• Alison Caddell

Losing in Order to Find: My Journey to Creative & Professional Writing

Updated: Apr 11

In the fall of 2015, I was working at Tuskegee University as a secretary, having been placed in an extremely high position, one I'd never thought I would achieve as a secretary - Office Manager to the President. My promotion had been a surprise to me and everything that came with it seemed like a whirlwind of opportunities: bigger job, bigger pay, bigger responsibilities. I was making more money than I'd ever made in my life. People were patting me on the back. Congratulating me. Telling me I'd made it so far.

And with all of that, I should have been happy, but I wasn't happy at all...I was depressed.

So when I was offered the chance to work in the Public Relations department, to better utilize the writing skills that had gotten me noticed by the president in the first place, I thought I'd finally been given the chance to use my gifts in a way that would open doors to writing becoming my career focus. I thought, Now things are going to get better.

And then - they didn't.

Without going into details, I can say I experienced more on-the-job stress than I'd ever experienced in my life. I smiled on the outside, because so many people told me how blessed I was, but inside I was falling apart. I prayed and prayed to God about how unhappy I was, how wrecked I was, and one day I heard a voice simply say Turn in your two weeks notice. By the end of May 2016, I was happily free, but "free" became synonymous with "jobless" and unsure of what the next move would be.

After months of false starts in the job hunting world - reneged offers, constant interviews and travels that led to never getting a callback - I was finally offered a position at the University of North Alabama. It paid way less than what I'd ever made at Tuskegee and required me to move four hours away from my hometown. I'd hoped to have a comeback story that would alleviate any concerns people had over me spontaneously quitting such a high paying job, and this wasn't really it.

But by that point (after crashing on my sister's couch to avoid actually being homeless), I'd have taken a job at Little Caesar's - which I had applied to and never heard from. So a halftime secretary position for little pay was just fine with me. And there was a silver lining in the cloud: UNA's employee benefits included full tuition remission.

For years, while working at Tuskegee University, I'd been constantly implored and encouraged - bombarded even - by people insisting I needed a higher education degree. You're so smart - you should've already had a masters by now. I had not only grown up and lived in a college town, I was living in a historically acclaimed college town. So it was inevitable that my peers valued education and believed that I should have as much of it as possible.

So I'd kept applying to those typical degrees that made sense for someone working in the academic office setting - online MBA programs. And every time I started one, I just didn't have the drive to finish one. Because deep down inside, I wanted to be a writer, not a business expert. I wanted to learn writing, practice writing, and grow writing. But that didn't make sense for a secretary - a business degree seemed more sensible. And while Tuskegee also offered tuition remission, the only classes I could've feigned interest in at a STEM-heavy school were the business courses I settled for taking online.

But now, by the end of 2016, I was working at the University of North Alabama. And they had undergraduate courses in writing that I could take...for free. And they were getting ready to launch their inaugural Master of Arts Writing program.

My first semester of classes ended up being so valuable to me, worth more than the money I saved by not having to pay for them. I was (re)introduced to the creative writing workshop and found a place where I finally flourished as a student, after so many failures in online programs. And I was finally studying something I was passionate about, which had not been the case when I'd initially attempted to get an English degree from the University of Montevallo, only to graduate with a Spanish degree since I wasn't really that drawn to reading or dissecting the works of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Marlow.

But at UNA, I didn't have to write about British literature. I could write my own literature, create my own stories. I was learning about writing from an experienced poet and storyteller (Professor Jason McCall), and workshopping with other students passionate about poetry, stories, and essays. I was also taking the skills and talents I had acquired as a secretary and translating them into excellent work in classes focused on grant writing, technical writing, and professional writing. I was also learning about new genres I had never heard of, such as soundwriting and multimodal writing.

And now, I can finally see how quitting that high paying job turned out to be the best investment in my future I never could have imagined. By letting go of something that was simply a source of income, I set myself up to gain a career that also feeds my passion for writing. I am teaching writing at the university level, researching options for my doctoral studies, and growing under the light of helping others overcome their writing fears as well.

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