Paula Carter and I met in Samrat Upadhyay‘s backyard; he had invited a handful of former students over for lunch to catch up and gossip about the affairs of the University. Samrat was feeling nostalgic, I believe, as most of his students move on from Bloomington every three years and just wanted to check in on us. Though Paula and I had both been students of Samrat’s at Indiana University’s MFA program, our tenures in Bloomington had not overlapped. Over lunch of delicious Nepali food, Paula and I discovered that not only did we both live in Chicago, we lived in the same neighborhood. We swapped contact info, and so started a new friendship…which often involves me picking Paula’s brain for good ideas. Beyond being a professional writer, fiction writer, and essayist, Paula is a master craftswoman (she makes jewelry and mobiles and refinishes tables) and is adventurer (she’s ready for a triathlon or to go Sup’ing in Lake Michigan or square dancing at Old Town School of Folk). I hope you will find her recent interview as inspiring for your creative life as I do. To read some of her work head over to the Rumpus for a thrilling essay on margarine or check her professional website.
So what do you write?
Currently, I write both professionally and creatively. As a professional writer, I freelance and work primarily with nonprofits to create development and fundraising pieces (think high-end grant writing). I also work with a few magazines and marketing companies. Creatively, I write narrative essays, short shorts, and fiction. I’m currently working on a book of very short narrative nonfiction essays.
What are your sources of inspiration for your creative writing?
I have moved so many times in the last ten years and every time I pack up my many shelves of books and cart them along with me and wonder if I should let them go, or at least a chunk of them. I know people who pass a book along as soon as they finish it, wanting it to find another reader and wanting to clear out the clutter in their lives. I have the opposite problem: if you lend me a book, you may never see it again. Most writers are book hoarders, I’m sure, and I am one of them. Also, book klepto. There is something comforting about looking at a serious stack of books. My heart rate goes down. Not long ago, I decided to stop feeling guilty about not cleaning out my book shelves and just accept that these books were going to travel with me through life.
I have not yet purchased an e-reader. It is the physical object of the book that gives me joy; all the pretty colors and weighty titles lined up in a row waiting humbly. I remember hearing Ray Bradbury talk about writing Fahrenheit 451 at the UCLA library at the 10 cent typewriters. He would write for half an hour (that is how long 10 cents got him) then run up the stairs into the stacks, pull out an old book and take a deep whiff. He said that old books smell like nutmeg and some foreign land. Afterword he would return to the typewriter, put in another dime and keep going.
Theater is my other great love. One of the things I appreciate about it is that it is collaborative. Theater requires so many different people and ideas and creative minds to make it come to life. I recently went to see The Little Prince at the Lookingglass Theater in Chicago. The level of creativity and imagination at that theater is unbelievable. If you aren’t familiar with the story, one of the main conflicts involves baobab trees which grow too big and threaten the Little Prince’s small planet. Rather than use pieces of the set to represent the trees, each time a new tree sprouted an actor’s hand would shoot up through the floor of the stage. It was surprising, funny and fresh. I thought about it for days. Who came up with that? When did they decide it would work and who made the floor that allowed hands to break through it? Being stuck inside my own mind and bumping up against my own limitations can be one of my biggest struggles when writing—in theater there is play and room to experiment before a decision is made. It reminds me to let go more in my work, have fun, share it with others.
Just going to a show inspires me. Here are these actors giving it their all for this one ephemeral moment, this one night with this one audience. When it’s done, it’s done. For it to come back to life, they have to start the work all over again. There’s a lesson there somewhere.
Can you tell us a little bit about your day job and how you got there? How does it challenge/influence/inspire your writing life?
I have been reading Ann Patchett’s new collection of essays This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage. The first paragraph of her introduction says:
“The tricky thing about being a writer, or about being any kind of artist, is that in addition to making art you also have to make a living. My short stories and novels have always filled my life with meaning, but, at least in the first decade of my career, they were no more capable of supporting me than my dog was. But part of what I love about both novels and dogs is that they are so beautifully oblivious to economic concerns. We serve them, and in return they thrive. It isn’t their responsibility to figure out where the rent is coming from.”
Oh, to be a novel or a dog. Patchett puts her finger on what I think it is the biggest struggle for creative people. I have had periods in my life when I had plenty of time to write and usually during those same periods worried constantly about what I could and could not afford. Then, I have had times when I made a good salary and all those worries were relieved only to be replaced with uneasy and unsatisfied feelings that quickly led to anxiety and disappointment in myself. Not a good combo.
Most people struggle to find the right work/life balance. But artists must struggle to find the right work/life/work balance—this seems wholly unfair to me. For Patchett, she tried waitressing and teaching, before settling on freelance writing to pay the bills while she wrote her first few novels. I have had a similar path (minus the waitressing and the first few novels).
Currently, I am a freelance writer. I’ve been freelancing fulltime for about three years. I decided to freelance—rather than work 9 to 5—as a way to have more flexibility, so I could also work on my own writing. In many ways this has been effective. I do have considerable flexibility and have been able to focus on my own creative projects in the last few years, in addition to making a living.
However, it has not been without its challenges. The first year I made $8,000 and lived with my parents. After a few years my income has increased but I have discovered other drawbacks. All of my work—both my own and professional work—is solitary. At times, I greatly miss working with a team. As a freelancer, you are primarily on the outside of the action, creating content for one event or article or report, submitting the piece, making some edits and then moving on. Additionally, when I have deadlines that other people are relying on, it can be hard to continue to set time aside to work on my own projects. No one is depending on them. It takes real effort to continue to make them a priority.
But, really, I can’t complain. Every job has its issues and every artist has their own struggle to figure out how to make it all fit together. For the most part, I feel pretty lucky. I have yet to finish my “first few novels,” but I have almost completed a nonfiction manuscript I have been slowly and steadily working on. And my cat, oblivious to economic concerns, is in love with this way of life. I am home all day.
6 thoughts on “Paula Carter, essayist, fiction writer & freelancer: Making it all fit together”
Great interview! It made me want to hang out with Paula all day long and talk about writing and writers and old books that smell of nutmeg.
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