My Life Has Been the Blog Post: Brian Short on How He Got Here

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My life has been the blog post I would have writ
But I could not both live and Snapchizzle™ it.

1.

On a dreary day during the fall of my freshman year at university, there was a shooting behind my dorm. Japanese finished at 9 a.m. and by 9:10 I was back in my room, wearing my roommate’s headphones without his permission and blasting Ill Communication straight into my eardrums. The next thing I knew the phone was ringing. It was my roommate’s dad, saying there had been a shooting right outside our door.

The shooter was a mentally ill ROTC student. She killed somebody. The guy who lived across the hall from me got shot in the backpack, the bullet drilling through a stack of textbooks and lodging in the one closest to his skin.

For a long time I felt a kinship with that guy. Books saved my life, too, was how I thought about it. But I don’t think that way anymore.

2.

I used to make rules for myself. You have to read 50 pages a day. You have to finish a book a week. You have to read every Believer and New Yorker cover to cover. This was during my 20s. Everybody I knew was worrying about their career or their kids and I was worrying about whether I’d finish D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow by Sunday. It sounds silly but it gave me something to grab onto, a foam ring in choppy seas.

Once after a breakup I called in sick to work and rode the bus out to Lands End and read CivilWarLand in Bad Decline cover to cover in one go, sitting on a bald spot among the scrub grass, letting my mind float. When my eyes needed a break I looked up and there was the whole Pacific Ocean right in front of me.

Back then, CivilWarLand wasn’t a marker of taste or style. It wasn’t me saying yes to Donald Barthelme and no to Ben Marcus (or whatever). It was an object, a rock in the river. It was A Thing I Needed.

3.

Graduate school was crazy and after, I thought, I did it. I got my degree, now give me a job. But that was just the beginning of all that.

I tutored test prep and English literature, answered text messages for ChaCha. wrote greeting cards and book reviews, anything that paid. I managed social media channels and blogged and wrote grant proposals. Some of the writers I knew were jealous that I was getting these jobs. I made well below the poverty line.

I kept writing, but my reading life suffered. Choosing books had always been a whole process, matching what I thought a book contained against my current metaphysical state and seeing how well they fit together. But choosing turned into a chore. No matter what I did, I always felt like I was reading the same book over and over, the same story, the same voice. And they weren’t. That’s not a fair thing to think or feel. But that’s how I felt.

Around this time, one of the grant proposals I was working on involved innovations in education (I know, you hear those words together like that, you’re already asleep). I found Khan Academy and then I found a poorly trafficked blog with a post dissing Khan Academy, the only dissenting voice on the whole Internet, it seemed. I read more posts on this one blog and stumbled onto something called the Summer of Oblivion, an online storytelling project that was also a course that was also a game. The lead instructor had shaved his head to look like Dr. Brian O’Blivion from Videodrome. I hadn’t seen anything like it, so I kept digging.

Summer of Oblivion was part of something called DS106, which was a course in Digital Storytelling, and it was open to anyone. I signed up and did the homework and ended up doing all kinds of stuff. I photoshopped myself into old Twilight Zone episodes. I made Troll Quotes and animated gif playing cards of silent movies. I completed assignments called “Wiggle Stereoscopy” and “Pick a Bad Photo, Apply a Vintage Effect, and Write Something in Helvetica.” It was a blast.

I was adjuncting then, teaching at multiple institutions, you know what that’s like. I pitched a digital storytelling class to the Residential College at the University of Michigan (I got my M.F.A. at U-M) and Laura Thomas, the creative writing program head there, she gave it the go-ahead.

I had never taught a class like it. We made an eleven-part Youtube movie about copyright infringement (including screencasts and live video; I played the bad guy). We read Robert Hass and watched documentaries about Diane Arbus and made supercuts of Phineas and Ferb. We addressed issues as dangerous as drug abuse and as innocuous as Bad Lip Reading. I screwed up a lot, sometimes with larger, ethical issues (like privacy) and sometimes with smaller, practical issues (like how to teach twenty people how to use the clone tool in Photoshop). But I was learning. We were all learning.

