Outside the Box: From Teaching to Tea Parties

June 8, 2012 | 7 6 min read

I spoke to my friend Rebecca the other day. Like me, she’s a writer. Like me, she’s published three books. Like me — and most other people who do creative things — she needs to do something else to make a living. There’s a 99 percent with writers too.

So she teaches, as I also have. But jobs are hard to come by, especially if you don’t have an MFA. A few years ago Rebecca, who’s in her 40s, decided to get one.  In the program she went to, she worked with a couple of writers she admired, and met a lot of other (younger) aspiring writers/teachers of writing. She got the credential the academic marketplace apparently wants. What she didn’t get out of her program was a job.

I could hear it in her voice when we spoke, her panic. She didn’t know what to do. She’d put in time and money to get that degree, there was supposed to be work at the end of it, and there wasn’t.

Or, that’s not entirely true: there are teaching jobs of a particular kind. In colleges. In English or writing departments. It’s just that they’re in hard-to-get-to places and they pay very little. Very, very little. I know writers who take these jobs. It’s necessary to cobble together a schedule of 10 or more courses at various schools to make a (very) minimal living. And forget writing. The teaching and office hours and prep and grading, to say nothing of traveling from campus to campus, doesn’t leave them any time to do that.

A few years ago, I was pretty much in the same place as Rebecca. I didn’t have an MFA, but I’d made a sporadic living from teaching — writing courses, mostly, but also freshman comp and eventually, high school English — to supplement what I earned from my novels. When the high school job turned into subbing and the subbing turned infrequent, I started looking for work.

I talked to everyone I knew who had any connection to schools. I was given “use my name” type introductions from other writers. I spoke to heads of departments. I sent out resumes. I spent time regretting the other high school teaching job I’d turned down some years before when I’d gotten a job teaching at a college. I had teaching experience. I had publication credits. I figured I’d find a job.

But I didn’t. So I expanded my job search. I started looking for tutoring work, which led to homework helper-ing, which led to babysitting. Nothing. I felt panicked, like I was bashing around in a pitch dark room. I couldn’t find a way out.

And then one day, I was sitting in my kitchen and I looked up at the pile of serving platters I have sitting on a shelf. They’re vintage platters — some restaurant ware, some from mid-century manufacturers — vintage china is one of the things I collect in a random, if I find it at a thrift store or a yard sale and it isn’t expensive and I like it kind of way. I use the platters a lot when I entertain. Tea parties.

I’ve been throwing tea parties for years. I’ve made bridal and baby shower tea parties. Birthday teas. Get togethers. Children’s parties. I serve tea sandwiches — turkey and cucumber with, yes, the crusts cut off — and little cakes. Sometimes scones with cream and strawberry butter. Everybody liked them — even men.

I’d done it for friends and family. Why couldn’t I do it for a living?

Some people thought it was a great idea, some people thought it was nuts and some people kind of took a figurative step or two away when I mentioned it to them, as if a writer who taught was someone worth knowing, but a writer who made tea parties — no.

But I didn’t care — I had to do something. So I started to prepare. I sourced breads and found a bakery that could slice loaves really thin. I bought vintage Japanese lusterware cups and saucers and dishes, and 1950s triple-tiered serving trays for the tea sandwiches, scones and pastries. I came up with a name (A Proper Tea), and made business cards. I loved the business cards.

And I tested recipes. Many, many recipes. For sandwiches. For scones. For chocolate cakes with chocolate frosting and little coconut cupcakes and lemon bars and a Victoria sponge with jam in the middle and whipped cream on top. Everyone around me was very happy. I baked all the time.

I was very busy. And being busy — and directed — helped. I felt not so panicked. Not so despairing. I stopped looking for teaching/tutoring/homework helpering/babysitting jobs. Not that I wouldn’t take a teaching job if it came along, but I started to feel like I didn’t have to. Like I could make a place for myself in the world, a place that would allow me to do what I needed to do (write) while still doing the other thing that I needed to do (earn a living.)

I read an article a few years ago about a young man who, like many of his peers, couldn’t find a job when he graduated from college. So he started a business. His first attempt tanked — he hadn’t narrowed his concept enough — but once he figured that out, his second try took off. And once his business was successful, he started a foundation to offer advice and a financial kickstart to other recent college graduates who couldn’t find jobs. There aren’t any jobs, he said. You have to make your own.

I’d always assumed once I’d published some books and had a few awards for my writing I’d get hired to teach the art form I practiced. I’d have demonstrated a certain level of mastery, I figured that’s what writing programs would be looking for. It just didn’t happen.

I wasn’t a recent college graduate, but I had to make my own, alternate way, too.

As it turned out, a catering business wasn’t the right fit for me. It required too much time, and there were too many variables — food service is a tough way to make a living. But whether or not A Proper Tea was a proper fit was beside the point. What was important was that moment when I looked up and saw the stacks of platters on my kitchen shelf and realized I could do something else; that teaching wasn’t the only possibility. My thinking changed.

Not long after I packed up the lusterware and stopped baking little cakes and put the business cards in a drawer (too bad; I loved those cards) a friend said, “Why don’t you sell vintage clothing?”

It wasn’t as random as it sounds. I’ve worn and collected vintage clothing for years, I like it and know something about it. So I did.

In between the suggestion and the going concern it turned out to be, there was a lot to figure out. How do you run a business? How do you price things? How do you store them? Where do you get stuff to sell? Once I’d sold my way through the overflow of my own collection, then what?

