Outside the Lines: Grace O'Connell

From day jobs to evening gigs and volunteer duties, Outside the Lines, is a series of posts exploring MFA graduates' lives and literary work outside of their primary writing practice...


Like most writers, I've had a lot of jobs. Tracking down university alumni over the phone, helping run a church youth group, bartending, waitressing, packing boxes of knock-off hand lotion in a factory, working as a movie extra. One time I was working on a movie set and the woman doing my hair called over three other stylists. The problem? As I overheard them lamenting, they couldn't make me look cool.

My work history is a bit strange because I've always tried to make room for writing; either by working from home, working multiple part-time jobs, or freelancing. Of course, that hustle ends up costing a lot of time, energy, and financial opportunity costs, which means the theory of being able to write more doesn't always work in reality.

I started out on the publishing side of things, wanting to work with books even if I wasn't writing them. I interned at the McClelland & Stewart editorial department (hi guys, you were the best!), did photo research for textbook publisher Pearson, and got my first real job (marketing and admin) at LongPen, the company that promoted and sold the giant, ATM-like robot that Margaret Atwood had designed to help with book events. With that one, I got to go to Book Expo America. I was 22 when we flew to New York; it was the first time I'd ever been on a plane.

Eventually though, I admitted that I really wanted to be writing. I got funding to do an MFA and cobbled together part-time jobs: I worked at TYPE and briefly bartended at Roy Thomsom Hall. I was hurting for money though, and I ended up reaching out to the Writers' Trust, an organization I loved, to ask if they could use a freelance writer or editor. In a moment of pure luck, it turned out they needed an actual part-time employee. I interviewed and got the job as Development Coordinator, which I did for the next two years with the great team there, working three and then four days a week while going to school.

I started my teaching career while I was still at the Trust, teaching Wednesday nights at George Brown after work. That was just after I had sold my first book. Eventually I moved to U of T's continuing studies department when they needed someone on short notice. Now I teach every term as an instructor for the Introduction to Creative Writing class, which I love. Con Ed doesn't pay well, but the department is great and the students are awesome.

Around the time I started at U of T, I applied for a posted position: Contributing Editor at Open Book. I got the job and eventually became Senior Editor. I love my job at Open Book, where I work with dozens of small press publishers. I've been doing it for more than six years, and it never gets old. I handle all the author interviews, usually about three per week, as well as general pieces covering things like book prizes, Canada Reads, festivals, contests. I have a huge, colour-coded spreadsheet that covers my portion of the site content for the entire year that I basically live in. We're a tiny team so we're never able to cover everything we'd like to, but I love helping spread the word about books and getting to geek out by doing things like writing new interview series. Like most arts work, it isn't very lucrative (are you sensing a theme?), but it's consistent and I work with great people. I love being able to support Canadian books without having to be out in the bar-based, sometimes socially confusing, event side of the industry.

It's also a big detail of my work/financial life to say that I've applied for grants whenever I have a book project and have been decently lucky in that capacity (though I've certainly had plenty of rejections as well).

Sometimes I wonder if it would have been wiser to pursue a more corporate job and write around that, but I think the grass is always greener for writers, whatever their day jobs are. I'd always find a way to procrastinate, and I'd always find a way, in the end, to write.

Grace O'Connell (2008 cohort) is a Toronto-based writer and editor. She is the author of Magnified World (Random House Canada 2012), a national bestseller, and Be Ready for the Lightning (Random House Canada 2017). She writes a books column for This Magazine and her work has appeared in The Walrus, the Globe and Mail, The National Post, The Toronto Star, Taddle Creek, ELLE Canada, Sharp for Men, CBC Music, FASHION Magazine, and various other publications. Grace was the recipient of the 2014 Canadian Authors Association Emerging Writer Award and teaches creative writing at the University of Toronto.