The class made me think differently about how I taught creative writing, also. It made me wonder. Does literature respond too much to itself, and not to the world? Are current students’ tendencies to write in first person present related somehow to, say, Youtube videos in general, or viral videos in particular, or even more specifically wingsuit videos? (I just wanted to mention wingsuit videos.) What would Ahab’s Instagram feed look like, or Queequeg’s? What would Madame Bovary tweet the first time she saw Numa Numa? Even the silly questions felt useful.

By the end of the class, I knew I wanted to teach it again, but I didn’t know if I’d ever get the chance.

I also knew it was time to slow this whole train down just a little and spend a minute figuring out what the hell it was that I was doing.

(Here’s where the essay slows down, too.)

6.

As I explored, I found that digital storytelling courses and programs tend to take on the flavor of the departments that house them. In Communication Studies, DS classes skew towards media theory and social media strategy. The University of Mary Washington’s DS106 class is housed in the computer science department, and it focuses a good deal of students’ time and energy on developing personal web spaces and individualized cyberinfrastructures.

What’s missing so far in this (still pretty quiet) national conversation is any kind of focus on the “story” part of digital storytelling. Creative writers programs and faculty have very important tools to offer this field—including a lifetime’s worth of training with voice, character, perspective, and plot—that can help students succeed in new storytelling spaces. We do the field a disservice by not insisting on our values—for example, that blogs be well written, that stories be compelling. There should be more of us on the web, on Instagram, on Storehouse, on Prezi. If that’s where storytelling is going, then as storytellers we have an obligation to follow.

And you can tell me I’m wrong. You can say that there are troubling assumptions in this argument, and that “creative writing” is different than “storytelling” and that conflating the two is dangerous. No doubt there will and absolutely should be programs and people who insist that this be the case, who defend the boundaries of the country from invaders. But there also needs to be programs that talk more about where our need for story comes from—in terms of biology and evolution—and who can illuminate the ways in which the values of good storytelling largely define what is a good bar story, and what is good literature, and what is a good Blabberize video, and what is a good annotated Google map. (These programs and professors are therefore the Coyotes, Snakeheads, and visa agents in this extended metaphor.)

Like Mediterranean studies, part of the attraction of digital storytelling is its interdisciplinary nature. The values of creative writing deserve to be represented here, and the first standout creative writing programs to do that—to make digital storytelling a load-bearing element of their curriculum, to give support to professors and lecturers who teach and work in this specialty—are going to have a very big say in which values from creative writing will be represented in the field of digital storytelling and also in how those values will be represented.

But there is a warning here, also. Tacking the word “digital” onto the beginning of a traditionally book-oriented discipline doesn’t make it new or relevant. Recent tumult over the meaning and absence of meaning in the term “digital humanities” has highlighted important critiques that can be reiterated for the dozens of half-baked stylus-and-silicon hybrid programs popping up around the country (and there will be more, way way more, to come).

And while the mislabeling error can be avoided with courage and thoughtfulness, bringing more computers into a creative writing classroom does change the basic dynamics of it in a way that I feel more ambivalent about. It could theoretically change what we mean when we call someone a “writer.” My resume, which now includes short films and audio interviews as well as print publications, doesn’t look like many creative writing instructors’. And while a life in the arts will always seem nonlinear (especially on paper), it will take a special kind of creative writing program to embrace the kind of professional and artistic switchbacking that digital storytelling requires.

But maybe these are good changes; I know they’ve been good for me. It’s true that I don’t read as much as I used to. But I watch more movies. I spend more time online. I take more photos, more videos, sharing them with friends and family, which is different than my writing, which I share mostly with strangers. I don’t think of myself as someone saved by books anymore, and I’m suspicious of people who talk too much about the things in books as opposed to things in the world.

I don’t identify with the guy across the hall with the bullet in his backpack anymore, although I do think about him. I wonder where he is, what he does for work, how much he likes it. Does he worry about the future. How much does he try to help other people and does he worry that he’s doing it the wrong way.

*

Brian Short’s fiction has appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review, Midwestern Gothic, and Yemassee. He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Don’t Fall Into a Pit of Angst: Writers at the Academic Job Market Crossroads

You got that right. Britney Spears won’t take $2,987 per course anymore.

