WRITING LIFE: Confessions of a Working Writer by Penny Guisinger

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It used to be that the most frightening four words were, “Are you a writer?”

It used to be that my response to those four words was to find something fascinating about my own shoe while mumbling, “Sort of,” then changing the subject. To anything.

It used to be that I could not possibly wear the title because I was not writer enough to have earned it.

It used to be that I worked as a development director at a nonprofit and wrote my creative stuff only between the hours of 5 and 6:30 a.m. when my family was asleep. I earned an MFA this way. Writing half-asleep with coffee at my elbow. Somehow, slowly, submission turned into rejection which yielded more rejection and the occasional acceptance and, ultimately, a book with my name on the cover. Alongside that non-paying, literary work, I started a consulting business. I described my paid work as, “Writing lots of things. Mostly grants.”  Now, I split my paid time between freelance grant writing and serving as a part-time public relations director at a university. Sometimes, I teach creative nonfiction or do some developmental editing. Most of the time, I don’t.

I’m a creature known as a working writer. I write press releases, grants, web copy, brochures, fundraising, and promotional materials. I edit other people’s creative work. I do some coaching and teaching. This work earns money.

I am also a creature known as a literary writer. I write essays, prose poems, and have a few book manuscripts in the works. This work mostly costs me money.


And so where is the intersection between working writing and literary writing? (Pardon the clumsiness of the terms. Language is bendy.) How related is the mind that writes publishable (sometimes) essays at 5 in the morning to the mind that writes a press release for glow-in-the-dark volleyball in the afternoon? Is this a form of writer schizophrenia? (Is that a thing? Please don’t let that be a thing.)

My answer is that these two things are actually one thing. Whether I’m writing an essay about my childhood or making the ask for a six-figure grant, I use the same tools.

I’ll go farther out on the skinny branches and say this: my literary writing is better because I’m a working writer. Writing for a living pays my mortgage, and it helps me sharpen very specific skills that I put to work when I’m writing creative nonfiction.



My paid work is fitting huge ideas into tiny boxes. Most of my grant work is for funding from private foundations, and those applications get a little smaller every year. No longer the 10–20 page tomes they used to be, foundation applications are now primarily web-based, and answers to questions are measured by the character. It’s a normal day for me to make a five-figure ask in 300 characters. (It used to be word counts, but you could sometimes cut a corner by hyphenating, and I think someone finally caught on.) It’s the same when I’m writing a website or promotional copy: format rules content. It makes me better able to hunt down unnecessary words. They. Are. Everywhere.


There’s a perception that grant writing is formulaic. People often say to me that they “need to learn to write grants.” My flippant answer is always, “It’s just following directions and answering questions. A monkey could do my job.” (That’s  not entirely untrue, as long as the monkey has a solid understanding of how to craft a compelling story with a beginning, middle, end, and call to action in under 300 characters, including spaces.) For real, though, the people who receive and score grant applications are readers and they want to feel moved and compelled just like any other reader. The job is to deliberately craft a resonant story that hits the heart and simultaneously opens the wallet. Jargon and abstract language are out. A (more or less) narrative approach (in a very tiny space) is in.


What aspect of creative writing is harder to describe than tone? (It’s like trying to describe different shades of blue.) But adopting and maintaining the right tone for the purpose and reader at hand is critical in all copy and grant writing. I wrote some web copy for a hip, young tech company, and the language had to be playful and fun. That would be highly inappropriate when applying for a grant to fund a program that prevents child abuse. (File that good advice under “How Not to Get Fired.”) Tone has to be consistent and appropriate to the purpose of the piece.


You know that thing when you’re writing a creative piece? That thing where you have all this material you can (and want to) include, but you don’t know what order to put it in for maximum effect? That thing. You know the thing I’m talking about. Same problem with copy and grant writing. Most grant applications are a series of pretty vague questions that could be answered with multiple parts of the story you have come to tell. So even in the confines of six questions allowing 125 characters each (it happens), you have a lot of latitude to craft the grant however you like. (No way could even a brilliant monkey do that!) The same is true in writing a tri-fold brochure for a nonprofit or a business. You have six panels. Use them wisely. Doing this over and over has helped me approach my creative writing with a better sense of how to intentionally bring the reader into the world I’ve created.

I told Rae I would keep this under 1,100 words, so it’s time to wrap up. (Occupational hazard.) The way I lost my hedging when asked if I’m a writer was to drop the capricious distinction between day job and writer job, between paid work and literary work: it’s a matter of language and how we use it which is the very thing we’re good at. I used to say I wasn’t writer enough to be a writer, but I’ve broadened the word enough to move my commute, my paying clients, my tax write-offs, and my office jeans (not the same as my home jeans – you know you know what I’m talking about) into the word. Am I a full-time writer? Yes. Yes, I am.


Penny Guisinger is the author of Postcards from Here. Her work has appeared in Fourth Genre, River Teeth, Guernica, Solstice, and others. Pushcart nominated, a Maine Literary Award winner, and twice a notable in Best American Essays, she directs Iota: Conference of Short Prose and is an assistant editor at Brevity.

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