Anne Elliott talks to Bloom about transitions: from financial analyst to fiction writer, from New York to Maine, from wanting the writing life to living it.
Leah De Forest: You’ve been writing a long time. Can we go back and talk about what your life was like, say, twenty or thirty years ago?
Anne Elliott: I finished graduate school in 1991, and I wanted to be an art teacher, but the jobs just weren’t there. I moved to New York City thinking, well, I’ll just make a big splash as an artist. Of course, it doesn’t work that way! I waited tables for a while and then I happened to become a secretary on Wall Street, and I worked my way up through the ranks. I was at this big Wall Street firm, in the convertible bonds department of all things, and writing and performing poetry at night. Then I realized that I was reading more fiction than poetry, and I decided to try writing fiction. I did that very secretly for a while in my little studio in Brooklyn, while going to this day job as a statistician and analyst on Wall Street.
Finally I started taking classes in fiction writing, and I became involved in an online fiction writers’ community. I started to get serious and submit. I discovered that you could go to residencies, use your vacation time, and go be a full-time writer for two weeks, which was fantastic. So that’s where the transition began.
Residencies and writers’ conferences became really exciting to me: craft lectures and workshops with people from all over the world. At this point, I started networking as a writer and started thinking of myself as a writer. And then I started looking for some kind of an escape from the constant work imperative of living in New York City—I mean, I read a lot on the subways, so it wasn’t so bad. But I had to juggle two careers, and I was starting to think of myself as a writer and not as an analyst. I wanted to make a transition. Some of Bloom’s readers might be having those same kinds of thoughts. Like, you know, I’ve gotten myself locked into a work situation, and I can’t afford to leave this job, but I really don’t want it to be the center of my identity anymore.
Whether you’re working as a grocery clerk or mechanic or an attorney or a doctor or anything, you could be feeling like this. That the work is to pay the bills, but you don’t want your identity to be wrapped up in that. That’s when I started thinking about possibly moving. My husband and I—my husband’s a musician—had people in Maine. We decided to move where we had a good social network. We were lucky enough to have a home in Brooklyn that we could liquidate. So that gave us a bit of money to change our lives with.
Maine is gorgeous, but it’s very, very quiet. I had a ton of time on my hands, and I kind of went crazy. I was like, oh boy, what have I done? Wait, when you’re a writer, what you do all day? And I was not as successful as a writer as I was in my paid job. I realized I’d had a great deal of respect that was given to me by my colleagues. I had a kind of a crisis of the ego.
I had also lost my network of writers in New York City. I was adrift. I was lucky enough to go to a poetry reading here in Maine, and these three guys walked up to me and said, are you a writer? And we got to talking and I was able to join a writer’s group within a couple of months of moving. And that is something that I would recommend to anybody who’s making this transition. To find a creative support network.
I did also take on a day job in Maine for a few years, at a hedge fund administrator. Like the workaholic I was.
LDF: Were you publishing fiction by then?
AE: I started publishing when I was still working the office jobs. That was through sheer persistence. I made it very mechanical. I’d send stuff out and when people said no, I’d re-evaluate the manuscript. I had critique partners, too. I would keep sending stories out, upwards of 50 times in some cases. And finally somebody says yes. The main thing is not quitting. And you have to have the courage to hit send.
I think a lot of us are perfectionists. I try not to let the perfect be the enemy of, you know, pretty darn good. I tell myself it’s not my job to decide that my stuff is not right for the publication. I do as much as I can to target the right place to send my work, and then the rest of that is up to them. I try not to reject myself.
LDF: I’m interested in how that transition felt. You had these two very disparate parts of your life, and you made a big change. In your life, and your identity. What drove that, and how did it feel?
AE: A big part of what drove me was having people tell me that something I wrote was meaningful to them. If you’re writing in private and you get fulfillment from that, then that’s fantastic. Keep doing that and enjoy it. But if you’re writing in private and you want to share it, you should share it. Share it with people who are going to be supportive of your creative spirit, not people who are going to be purely competitive or have a reason or an agenda to cut you down. Just let your freak flag fly, because it’s your right to express yourself and to express yourself in a way that’s unique to you.
At first, I got the most response to my work from reading it aloud. I had many opportunities to read aloud in New York, and that’s what made me start to think that this is something that I love doing. I love the habit of it and the practice. That’s part of what made it feel like an identity to me.
Also, as a person who’s tried many form forms of art, whether that be music or spoken word or visual art, why do I call myself a writer? That’s mysterious. I really don’t know the answer to that. But I feel in my heart, that’s what I am. And maybe that’s just a for-now kind of thing. Maybe in 20 years I won’t—if I’m still alive—I won’t feel that way.
LDF: You mentioned the loss of your professional network when you moved. In fiction we often talk about mirroring as a way of creating characters on the page. Maybe what you’re talking about is finding people to look at you in a way that feels right to you. So it helps you take on that identity.
AE: I think that’s why attending gatherings with other writers is so important. Because if you’re spending five days, ten days, whatever, with writers talking about writing … everybody goes through the same kinds of struggles as a writer, no matter how experienced you are. And also just talking about craft problems that you’ve encountered, or a solution you discovered by reading a particular book. Those conversations are part of how you can start to think of yourself as a writer.
LDF: I realize I don’t know old you are, exactly.
AE: I’m 56.
LDF. I’m 47. So we’re in the same ballpark: middle aged, I suppose.
I wonder about your experience of making a big life change after you’d had another career. What’s it like for you kind of moving through the world as a middle-aged person who’s taken on this new identity?