Last week I had a phone call from an old friend, someone I’ve known for more than ten years. We’d talked for over an hour, and after the obligatory inquiries about each other’s jobs, partners, and families, we got down to it: she’d been on the academic job market for the second time this past winter, and nothing much had come of it. By most writers’ standards, she’s lucky: she has two coveted adjunct positions in her city, a rich network of contacts from her publications and fellowships, and both the emotional and financial support of her partner. But after years of feeling like she was on a firm path, it seemed to have been grabbed out from under her – or at the very least, she wasn’t sure how to keep moving forward.

This is the story of countless arts graduates: even if we excel in the closed laboratory of our degree programs, even if we put our work into the world and are rewarded with publication and other recognition, even if we’re offered sponsorship for some amount of time, we’re likely to encounter a crossroads – which I’m tentatively calling the MFA Day Job Crossroads, so pertinent is it to the stories of writers on this site – where we’re faced with the perfect storm that is the recovering American economy, the administration-heavy state of university spending, the adjunct crisis, and the ever-growing glut of eligible young candidates for tenure-track positions. Often, the message that heavy weather has for us is that the job we’ve been preparing to do for years just isn’t available to us right now.

Different writers (and other artists, and humanities professionals – the ways in which professionals in other fields experience this crossroads is material for another post) experience this message differently. For someone like my other friend J., who attended a top-tier university for undergrad, who has her own alumni network and maybe that of her professional parents to lean on, and who worked for a little while in a white-collar field before starting her MFA, the message hits hard, but after a few phone calls and some soul searching, she has the beginnings of a plan B. She might, like so many writers featured on this site, create her own systems for continuing to write and publish while working outside of academia, or she might stop for a while.

For a writer like O., an immigrant and first-generation college student, the news might hit harder. Since his involvement with his local spoken-word scene, and, later, a creative writing class in college, he’s seen his talent with words as a potential way to achieve a middle-class existence and to help his parents have a better life. Getting into an MFA program only made that dream feel more like a reality. The news that academe isn’t a sure thing means he has to create his own alternative, perhaps from scratch – while still, if he wants to, privileging his writing. (Note: I’m making up these “friends,” though their circumstances are drawn from a composite of real ones.)

A quick scan of the Facebook statuses of recently graduated writers I know reflects a range of existential feelings: from dread and despair to hopefulness. Almost everyone has applied to the same fellowships and jobs, with mixed results; a few lucky folks have broken the tenure-track code, but most have not. Almost all continue to write, and report their publications and other triumphs; their fellow writers celebrate these joys more or less equally. But studies show that we tend to paint a more optimistic portrait of ourselves on social media than we really feel to be true – in private conversations, we admit to feeling doubtful about our future, dreading that our best and most creative years are behind us, hoping that our parents don’t ask us about our plans, hoping no one asks us for money.

Some critics might go back to condemning the MFA as a vanity degree, or criticize the programs themselves for not providing more guidance. But I think that there’s something else going on: as a nation of artists, we may be approaching the end of a sixty-some-year period during which the university was the surest source of steady employment for makers of art with variable or very little ready market value. As a consequence, the youngest of us (or newest to the field, whatever our ages) are at a crossroads between existential angst about the worth of our work and the will to redefine the terms of our success as professional artists. Which will we choose? Will we let a network of systems fail us, or will we find a way through them?

This isn’t an easy question, and it’s even disingenuous to pose it as an either-or question. Systems fail us every day despite our determination not to let them. But we can approach the messy composite answer to this question bit by bit. When I started my first job after getting an MFA, I thought of my new life as divided sharply into 9-5 “making a living” work and post-5 pm “life-making” work, i.e. writing. But a year and a half later, the boundaries have blurred in more ways than one: I write on the subway and on my lunch break, and even jot down ideas during slow moments when I’m on the clock, because I know I’ll have a better day and face my “making a living” responsibilities more cheerfully that way. And I’ve also realized that just because I have a day job doesn’t mean I have to take everything that’s thrown in my lap at face value: I’ve found little ways to learn tools that I think will serve me well professionally in the future, started projects that use skills I developed while working with other writers and students, and found ways to use language creatively as often as possible. I can’t say I’ve landed exactly where I want to be yet, but I’ve stopped thinking of my job as merely the hours when I’m not writing.

