I wanted the dullest, most mindless job possible. I wanted all the stress to vanish. Maybe, if I had the freedom to think about nothing, I could write again.
“I write,” I lied.
I’d been lying to myself for months already. What was another one?
Before teaching, I worked at an office in Baltimore and complained each week to my therapist that I wasn’t writing. I blamed the office job. She asked what, exactly, I wanted. If I could do anything, what would it be?
“Write,” I said. “But obviously, I can’t make a living as a poet. So, teach college writing. But that will probably never happen.”
Then it did happen. Miraculously. My college writing professor emailed me one January day and said they were looking for someone for the next school year, and would I consider applying?
It felt like someone had reached a hand from The Beyond. All I had to do was take it. On the drive home that afternoon, I alternated between laughing and crying. I felt in shock and impossibly happy. I had a chance I never would’ve imagined possible.
My therapist helped me through the interview process, the job acceptance, the whirlwind of moving logistics, and the fear of designing curriculum for the fall. By my last session before leaving Baltimore, I seemed to be on even footing. Things had worked out for me. I’d landed a job that would support my own writing. The college’s expectation that I’d publish showed how they valued my creative work. I was going to change my life. I was going to write.
In graduate school, the collective dream was to join the ranks of academia. This was what we’d been trained to yearn for since showing someone our first attempt at a poem. I imagined academia would be like graduate school, a writers’ promised land: a place to write and think. Writing isn’t just the time spent at the desk typing—it’s a mindset. Building a life around writing would allow me to live within that mindset.
Writing was how I processed the world. I wrote because of a beautiful compulsion, a voice inside that pulled me to translate life into language. I often experienced things through the lens of how I would write about it—how I could find a way to process and make sense of it later. At its best, writing shaped me. At its essence, it held me together.
Before I left, my boss in Baltimore wanted to hear all about my fancy teaching job. After I listed off my class schedule, she asked what I’d do with all my free time. To her, I’d only be working when I was literally in the classroom.
I knew lesson planning and grading would take up some part of my day. But I’d only ever taught one course at a time before, in graduate school. I didn’t know the amount of work involved in teaching three different preps five days a week for three new courses.
I told her, “I’ll be working on my own writing.”
I think I was smiling.
Entering the classroom that fall felt like I was facing a firing squad. I felt like I was constantly on display, like my students were judging me for every mistake I made or might make. My anxiety told me that no amount of preparation felt like enough. In the half hour leading up to each class, my stomach tightened. The lore from graduate school was that Charles Wright would throw up before he went into the classroom, and I thought, Well, at least I’m not throwing up. But this consolation was too small. I tried to take deep breaths. I tried to drink water in small sips. I grew sweaty and light-headed and couldn’t slow my heart rate.
The panic didn’t end when class ended. I replayed each moment over and over, sometimes staying up all night trying to understand a student’s facial expression, hating myself more with every remembered eye roll and vacant look. I’d struggled with anxiety in the past, but this felt different. It was all-encompassing, unrelenting. As soon as one class ended, I began worrying about the next one. I couldn’t think about anything else. My clothes became loose, though I didn’t notice. My hair grew thinner.
My parents visited for my birthday in September of my first semester. I was three weeks into teaching and knee-deep in daily panic. When I opened the door, they both eyed me up and down.
“What?” I asked, tugging at my shirt. I’d become self-conscious about everything. “Do I look okay?”
Later, I learned they’d had the same thought: I’d lost about fifteen pounds in less than a month without realizing it. They could sense I was touchy, though, so they insisted I looked fine, and we went to lunch at a Thai restaurant down the street. They sat across from me with big smiles, excited to peek into the life of their daughter, the college professor. After we ordered, I took a sip of my coconut juice and steadied myself to tell them the Big News.
“I’m not doing so well,” I said. They didn’t understand. I lived in a nice town in a nice apartment with David and worked at the Ultimate Most Amazing Job in the Universe. What could possibly be wrong?
“I’m stressed,” I explained, though stressed didn’t seem to cover it.
“That’s normal,” my mother said.
“It’s a new job. There’s a learning curve,” my father said.