AE: It’s a good moment for me to take this kind of risk. I don’t have kids in college—if I did, that would be a totally different story. Just in terms of breaking down the finances, I was able to put enough money away to make a transition like this. So if I’m not making a lot of money—or even very little, or almost none—I’m still going to be able to eat. And I have to say, the Affordable Care Act has made this possible for us. If it weren’t for that, then, then I would still have to work because I’m married to a person with chronic health conditions.
But I feel like having had this “straight” career gave me a lot of life experience that can inform my work. Having had that office job for many years, experiencing different kinds of personalities or the ins and outs of an industry. Those are things that have informed my work.
Also, when I was younger, I had the energy to have two careers at once. To get up at four in the morning and write, and then go to my day job, and then come home and write into the night. I don’t have that energy now.
LDF: Was there a particular external-facing moment, such as when your collection came out, when you felt like I’m really a writer now?
AE: No. I don’t feel that secure in my identity as a writer, quite frankly. It’s just something that I keep asserting because I want it to be true. I think a lot of that is just claiming the authority, whether you feel it’s there or not.
The moment when I decided to leap out of my day job, possibly for good, was when I applied to grad school, which was on my bucket list. I was also submitting my short story collection to contests at the time—this is while I was going to the day job in Maine. I got into my first choice of grad school and won a contest within weeks of each other. I had told myself, well, if both of those things happen, then I definitely have to quit my job. I just got quite lucky all of a sudden with these two things.
LDF: You mentioned before, finding yourself in your new life and thinking: what do I even do as a writer? Can you tell us a little bit about your work life now?
AE: I use the Pomodoro method to keep myself from browsing the Internet all day. And that said, I’m still pretty darn lazy. At the beginning of every month, I make myself a to-do list. So here are all the grants I’m going to apply for, and all the submissions I want to do, and the tasks I have for my teaching gigs … and my taxes and all that stuff.
I’m not one of these people who’s like, I’m going start working at 9am and I’ve got a routine. I wish I was, and I’m not.
All of my decisions in my adult life were based on scarcity. You know, I better grab one of these jobs while they’re there. Or time, or resources. I’m just trying to think in terms of: what if scarcity is a false narrative? I also happen to be reading The Gift by Lewis Hyde right now. It’s about changing your thinking about creativity from a capitalist model to something that’s more about gift giving. Passing on all the gifts that you’ve received.
LDF: You talk as if you don’t get a lot done, but you’ve got a novel almost finished, right?
AE: So, okay. I’m part of this group where we email a tiny bit of writing to each other every day, and that’s literally how I’m getting it done.
LDF: So what does the next phase look like for you?
AE: I have a short fiction collection and a novel that I’m trying to complete by the summer. I’m working part-time teaching writing, and doing my best to manage our household finances. That involves gardening and cooking, all those tightening-the-belt kind of things.
LDF: I’m thinking about how, wherever we are in a writing career, we often see other people succeeding. And it looks like that peak is the big moment, right? You seem to be saying that for you, the joy is in the process, in being able to be that person.
AE: This is one of the advantages of putting writing at the center of your life as a middle-aged person. I’ve witnessed so many of my peers obtain success of one kind or another when we were younger. I’ve rooted them on from the sidelines, and I’ve been very happy for people getting great publications and critical acclaim, or sudden attention. But so often their experience is confusing. I’ve witnessed this over and over again: someone sells their book, and maybe I feel jealous. And then I realize how confusing it is for them to finally have that wish fulfilled. And often it simply isn’t what they thought it was going to be.
Finding joy in the work itself is not disappointing. It’s never disappointing. I also actively work on pulling the ego out of the process, because the minute I start thinking in terms of ego, it’s my old New York City sensibility where everything is about achievement. And I start to feel very insecure when it’s all about achievement. I mean, we’re not really doing this to achieve, are we? We’re doing it because we love literature.
Once I heard James Longenbach say something along the lines of, “it doesn’t matter who writes the next great poem, what matters is that it gets written”. So whether I’m making the investment in my own writing or in the writing of one of my colleagues or a student, investing that time in unfinished writing is really important because that is the literature of the future.
LDF: That’s fantastic. I love that. Thank you.
To finish up, I wanted to ask you a kind of left-field question. You have three dogs, right? [Gracie, who’s 13, Fiona, who’s 9, and Junior, who’s two.] So what I’m wondering is, if you could be any kind of dog, what kind do you think you’d be?
AE: You know, if I were to be one of my dogs, I’d be Fiona, who is the lazy dog who just wants to lay around. I’d be one of those big lazy dogs.
LDF: That’s pretty funny, because I don’t perceive you in that way at all.
AE: It’s all theater, you know. You should see what’s going on outside the square of the Zoom frame. It’s a pure chaos.
Anne Elliott’s short fiction can be found in Story, A Public Space, Crab Orchard Review, Ploughshares Solos, Witness, Hobart, Bellevue Literary Review, Fifth Wednesday Journal, and in her collection, The Artstars. Honors include the Blue Light Books Prize, the Story Foundation Prize, and fellowships from The Elizabeth George Foundation, the Table 4 Writer’s Foundation, and Vermont Studio Center. Her essays on the craft of fiction have been featured in TriQuarterly, CRAFT Literary, and The Writer’s Chronicle. Elliott holds an MFA in visual art from UC San Diego, and an MFA in fiction writing from Warren Wilson College. She lives in Maine, where she teaches fiction writing online for A Public Space and Harvard Summer School.
You can find her on Twitter and read about her years as an analyst at LinkedIn.