“The will to redefine the terms of our success” isn’t meant to be a woo-woo euphemism for patting ourselves on the back just for writing every day. No – it’s a call to all disappointed, academe-oriented writers to look the university square in the face. Make a list. Make a real, honest list of what you love about being in an academic environment: is it working with undergraduates? Is it one-on-one conversations with students, or presenting to a room full of people? Is it the challenge of providing detailed feedback on student work that allows the next steps in learning? Is it the relative flexibility of your working hours? Is it collaborating and exchanging ideas with colleagues? Is it the way reading texts closely with students influences your own writing? The side projects and committees you participate in with faculty from other departments?

If you’re like the many writers who entered an MFA program taking for granted that a life in academia would be compatible with and supportive of your writing life, or that teaching was something you would learn to love, use this list to take a good, hard look. Then take that list and put it in order: what’s your favorite part of what you do? What do you wish wasn’t such a big part of your week? (Grading papers, anyone?) Now, do the most difficult thing: take that ordered list and make some phone calls. Send some emails. Read in-touch, honest career websites like Ask a Manager and Evil HR Lady and The Billfold and other stuff you never thought you would have to read. Do all this to figure out one thing: where can you find the things you love most about being at a university in another job – one that might even pay more, and leave you more hours to write, than your adjunct gigs?

Even though it feels like things suck, this is an exciting moment for artists, particularly visual artists and writers – those of us whose work isn’t necessarily time-based or capital-intensive, who don’t require millions of dollars up front or months of rehearsal time to create something. As artists, we have always figured out our own standards for a good piece of work, for success in terms of the work itself. Now it’s time for us to make choices about the other parts of our careers: we can hedge our bets and enter an adjunct market for what should be the 5-10 most interesting, fertile years of our art-making lives, the years where we learn and grow the most and change direction if we want to. Or we can look at the odds, make our lists, and walk away.

Among writers, there’s a cultural trope of love-hate for the starving artist/ adjunct existence – we talk about creative writing pedagogy and the naïve but lovable things our students say, and in our way we love the fringes of the great universities on which we develop as teachers and draw our paychecks. But just because we’ve made the choice to be artists doesn’t mean that we have to take whatever the world gives us. In a world where nothing is what we, or our teachers, could have expected, we must be unsentimental. “Kill your darlings,” goes the old saw. This must apply to the careers that keep us afloat as well as to our writing.

Whether we like it or not, today’s academic job market will create a huge cohort of professional-quality writers and artists who cannot enter that market. In fifty years, this generation of artists could be remembered as the artists who created the 21st century “blended career” – not the New York Times bestsellers or the art market’s 1%, nor merely hobbyists, but rather people who found fulfilling ways to feed themselves while reminding the world that art is not a joke.

Now, whether you’ve been disappointed by the academic job market once or four times: delete that last rejection letter. Make your lists of what you love. And turn your life into something that you, not a department budget or a semester-long contract, control.

Set Realistic Goals and Daydream: An Interview with Laura Bogart

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Your recent piece for Dame Magazine, “The Price I Pay to Write” responds to another piece at Salon by Ann Bauer, “Sponsored by My Husband: Why It’s a Problem That Writers Don’t Talk About Where Their Money Comes From.” Bauer’s point is that many writers have a “sponsor,” whether it’s parents or a spouse, and it’s unfair for writers not to be transparent about it. You suggest that the larger issue is our failure to discuss what writers have to do to get by when (as in the majority of cases) there is no benefactor. But admitting to a benefactor or a day job means, effectively, that we’re not making enough money writing to claim it as our sole occupation. Which do you think is actually more shrouded in secrecy, and why?