I shook my head. Clenched my jaw. I couldn’t communicate the way I felt, not in this restaurant as our curries arrived. Besides, they were so proud. As public school art teachers, mine was the kind of job they’d always coveted. “If only I could teach college”had been the mantra of my father’s wishes and regrets.
My parents weren’t alone in their sentiments. Everyone told me that I should be happy. This was the dream job. The best thing that could ever happen to me had happened at twenty-four. People said things like, “You did the impossible! You got a job in poetry!”
They talked about how lucky I was. I was lucky. I knew that. But the more I taught, the guiltier I became that I felt miserable.
Sadness unraveled inside me: Because I was in survival mode, and because I wasn’t writing. Because I was holding it all in. Because every time I had an impulse to write, I squashed it, reminding myself I didn’t have time. My inner voice grew quieter, until I trained myself not to listen at all.
First-year faculty members were paired with a mentor. Mine spoke quickly and blinked like it was a task. She’d been teaching for thirty years and loved it. I was afraid to ask whether she always had, in case the answer was yes. Believing she’d grown into her love of teaching gave me hope that one day I could love it too.
We met for weekly check-ins during my first semester. I brought her lists of questions and she hit back rapid-fire answers like tennis balls, making my problems seem obvious and stupid.
“How do I deal with a student who talks too much in class?” Tell him to stop.
“How do I balance prepping and grading?” Make a schedule.
As the weeks passed without a single day off, I began to fantasize about the weekends I used to have, reading the newspaper and going for walks. I took only Friday nights off now, then woke up Saturday and got straight to work.
“I think about school all the time,” I told her during one of our check-ins.
Her eyes lit up. “It’s so funny you say that,” she said. “I have to read you a text I sent to my friend on Saturday.”
She scrolled through her phone. I got excited. Maybe she’d encouraged her friend to take a break, and now her wise words would inspire me too. I wanted permission to take a day off. It’ll be there tomorrow didn’t seem plausible when tomorrow I needed to show up prepared for three different classes.
“Here it is,” she said. “I sent this at 9:35 p.m. on Saturday. ‘I’ve been grading all day and I’m only halfway through these papers. I’ve worked until 10 p.m. every night this week, and it looks like tomorrow won’t be any different. I have allergies but I’m going to work a little longer so I can keep up my pace.’” She looked up and grinned. “See? We’re all doing it.”
I forced a smile.
“Do you ever do something that’s not for school?” I asked.
“Oh, sure,” she said. “There’s two times when I don’t think about school. First, when I’m sleeping. And second, I choose a couple hours each week for an activity. This week, I’m going apple picking with my daughter. So, from nine to eleven on Sunday morning, I’m not going to work. That helps me get through the week.”
“It can be a lot,” she chirped. “But any other job would be boring.”
I posed the question of work-life balance during a meeting with other new faculty. The professor in charge said she made herself take a break each week by not starting work until noon on Sundays. “And I try to stop at 9 p.m. each night, because I’m not very productive after that.”
I looked around at the other new faculty to see if anyone’s eye twitched or brow furrowed, but everyone was nodding.
I longed for the boring job my mentor seemed to fear. A drugstore down the block that was usually empty posted giant WE’RE HIRING signs. In my wildest daydreams, I stood behind the cash register and thought about nothing. That was the fantasy I fell asleep to at night, only to jolt awake after another nightmare about teaching. Then I’d spend hours worrying about the next day.
“I think there’s something between college professor and Gateway Pharmacy,” David said when I divulged my fantasy.
I didn’t want anything in between. I wanted the dullest, most mindless job possible. I wanted all the stress to vanish. Maybe, if I had the freedom to think about nothing, I could write again.
But I knew I wouldn’t quit. I’d be crazy to walk away.
Looking back, I’d been warned during my first interview with an academic dean. As we discussed job responsibilities and school culture, he mentioned casually that academia abused its labor force on the premise that people were doing what they loved. Where else could you get a secure job in folk dancing, eighteenth-century philosophy, or, say, poetry?
“People in academia work way too many hours for not a lot of money. It’s kind of terrible,” he said.
