Alla Umanskiy

I’m a Writer. Am I Allowed to Say That?

Photo credit: Getty Images

I got a chance to sit at a Shakespeare and Co. bookstore on the Upper West Side of Manhattan a couple of weeks ago.  It was raining, it was October, it was gloomy. I was visiting New York for a long weekend, my husband, daughters, and some melancholy in tow.  Melancholy seemed fitting for that rainy Saturday afternoon in the bookstore’s coffeeshop.  But then, melancholy is always appropriate.

I sat and watched the rain, and I thought about being a working writer. Of all the things one can think about on a rainy New York afternoon, I thought about the thing that at that moment gave me the most meaning.  I am a writer, I thought.  Am I allowed to say that? To think that? To announce it to the world? I am a writer.

Here comes the cliché portion – my whole life, or at least since high school, I’ve wanted to be a writer. There was nothing else ever in the cards for me, though, oh, did my parents try… I grew up in an immigrant family, where we had approximately three career options:  something medical, lawyer, or an engineer.  That’s it. Pick one. (Non-coincidentally, both my parents fit into those holes. My mom is “something medical.” My dad is an engineer.)  Occasionally, an additional option may be presented. Perhaps an accountant?

But I… I wanted to write. And write I did… for my high school newspaper, for my college newspaper, for the local Atlanta Russian newspaper, for pretty much any free publication that would have me. Stringing words together was and still is one of the only things that brings me immense satisfaction, that gives my life meaning, that helps define who I am.

Anyone who has ever gone against their parents’ wishes when choosing a career path knows the fear that accompanies this defiance. I clearly remember that when I told my mom I wanted to be a writer, she said: “Great. You can be a doctor and write for medical journals.”  I don’t blame her. I’m a mother myself now and I know how much we want our kids’ paths to be easier than our own.  We want them to have less struggle. We want them to have the security and stability that only money can provide. I know. I look at my daughters and I think about it too.

But I couldn’t be a doctor. The sight of human insides (even on video) makes me nauseated. I look away when I must get a shot. I once passed out when taking my grandmother to a colonoscopy. I did not want to be a lawyer, or an accountant, or an engineer. I wanted to put words together.

In defense of my parents, they simply did not know of any writing professions that could bring a stable income. In their mind, writing meant writing novels. And, of course, they understood that although there were thousands of budding novelists, only a handful would ever make it to the Amazon bestseller list. The rest would struggle. And they did not want me to struggle. They’ve struggled enough themselves.

I’m a working writer now. I received two writing degrees from two different universities. I’ve written dozens of articles and have published locally and nationally. I also have a corporate writing job – yes, there is a way to make a stable income writing! I have taught writing at college level for several years and have served as a judge in numerous high school writing contests.

Much has been said, written, and depicted in pop culture about writers. Writers are supposed to be starving. Writers are supposed to be tortured. Writers are supposed to be undervalued and misunderstood. Some of these generalizations have applied to me. Some apply to me still. My first writing salary out of college was $36,000 per year. That’s for the starving part. And honestly, for a writer, that’s not even terrible. I never actually starved, but I ate a lot of canned food and had a lot of side hustles.

I was and continue to be tortured on the subject of what to write, on the subject of what to think, on the subject of how to put all these feelings into words, about making it all mean something.  Torture is the fuel of any artist, the spark that helps light the fire for any creator, for any creative. (I love living in a world where “creative” has become a noun!)

When it comes to being undervalued, I have mixed thoughts. To the credit of most of my friends, I have rarely felt less-than when I’m in company of other highly accomplished people. However, it all depends on how one defines accomplishment. If that definition is in direct proportion to how much money one earns, I will probably never quite clear the imaginary bar.  A female relative once said to me, after hearing that I published an article in a national publication, “It’s so great to have a hobby like that!”  Women often cut each other down without even realizing it.  By calling writing my “hobby,” she diminished it, making it sound as if I wrote the way someone would knit or collect stamps – on weekends, for fun, and not as a “real job.”  It hurt. It also made me mad.

I’m a working writer. Despite my parents, or maybe because of them. Despite the pathetic early salaries. Despite the overwhelming amount of competition. For years, I was embarrassed to utter these words out loud, to own what was mine, to proclaim to the world this one thing that I was super proud of.  I reside in a world of software developers, and doctors, and engineers, and lawyers, and vice presidents of major corporations.  All my friends (and my spouse!) are amazing, highly accomplished, mega-successful, wonderful people. They have all worked phenomenally hard to achieve in their careers. None of them are writers.  Perhaps it’s the immigrant story. Perhaps I was one of the few crazy enough to pursue a career with no guarantee of a financial windfall. I don’t know. But I’m a working writer.  I had to pick, and I picked.

It was still raining when I left Shakespeare and Co., heading to lunch down the wet New York sidewalk.


About the Author
Alla Umanskiy is a writer, Jewish mother, wife, an amateur runner, and a mediocre figure skater, living, working, and raising a family in the Atlanta area. Alla holds an undergraduate degree in Journalism from Georgia State University and a graduate degree in Professional Writing from Kennesaw State University. She's been published in various local and national publications, and recently finished translating a book from Russian to English.