If I took snapshots from the last five years or so of my career, they would look very different. In 2008, I might be introducing a chef who cooked medieval food to the British Literature I class I taught as a graduate student. In 2011, I might be perched with a folk harp in a garden, playing for a wedding. This week, I would be in a library or a coffee shop, writing a study guide to The Lord of the Rings for a classical education press.
And in every case, I would be producing a poem here and there or working on a novel when I could. My callings look fairly diverse on the surface: I’ve taught and researched in a PhD program in English, I’ve performed and taught the harp and beginning piano, and I’m currently writing educational materials for classical and homeschool presses. Through all those activities, I’ve also felt, perhaps most strongly, a calling to write poetry and fiction.
I’ve enjoyed many things about different aspects of my work, and I’m glad to have such a varied experience, but it’s also a challenge to figure out what shape my vocations should take. It’s hard to make sense sometimes of this kaleidoscope of a career, and it’s hard to know what it will look like as it evolves over time. I’m still figuring out how to sustain both my own creative writing and the worthwhile work that supports it financially.
As I work in this season to finish a draft of a children’s novel, I’m doing some considering about my next steps. Is it best to continue freelance educational writing contracts and my own creative writing? Would it be better to pursue a full-time job and not have to worry about providing my own health insurance and paying self-employment tax? Or should I look for part-time employment and while continuing my creative writing and the educational writing contracts, both of which I really enjoy?
As I work through the sorting-out process and look back over my vocations to date, I have noticed some things that are really helpful to me. I reflect on them here in the hope that they may be useful to others in a similar process.
Finding Common Threads
One of the most helpful questions for me is: “What are the common threads I enjoy in different vocations?” For instance, one thing I’ve enjoyed in all my vocations is teaching and mentoring. It’s obvious how that plays out as a graduate student with a teaching assistantship, but for me it’s also been true of music and writing. I loved teaching music and passing on the things my teachers instilled in me. As a writer, I’ve found that I really enjoy producing educational materials because it gives me the chance to share knowledge as my own teachers did. Writing also opens more direct mentoring opportunities as people share their work with me. Knowing that teaching and mentoring are important parts of all these vocations for me helps me as I think about the next steps. Whatever I choose next, I know I should look for ways to incorporate mentoring into it, because that’s something I’ve found satisfying across a wide range of work.
Pursuing the Questions that Stay with Me
I have learned to pay attention to the questions that stay with me. If I keep asking a question about vocation, it’s worth doing something to try and answer that question. When I applied for my PhD program, I wasn’t sure that I wanted a PhD, but I also knew that the question kept coming up. Since it didn’t go away, it seemed wise to look into programs and see what could happen. My sister had a similar realization this spring. When she was working on her undergrad degree, she needed to decide between graphic design and pre-med. She’s a talented graphic designer and chose a degree and a full-time job in that field. But she realized at age 25 that she kept asking if she would rather be a doctor and pursue her visual interests as an avocation. Since the question didn’t go away, she decided to take chemistry classes and prepare for the MCATs.
Of course, sometimes we’re not in a practical position to pursue these questions, and that’s okay. And sometimes we start pursuing them and discover that we didn’t want to take that path after all. But I’ve found that it’s usually worth following them up and seeing if there is any step I can take to find the answer.
Attending to my Work Style
It is useful to attend to my work style as I make career choices. I have recognized in my own work style that it is important to me to be responsible and attentive to each person I am working with. College teaching and freelance music, as much as I loved them, share a trait that made them quite challenging for me. They both required me to be responsible to a large number of people at one time. In teaching, you might need to engage 40 students in a class (or many more in some situations) as well as responding to a wide array of administrators. In freelance music, you might be working with many different brides, concert organizers, students, parents of students, etc. It was a great privilege to serve so many people, and I loved interacting with different students and clients, but I found it was also exhausting trying to be responsible and attentive to each person. It was difficult for me to sustain that level of engagement and still be able to give attention to friends and family.
The educational writing contracts, on the other hand, work much better for me. There is still the hope that they might be useful to a large number of people, but because they are longer-term projects with a small team of people, I am able to give that smaller team of people more of my attention and to feel that I am really giving each project enough consideration.
Different people have different work styles, of course, and for some the energy of the classroom or the excitement of playing for many different venues would outweigh the challenge of being responsible to so many people. For me, it was healthier to pursue work that involved direct responsibility to a smaller group of people over a longer period of time.
Engaging with Community
I am also grateful for the way that engaging with communities helps to shape choices about vocation. Work becomes especially satisfying when I can see how it fits into a community that matters to me, and many communities in turn have been incredibly generous in inviting me into their work and the things that matter to them. In music, it was very satisfying to play for the same local church each Christmas season for more than five years. I looked forward to catching up with their music director and trying to choose songs that were well-suited to their worship space and the musical formation of their congregants.
Also, communities often see things about me that I haven’t noticed myself. In writing, much of the work I’m now doing is shaped by my experience of communities of homeschoolers and classical Christian school educators. It’s a great gift to be part of shaping educational materials for communities that helped to shape my own understanding of education. I probably would not have realized that I enjoyed writing curriculum without the presence of these communities in my life. I started doing educational writing mainly because people I liked and admired invited me into their projects at the right moments, and I’ve discovered more and more how much I love this kind of writing.
When I was working on my dissertation, in spite of excellent mentoring and a supportive group of friends and colleagues, I hit a long patch of doldrums. My writing process was becalmed for probably more than a year. When I produced something, it didn’t seem to be right, and sometimes I just didn’t produce. I came to a point when I felt pretty desperate about it, and I emailed a group of friends and asked if they would pray for my writing. So many good things came out of that email that I asked them to continue. Again and again, I would ask them to pray and something would start to work in the dissertation. Beyond that and more importantly, I grew to understand God’s care for me more deeply in how faithfully he answered our prayers and in how steadily the people on that email list cared for me. God is good to us even when we can’t see it, but it was astonishing to me how much I did come to see his goodness in the process of doing the work I’d been given for that period of my life. In the email I wrote to thank those who had prayed near the end of the process, I found myself saying: “I don't have adequate words to celebrate God's work, except perhaps to say ‘O taste and see that the Lord is good.’”
I don’t know exactly what work I’ll be doing a year from now. But I do know that I want to ask God’s blessing on the process of choosing it, and to invite him into the doing of it. I’m thanking God for all the ways I have tasted and seen so far, and I’m asking to taste and see again as I continue into the next chapters of my vocation.