I nodded thoughtfully. But I was excited that I might get to be one of those people. I figured he was exaggerating. Everything I knew about this job indicated that it was perfect for me. I promised myself that if I got the job, I’d never complain about the workload. I’d only be grateful.
Over the next two years, things got better. There were even aspects about the job I loved: lunch with my colleagues, the comradery in our hallway, working one-on-one with students during conferences. The daily panic attacks simmered down. Still, I was anxious every day I taught.
Still, I never wrote.
Being a professor didn’t mean much if I wasn’t also being a writer.
Even when I was teaching a lesson I’d taught five times, I couldn’t think about anything else until class was over. And then I was mentally and emotionally drained.
I believe I could’ve become a good teacher. I also believe I would’ve always been anxious. (Charles Wright never stopped throwing up.) In that state of low-hum, constant anxiety, I didn’t feel creative. I gave all my energy to teaching, grading, prepping. As I geared up for my sixth semester, I saw that path—the one where I stayed—laid out before me. The one where I maybe wrote in tiny spurts. The one where I never really wrote at all.
I agonized over the decision to leave. How could I walk away from the dream job I never thought I’d get? It was spring 2021, and who was I to leave during a global pandemic with no plan and no idea what I wanted to do? Who was I to give up security for the possibility of joy?
Then I read Spinning, a graphic memoir by Tillie Walden about growing up as a competitive skater. She decides to quit before her senior year of high school.
“It made me so angry,” she writes. “How easy it was. I couldn’t help but wonder why I hadn’t done this sooner.”
But after three years in academia, I knew it wasn’t right for me. I wanted a job that wasn’t so intellectually, emotionally, and creatively draining. A job that didn’t spill into every evening and weekend. A job that didn’t demand I was “on” and in charge every day. I wanted something smaller, quieter. I didn’t know what, but I’d figure it out.
At the end of the school year, I gave the director of Creative Writing a thank-you note. I’d been nervous all semester about disappointing him, when he was the one who’d recommended me for this job. In the note, I explained that I couldn’t write and teach at the same time, and I needed to write.
He emailed me that evening, affirming my decision. He’d given himself to teaching, and it had been good. But he wondered sometimes what would’ve happened—what he would’ve written—if he hadn’t taught. Now was the time, he said, to see what I could come up with.
I’m grateful that I taught. If I hadn’t gotten that job, I would’ve spent the next decade trying to get it, believing all my problems as a writer would be solved if I did. Any day job would’ve paled in comparison to the Fantasy of Teaching College, believing that if I could secure the fantasy, I’d be a Real Writer.
In my Baltimore office job, I took for granted leaving the office at 4:30 p.m. without papers to grade and lesson plans to write. The work was unrelated to writing, so it hadn’t been good enough. Now I see that kind of work might be my best option.
Prestige is part of academia’s appeal. Your job title becomes a shortcut to assure people you’re okay despite your MFA, as if creative writing has no merit without the ivory tower. But so what if my job title was Target sales associate or administrative assistant? Being a professor didn’t mean much if I wasn’t also being a writer. It was a gift that I learned at twenty-seven I didn’t want to chase that dream.
As soon as I stopped teaching, I started writing. I’d had summers before, of course, but this one was different. I knew I wasn’t going back. I had no new syllabi to write or training to attend. That freedom pushed me forward. I started waking up early and writing every day. A month after school ended, after a day spent writing, I went for a walk with David.
Well, he was walking. I was dancing.
“I haven’t seen you this happy in so long,” he said.
I laughed. It was true. I danced in a circle around David’s steady clip forward. So much of my life was uncertain—unemployed and job hunting—but I was spending the summer writing. And when summer ended, I’d keep going. I had so much I wanted to say—everything I’d buried over the past three years, waiting to be unearthed—and I couldn’t wait to get it out.
Quinn Forlini earned her MFA in creative writing from the University of Virginia. Her writing has been published in The Journal, The Greensboro Review, The Rupture, and elsewhere. She lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. You can find more of her work at quinngilmanforlini.com, or follow her on Twitter @quinnforlini.