Geographic Society Emergency Fund for Journalists.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: ‘A writer is one who writes’: Covid has made life harder – but I’m still hopeful | Life and style