You’ve been writing for quite a while – congratulations on Relief Map, which looks wonderful – but did not go for an MFA. Did you have a conversation with yourself at some point about whether or not to get the degree? What was that conversation like?
I definitely did have that conversation with myself, and I more or less concluded that if I was going to try for a funded MFA, I would have to leave New York, and I didn’t want to leave New York. Of course, there are some great low-cost MFA programs in the city, but I think I felt really cautious about committing resources to an MFA because I had this vague feeling that having low overhead was my main advantage at that point, as a writer. I was anxious about getting into debt. Of course I ended up getting into debt anyway when I got my MSW.
You’re also a social worker. What does a typical workday look like for you, and where/how often does your writing fit in?
I am just at this moment transitioning from working in residential foster care to working at a mental health clinic. So I’m in my last weeks in foster care. There kind of is no typical day. I see my residents, we talk about what’s going on with them – family, girls, school. I try to write service plans and reports, and get interrupted a thousand times. I go to the kitchen for mac and cheese. I’m getting nostalgic now.
When I get home at night I’m really not fit for anything but heating up dinner with my fiance and watching TV. I write on the weekends. Once in a while I give myself a treat and use a free morning (I sometimes work a late schedule) to write instead of going to the gym. That’s the best.
How has that balance changed for you since graduating from college? Can you give me a snapshot of a time when writing + making a living looked very different than it does now?
For a few years I was mostly working part-time, and for a lovely period I was working M-F 2-8 pm at a ballet studio and I wrote every single morning for two hours. I got a lot done then. I lived in very cheap housing because I was sharing with a dozen people, and I had the advantage of having gotten through undergrad without loans– I want to be clear that some of this was facilitated by that kind of dumb luck– so my overhead was low and I could pay my bills without working full-time. Eventually I moved out of that shared living situation and couldn’t make it work anymore financially, which is when my shift to social work started.
You live in New York, a place that retains some of the allure of being a great place to make art without always acknowledging how difficult it is to keep a roof over one’s head while doing so. Did New York ever hold that kind of attraction for you? If so, how has your view of the city as a home for artists or a place friendly to art-making changed over your time there?
New York is a bind. It is a good place to make connections – maybe for writers, the best place to make connections. But you’re right, the cost of living is hostile to artists. This issue was the primary problem in my mind for a period of about three years. I was keeping a roof over my head and writing, but it all felt very precarious. I didn’t have health insurance a lot of that time, and I felt like my skills were not specialized enough to be safe from losing a job, and I didn’t think I was getting anywhere.
But it’s a place where there are lots of other people doing the kind of work you’re doing, and having friends and support networks of like-minded people is such a huge help. So sure, if you’re an artist, move to New York. But you are going to have to have a whole functioning career aside from your art if you want to stay here. But that can be really good for you, I think!
Do your social work colleagues know about your writing? Do you prefer to keep those parts of your life totally separate, or is it preferable to have permeable borders?
Some of them didn’t know until last week when I explained that I needed Tuesday off because I was going to be reading in Philadelphia on Monday night. I was uncomfortable at first bringing it into my work life, but then one of my colleagues said, “Well, you want to be seen.” And I did. I kind of did want to be seen. My first book was published while I was in this job. Again, I had to take a day off work to prepare for the launch! That would feel weird to keep entirely to myself. It would be like getting married and not telling anyone. It’s a big part of my life.
If you didn’t need your day job to pay the bills, would you still want to do it?
Yes. I would just want to do less of it. From experience, I can tell you that the ideal balance of work and life is to be working 20-30 hours a week. You get plenty of sleep. You exercise regularly. You cook. Your skin clears up. Your apartment is clean. It’s the best.
Elsewhere, you’ve written: “I’ve always been a writer and I’ve always found this fact embarrassing. Writing fiction is a suspiciously childlike activity. If I meet you at a party I will tell you I’m a social worker, which is also true, and then try to get you to talk about yourself instead.” Have conversations with strangers about your profession changed for you at all since publishing Relief Map? Has having a novel in the world seemed to legitimize saying “I’m a writer”?
Yeah, a little bit. I still find that it doesn’t come up organically very much. But when I was a kid, I was really secretive about being a writer, and for years I had a rule in my head that I couldn’t say “I’m a writer” to people until I had published a book. So by my own standard I should be saying it now. But I still feel a little inhibited.
You’re part of a long-standing writers group in New York – what’s been the role of a regular writers’ community for you in being able to write while working full time?
They are the best, and they are really understanding about long periods of time when I haven’t been able to contribute much. They’re great writers and great editors and they’ve been as flexible as possible about scheduling when I’m too swamped to do much of anything. Agents, hit them up! Helen Terndrup– writing a brilliantly constructed detective novel set in ‘50s New York; Tom Cook, working on adapting a screenplay about the AIDS crisis and the decolonization period in Botswana into a novel; Bonnie Altucher, writing a novel about the real-life Sorenson therapy sex cult; and Jenna Evans, who published Prosperity, a satire about a near future where debt is criminalized, with Dog Ear, and is now working on a novel about a climate-change-related weather catastrophe hitting hipster Brooklyn.
What advice would you give to someone who’s struggling to both keep a roof over their head and write every day? Someone who wants to quit their day job to write?
I don’t write every day. So first I would say: cut yourself some slack. The beautiful thing about writing is that you can do it a little bit at a time. All you have to do is not stop, and eventually you will be finished.
Also, don’t quit your day job. I mean, quit if it makes you miserable, but don’t quit to write. Looking back, I can see that the primary problem I actually had during the time when I was completely hung up on the idea that my job was keeping me from writing was that I was bored and miserable in the field I was in (nonprofit administration). I was constantly wishing I could go home and write all day because I thought my job was pointless. If you like your job and derive meaning from it, you won’t be staring at the wall all afternoon thinking about the things you could be writing instead. The day will move quickly and you’ll feel like you accomplished something that mattered and you’ll get a paycheck and you’ll write when you can and after a while, you’ll have a book in your hands, and you will also be able to go to the doctor when you have a rash.
Rosalie Knecht is a writer, social worker, and translator in New York. She was born and raised in Pennsylvania and is the translator of Aira’s The Seamstress and the Wind. Her first novel, Relief Map, was published in March 2016 by Tin House.