I think that having a benefactor and working a day job are both equally shrouded in secrecy in their own particular ways. And there are various strains of benefactors: parents, partners, or grants. Obviously, winning some big award or getting sponsorship from some external organization (here’s lookin’ at you, Guggenheim) is a matter of prestige—but one that still isn’t really discussed, I think, because there are issues of jealousy (even though we want to support our friends and colleagues who win these prizes, we really do, but man, it’s just so hard not to wish we were the ones who’d opened that letter or got that call) and humility (we’re excited enough to sing from the rooftops, but we don’t want to be that lucky bastard who rubs our fortune in other people’s faces) at play.

Obviously, receiving assistance from one’s parents (especially after one has blown out the candles on a twenty-fifth birthday cake) carries the stigma of being labeled a Hannah Horvath—although, given how rough the economy is right now, with a paucity of jobs and affordable housing, I think there is more general empathy for people who need a little help from the folks. In truth, when I was working my first publishing job out of grad school, which paid me a grand $28,000 (just enough to put me above the poverty line, but not out of actual poverty), I moved back in with my parents—not to help with my writing, but to not be homeless and starving. Did I personally feel a great deal of embarrassment? Yes, yes, I did (and given that I have a rather complex relationship with my parents, that sense of shame was compounded), but none of my friends, or even casual acquaintances, that knew my deal, ever made me feel bad about it. We all know someone (hell, even married couples) who has had to move in with family or friends because we live in such a brutal economy.

Which leads me to the spouse or partner as benefactor, and that I do think carries a particular tarnish that is made darker and stickier by the harshness of the times. Most couples I know have to be double-income families (especially if they have kids) just to keep afloat, and there is a lot of class resentment against people who can afford to have one partner stay at home (especially if that partner isn’t doing the typical stay-at-home spouse work of raising children). Part of the reason I admired Ann Bauer’s piece is that she does acknowledge that hers is a position of considerable privilege (and she recognizes this so clearly because she has lived on all levels of the spectrum), and that it’s natural to have some resentment of people who seem to “have it all”: the great spouse, the comfortable life, and the time and energy to pursue their passion.

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Writing in Safety, We Don’t Have to Hide: An Interview with Charif Shanahan

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At what point in your life did you begin writing? At what point in your writing life did you decide to get an MFA? 

I began writing as a boy, perhaps at nine or ten, and I recall that my earliest writing efforts were stories, not poems, which I did not begin writing until high school. In college, I encountered an inspirational mentor in the poet Linda Gregg, who is the reason I’m still writing poems today, and although MFAs were on my radar from that time on, I did not seriously consider pursuing one until I was already moving into my late twenties. I felt, strongly, that before beginning to write in earnest, I needed to spend time exploring the planet and, thus, myself.

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Poem off the Page: An Interview with Elastic City Founder Todd Shalom

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You’re the founder and director of Elastic City, an organization whose m.o. has been the participatory walk for nearly six years, and you’ve been leading such walks for over a decade. In what way do you see your work as an artist who facilitates experiences for and with other people as being connected to your background in poetry?

For me, the walks are a poem—just taken off of the page. I wrote a lot of poetry about 12-15 years ago. My poems were functioning more like songs, perhaps better heard than read. With other poets and audiences, I wasn’t getting the dialogue I wanted. My work was both personal and coded. It’s what I needed to do for me. (I was in my 20’s). After getting over myself a bit, the desire to connect with people became more urgent, and the walk form gave me the opportunity to both learn from and share with the audience, as they became active participants in the work.

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Academia’s Freedom is Also Its Dysfunction: Farren Stanley on Why She’s Leaving

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You made a decision to leave adjuncting behind after this past semester. What motivated this decision?

In order to be able to live, I was teaching three classes (with three preps) and working a 25-35 hour-a-week job as a supplement. The result was something like 70-hour work weeks, and no weekends. I had 5 (FIVE) professional email accounts. It was grinding me down. Eventually, the money at my part-time job got very attractive, and then I began to notice things. For example: I have agency at the firm I work at now. If I see a problem, I can take it to my boss and it will be corrected. If I need something for the office, it’s provided. I get regular raises, bonuses, promotions. Every day the skills I need to employ are new and necessary.
In my experience, adjuncting occurs in a vacuum. There is little infrastructure for the students (where do I send my student who is ill/mentally disturbed/in need of tutoring?) or for the instructors (I have never once seen my evals, or been given professional development opportunities). There are no awards, no promotions, no raises. Nothing to strive for. There is no upward or even lateral movement available.The offer on the table for adjuncts is: keep teaching the same 3 combinations of classes for the same amount of money, for the rest of your life. Fast food workers have a better potential quality of life than do adjuncts/instructors. There are better offers out there.

