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Endings and Beginnings

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about endings: the end of years, phases, obsessions, relationships, jobs, projects. As someone who has spent her life in and out of one project or another, always looking for something to give myself over to, it’s remarkably hard to walk away from an object of my devotion. Yet recently, and quite unexpectedly, that is what I had to do.

Almost two years into my editorship with the fledgling literary magazine I was running, a power struggle erupted between myself and another in our collective. I made the decision to step down and I realized how much of my life energy I had been giving to something that, wonderful and rewarding in many ways, was feeding my ego, but not my spirit. And while I was enjoying helping other writers polish and publish their work, I wasn’t getting any of my own done.

Weeks have passed since then, and my emotions have run the gamut, from rage at having been compelled to abandon something I loved, worked so hard for, and dedicated so much time and energy to, to relief at being released from the obligations of orchestrating all the moving pieces of an emerging publication (which I was doing as a novice and in addition to an already extremely busy full-time teaching job). When something comes to an end so abruptly, as this job did for me, it can feel for a while like you’re one of those inflatable punching clowns: the hits keep coming and you just can’t find your centre of gravity, all while keeping a smile plastered on your face to assure everyone that, yes, of course, you’re just fine.

In truth, for a while I felt strangely removed from my life, pulled back to a position of observing the situation I had got myself into. Unknowingly, I had come to identify myself by yet another label, this time as an editor-in-chief, as someone with a title and a role to play in the writing community with which I have only ever had a fairly marginal relationship. The label, I reasoned, granted me access to a world that can seem remote and unwelcoming to the non-credentialed. The label legitimized my participation in that world even without a published book, an MFA, a high profile, or a substantial contact list. I was no longer an interloper. With that label suddenly torn away, what was I? Well, I was back to being just an English professor again at a community college. Not a bad thing really, but the magazine editing had allowed me to expand in directions I genuinely was interested in going, and to begin – how cringeworthy – to create a name for myself as an editor and writer. Losing that label made me feel as though my world was retracting, that the new path stretching before me had rolled right back up and I was back where I started. My pride was smarting, and my ego, such a frail thing to begin with, was shredded.

I began to think about all the ways in which I have long and carefully identified myself with my work, as a worker, a producer, as someone who has a job and a title and a business card and an office and a resume and a byline and a reputation and so forth. Where was I in all of this? Where was the me that not that many years ago (well, maybe a few more than I would like to admit) really thought about what I liked, what I enjoyed, what I wanted to be. Being very quickly became doing once I was employed in an officially adult job with all its attendant, and sometimes not very interesting, responsibilities. I began to worry more about what others thought of me and how I could make a bigger, better impression. Should I go back to school and earn another degree? Would people think more highly of me if the prefix Dr. were in front of my name? Would I feel more legitimate then? Should I make the effort to climb the academic administrative ladder? Was I meant to be a coordinator (the answer to this one, I found out, is no), associate dean, or even one day a vice president of something? What other projects and initiatives could I take on to demonstrate my value and indispensability? Everything felt like an attempt to expand my resume and prove my worth as though I was curating an exhibit of the model employee. Nothing felt quite right.

The further I have delved into my academic job, the farther away I have moved from my plans to write, so when the opportunity to take on the editorship of a department initiated literary magazine came along, it felt like a wonderful way to keep my day job and combine it with a kind of dream job, or at least something closer to it. Books are my passion; I’ve been an intensive and eclectic reader since my childhood. I began writing stories when I was in elementary school, and excelled in anything involving writing in high school. I went to university to study English literature, confident that my future held writing of some kind and that my life would always revolve around books, my own as well as others’. The rigours of grad school took their toll, however, and my worries about what I was going to do with a couple of English degrees and a bunch of student debt prompted me to jump into the working world and prove to myself and everyone that I was making good choices. The writing went on hold.

Teaching, never a career I intentionally chose, fell into my lap by chance, and I started working part-time teaching communications courses at a nearby college. Three and half years later, clinging to the teaching gig like a life raft, I landed a full-time faculty position at my current college and resigned myself to the fact that my job was, as a colleague of mine once noted, like “golden handcuffs”: a good salary, benefits, summers off, and most significantly, stability, in exchange for the often exhausting, soul-crushing, infuriating task of teaching language-challenged young people to write proper sentences and make coherent arguments.

That was nearly ten years ago. In that time, I have made a point of staying connected to writing by reviewing books when my teaching schedule permits. Working as a book critic for a number of publications over the past decade has been very rewarding, and I hope I’ll always have opportunities to do this work. We need strong, fair-minded, objective, engaged critics (something I’m always striving to be) more than ever in Canadian literature, and I feel honoured to be a part of this literary tradition. Now, though, I realize it’s also time – well past time, in fact – for me to make good on my promise to myself to write my own stories, or essays, or whatever decides to come forth. This doesn’t mean I’ll be giving up my day job; the financial obligations of my late-30s life wouldn’t allow for it. But it does mean clearing some space in my life for my writing, taking myself more seriously as a writer, stopping the making of busy work or the taking on of grand projects to distract myself from writing, and finding fulfillment in more genuine, less ego-bound pursuits.

So, the ending of one thing may be, if this is not too much of a cliche, the beginning of something else. I did the very best I could with the magazine and set it on its way, going strong. The space that has opened up for me in its absence will be filled, when the time is right, by other devotions. And I’ll be on the watch for them.

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Copyright © 2016, Dana Hansen. All rights reserved.