It is my honor to share this interview with my good friend Andi Cumbo. Andi is one of the most gracious people you will ever meet. Andi is a writer, editor, and writing teacher. She has taught at Santa Clara University, Cecil College, and George Mason among other places. She recently moved to a small farm in rural Virginia where she, her puppy, three cats, and two chickens are settling in. You can read her blog here or connect with her on Twitter @andilit.
Why did you decide to stop being a professor and to become a full time writer? I left teaching three years ago, not because I disliked it – in fact, I loved being in the classroom – but because I wanted more time to write. Teaching 5 college classes a semester took sometimes 60 hours a week, so it didn’t leave me the time I wanted to write. Also, I grew weary of the administrative work required in college teaching. I wanted to spend time with my students and time on my writing, not in meetings.
That said, I truly still miss my time with my students. I miss the conversations and the chance to see my students improve at writing and challenge their own thinking. I get some of that in my online classes, and I’m grateful for that, but it’s not the same as being in the classroom.
What steps did you take to pursue your dream? Well, I had two big dreams – to write full-time and to live on a small farm where I could offer space where writers and musicians could get some rest. Both of those dreams have begun to come true in the last two years.
The first step toward the writing dream was to quit my teaching job. I did it without any formal work lined up beyond some adjuncting. Yet, still, three years later, I’m making my living with writing, editing, and some online teaching. It’s just what I dreamed it would be. Okay, well, I dreamed I wouldn’t worry about money at all, and that hasn’t happened, but I pay my bills. And every day, I spend my time with words – really unbeatable.
To achieve my second dream, well, the first step was to make it known. For years, I have talked about having a few acres where I could raise animals as pets and for fiber, where I could write, and where friends could come to visit. I’ve dreamed this dream on the page and with friends for a long time, and this past spring, my father helped me make this dream. Just this past Saturday, I moved to my farm – called God’s Whisper. I have a small farm house, and slowly, as my writing business grows, I will build the farm with animals, and trails, and eventually my own timber frame home to share with friends who write and make music. I can’t do it all at once, but some of that is the joy – to let the dream come to life slowly.
So what would you say to those who dream of becoming a full-time writer? I would say, Do it, but do it wisely. You have to be ready to work hard to get work. You have to be ready to go without steady work and money, most of the time. You have to be aware that this is not a path that is risk-free. It’s scary and hard. And so worth it. So many of us wait “until” to do the things we love. One thing life has taught me the past few years is that we don’t always have to wait. It’s just a matter of our priorities.
I’ve heard it said that the best teachers are also continuous students. Do you still feel like a student? I absolutely think that’s true. Every single time I teach a class, I learn just as much from my students as they learn from me. I learn how to articulate my ideas better, and I also learn new ideas, new approaches, new ways of reading.
I also read all the time. I read writers I love and writers I loathe. Every book I read has something to teach me, good or bad. I will never stop learning how to write – there is no such thing as “done” with a piece of writing, and there’s no such thing as “enough” when it comes to learning about writing . . . and life.
Looking back, how did you develop your voice as a writer? Voice is such a hard thing to pin down. We usually know it when we see it, but finding our own – that takes time. For me, one key was when my writing teacher Ted Gup said that I had this “quasi-bohemian voice.” (See, I liked the description so much I remembered it verbatim.) He told me it was distinctive and intriguing, but that my biggest danger as a writer would be that I started to parrot myself. I have worked hard not to try to “sound” like me. Instead, I try to just write like me.It’s hard to articulate how I do that, but it involves sinking into myself and writing not from the place where I think – that place is too careful, too crafted – but from the place where I feel. I describe it as the voice that comes from behind my sternum. I try every day to spend time in that place and write when comes up, without censoring or crafting. I try to be me – the me Ted Gup described with that great phrase.
What are you currently working on? Currently, I’m working on the final edits for a book about the people who were enslaved on the plantation where I was raised. The book tells the stories of individual people – gleaned from historical documents – as well as my story of getting to know them. Tentatively, the book is titled You Will Not Be Forgotten.
Thanks so much Andi! Remember at the beginning where I mentioned Andi was gracious? Well, she told me that if you use the promotional code Unknown Jim you will get 15% off her class when you register. More details are here. I’ve taken her non-fiction class and I HIGHLY recommend any of her classes—especially if you want to grow as a writer.
Let’s keep the conversation going-what dreams are you currently pursuing?