From Hospital to Clarion

I’m packing. Retirement is coming up fast. Someone asked me, “How do you feel about retiring?” and I answered, “I don’t know. I’ve never done it before.”

I’ve quit jobs, yes. Took time off between jobs, yes. I’ve always had a job. In nursing school, I worked as a nurses aide. Before stumbling into nursing as a career without even thinking about it growing up, I worked in cafeterias, a dime store (a retail model existing only in ghostly fashion as Kmart) , a natural foods restaurant, a hiking store. I never really liked working. I clung to the idea of something in the arts—being good enough to support myself and told myself that my registered nurse license was just for the wages so that I could do what I really want.

I continued my voice lessons while in nursing school and took a music theory class. Our final assignment was to compose something Bach-like. There were rules we had to follow. Fuck the rules, I did it all by ear. I got an A.

I practiced my drawing. I got A’s in my art classes in high school and my first aimless semesters at college before going back to become an R.N.

I also wrote novels. I took a short story class while in nursing school. (The routinely inebriated male professor gave me an A plus.) I kept a journal. My nursing professors said I was a good writer, except they wished I hadn’t used so much whiteout on my papers. (Typed with a Hermes portable typewriter as I sat on my apartment floor.)

Going back to college to get my Bachelor in the Science of Nursing was the smartest thing I ever did. But of all the things I was driven to do, writing has held on the longest.

I was good at nursing, too. After 3 years in my first job, I trained to work in critical care. That was when I was happiest as a nurse, I think. I loved critical care. I was kind of a drama junkie, I’m certain.

However, that is an entire new blog to write another day.

Today I want to write about the last time I took a long hiatus from working.

That was the summer of 1984. I was writing short stories and working on my fantasy novel, a sort of long-term love/hate project that I couldn’t finish or get out of my mind. I read magazines about writing, and in one of them I saw an ad for a 6 week science fiction/fantasy workshop in Seattle. I applied immediately; knowing that my workplace would never give me two months off, I would have to quit. I had to find the money for the fee (credit card). But I wasn’t worried about any of that. My first worry was being accepted.

I sent in a chapter from the novel.

When I got my acceptance I was over the moon. I found someone to take care of my cats. I called my sister who lived in Seattle to ask if I could stay with her while attending the workshop. I gave notice.

This was the Clarion West Workshop’s resurrection after an attempt at establishment in the early 70’s. Too talented and devoted women, Marilyn Holt and J.T Stewart, got the ball rolling, inviting writers, finding accommodations, managing fees, reviewing our manuscripts. Honestly, of the lineup of six teachers, I only knew of 2: David Hartwell and Norman Spinrad. (I read science fiction and fantasy, but I was not a devotee.)

I learned even more from those I had never heard of before: Terry Carr, Suzy McKee Charnas, Arthur Byron Cover and Vonda McIntyre.

Many of you already know that Vonda is gone. We lost her last week to pancreatic cancer. There are dozens and dozens of thoughtful, clever, brilliant remembrances written about her since her death, so this is not really another one. In her quiet, stolid way, she helped me bring life to my characters. She championed me always, and I felt she saw something there, in my work.

I’ve not made much money from writing. When I learned about Vonda’s Book View Cafe, I immediately applied to join. Again, I think Vonda was behind this, still believing in me.

So yes, I am retiring from nursing. I don’t think I’ll miss it much, but it’s in my blood enough that I’ll keep that nursing license I worked so hard for, at least for a while. I’ve been slacking on the writing the last couple years. But I think I hear Vonda’s voice, I see her smile, and I think, “I can’t let her down.” So writing will come back to the front of the arts again, where it never really left.

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About Jill Zeller

The author of numerous short stories and novels, Jill Zeller lives near Seattle, Washington, with her patient and adoring husband, two English mastiffs, and one self-centered tuxedo cat. Her works explore the boundaries of reality. Some may call it fantasy, but there are rarely swords and never elves. More to the point, she prefers to write as if myth, imagination and hallucination were as real as the chair she is sitting on as she writes this. Maybe it is because she was raised as a Christian Scientist. Jill Zeller also writes under the pseudonym Hunter Morrison

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