I called my friend Sara, who used to own a vintage clothing store and asked her about inventory.

“Well,” she said. “For starters, you get stuff from me.”

Apparently, once you’ve run and then closed a vintage shop, the things that were previously treasures to you become just a whole lot of stuff taking up valuable NYC real estate. Sara had boxes and boxes full of vintage dresses and skirts and coats and hats (hats!) in her apartment, and an overflowing storage unit downtown with more of same. She was happy to sell, and I was happy to buy. And it was fun.

Sara also told me she used to subscribe to a newsletter put out by a probate court clerk. It was a compiled list of settled estates, and it was mostly used by real estate agents who weren’t above (or below) banging on the doors of the recently departed to ask if they could list the apartments.

Sara also used the list to contact heirs, though she wrote them kind notes on nice stationery offering to buy the clothing they probably wanted to get rid of anyway. This, she said, worked. But it made me a little queasy.

Danielle, also the former owner of a vintage shop, said elderly women sometimes wandered in to talk to her about their wardrobes. The pieces they’d kept all had stories — how they’d been acquired, where they’d been worn, who the women had been with/danced with/had cocktails with when they wore them. Clothing carries personal history, it’s meaningful.

Once the women saw Danielle was as interested in them, their history, as she was in the clothes, they sold them to her.

I don’t own a shop, so I don’t get any off-the-street traffic, but I set up an online vintage clothing business. I sell mostly the mid-century pieces I like best. It’s a lot of work, and I don’t quite make a living yet. But I’m getting there. And it’s a good — a better — fit than A Proper Tea. I like the stories too.

Listening to Rebecca’s voice that day on the phone, I could hear she was struggling the way I’d been a few years earlier. I told her how I’d gotten from that same place, to this one. That the hardest part isn’t the work, it’s getting yourself to think differently; getting off that single-minded track you’ve been on, the one that says writing is to teaching, as the dish is to the spoon, and finding another path.

I could tell she wasn’t there yet. A lot of her sentences started “Yes, but–” She went and got that MFA, she just couldn’t believe it wasn’t going to help her find a job. Maybe it will.

Maybe I should call her back and invite her to tea.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

is a writer living in New York. She's published three novels -- The Trespasser, A Cold Spring, and Acceptable Losses -- as well as many short stories, and is a recipient of fellowships in fiction from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts. Her online vintage shop is called Four Story Vintage. She recently finished a new novel called Early In the Morning, Late at Night.


  1. I am always afraid to tell my MFA students about how difficult it is to find work with an MFA for fear of discouraging them. Even for writers with books, as you point out, it’s not easy to find teaching work. So we do need to start preparing them (and ourselves) to look for other kinds of work; I usually suggest tech writing, copywriting, high school teaching, or something that provides both benefits and good pay. For me, I’ve tried to cobble together a living from part-time teaching, freelance writing, and other kinds of part-time gigs, but I’m not even close to paying off those giant student loans yet…that’s the reality, I think, for most MFA grads.

  2. I don’t think she was saying vintage clothing and tea will provide a living wage–though for the right person they certainly could. Writing rarely provides a living wage. Teaching writing classes doesn’t provide a living wage. But I agree that to make a living or at least not give up while looking for a living wage, you have to change your thinking and try different things.

  3. That storry is in a way an eye opener for me, as I assumed that it’s easier to start making a living in writing after having acquired a MFA. I am a writer without it starting my fourth career, only now: at the end of my day career and my current job as a social worker. It is said that we need to change careers at least 3 times nowadays. I knew it was not easy to get published, but this makes me even more determined to chart my own course. I am a self publisher. It’s quite obvious that life is not going to be an easy road for baby boomers’ children making their way in life.
    Thanks for that piece.
    Johanna van Zanten

  4. I’m considering doing an MA in English Literature even as I struggle to get my first book published. I’m 24, and I realize of course that just writing is not going to help me put bread on the table, and even now I have a job as a freelance copywriter. I take what comes to me, and most of the time it’s the kind of writing I hate to do, but a job is a job. This is a fantastic article — I’m going to make a mention on it at my blog, and redirect people here, I hope that’s okay. I think a lot of lay people don’t realize that writing is not as glamorous as it sounds. We’re not all getting drunk to be inspired. Some choices are hard. But then, if it was about the money we wouldn’t have started out on this road, anyway. There are SO many easier ways to make money.

  5. It has taken me a long time to come to terms with the fact that the work that pays my bills and the work that I consider “my life’s work” are not necessarily the same thing. I am lucky that the field in which I am trained and have worked for ~15 years pays the bills well, so now I am starting to look for part time contract positions to keep my income levels up while also giving me some time and energy to spend on side projects, in hopes of figuring out what my life’s work really is. My first side project has no hope whatsoever of ever bringing in enough money to support my standard of living- it is the website linked above, which is a website about short eBooks. But it doesn’t have to pay the bills, and I’m learning (and having fun) a lot setting it up, so that’s all good.

    So maybe there is another option for writers- find something you can do as a contractor at a highish hourly rate, and use that to pay the bills. In prior day jobs, I worked with contract technical writers, for instance. I doubt that writing my project documentation made their souls sing- but it paid well, and we were always thrilled to find a good one. The downside to this approach is that you might have to invest a a fair number of years at fulltime to get good enough- and have enough contacts- to go out part time. But it is something to consider.

    And of course, one of my pie-in-the-sky goals with my website is to grow the market for short ebooks… so that writers can make more money writing!

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