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A Pickle Jar for Your Inner Life

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I’ve been on a bit of a posting hiatus for the past month. I hope you’ll forgive me; like everyone I interview for this site, I’m trying to be nine things at once: blogger, poet, nonprofit administrator, essayist, person who exercises, person who makes babka.

William Deresiewicz has a new piece up at The Atlantic suggesting that all our multitasking as artists means that the model of the artist we strive toward — that model perhaps best embodied by a MacDowell residency, with a solitary cabin in the woods to contain our creative energies — is dead. This model is still so much a part of the culture that we’ve forgotten to add what came after it, the institutional support model, to the history books. Today the artist isn’t much of a solitary genius, and the institutional support artists receive is less robust than in the mid-20th century. Deresiewicz argues that we’ve entered an age of artistic entrepreneurship, where there’s more support for selling the average person the means to create than there is for original creations. He pokes a stick at the expansion of the word “creative” to include all manner of non-artistic activities:

“When works of art become commodities and nothing else, when every endeavor becomes ‘creative’ and everybody a ‘creative,’ then art sinks back to craft and artists back to artisans…Artisan pickles, artisan poems, what’s the difference, after all? So “art” itself may disappear: art as Art, that old high thing. Which — unless, like me, you think we need a vessel for our inner life — is nothing much to mourn.”

I always feel like arguing with Deresiewicz is like arguing with a more prickly, aesthetically sensitive version of my dad. They’re both secular Jews who grew up in America during times when everything was changing, not just politically, but intellectually and culturally. For my father born at the end of World War II, the professional world was newly influenced by the G.I. Bill and the hundreds of thousands of new college graduates and professionals it produced, many of them children of immigrants. Deresiewicz, born in the mid-sixties, grew up and came of age as the literary canon and the art world were being challenged to include more women and people of color. Both those sets of changes, writ broadly — who has access to higher education and who defines what qualifies as art — helped upend notions of who was allowed to contribute to certain fields in certain ways. Certainly, we can connect those changes to how artists subsequently built careers. The opening of the gates of higher education to a broader population and the presence of external support from communities challenging the status quo make it desirable for the artist to work collectively, either as part of an institution or an extended network.

MFA programs are a natural extension of the mid-century “professional” model of an artistic career that Deresiewicz describes. We gather in cohorts; we read each other’s work. We’re (sometimes) supported financially by an institution of higher learning, and the cultural capital we might pick up in those programs (like proposal writing) helps facilitate our getting other means of institutional support.

But after the nurture of that pre-professional model, painters and writers alike move into the market, and, necessarily, onto multi-faceted creative careers, rather than limiting themselves to the one discipline they’ve dedicated 10,000 hours to. The “creativity” involved here includes promoting one’s work, finding a way to make a living, finding collaborators, and starting collectives to mimic the institutional models we’ve left behind.

Deresiewicz may think this splintering spells the end of great, career-crowning works of art — Shakespeare didn’t write Lear while updating his website — but he hasn’t seemed to consider that maybe it’s the borders between disciplines that are fading, not the commitment of artists. I’m refreshed and relieved when my friends who are poets post a beautiful personal essay or piece of criticism, or suddenly out themselves as virtuosic pianists or engineers who have helped launch rockets into space. I quietly patted myself on the back when I learned the code to embed a Google calendar in a webpage. Why put ourselves in the ghetto of what we know, when there’s so much to learn? Perhaps I’m embodying some lamentable quality of the artists of my generation when I say some of my most exciting moments as a writer have been in the theater, or in the kitchen, or at contemporary music concerts, and that any chance I have to get out of the “way I work” as a poet and refresh my senses is welcome.

That’s not quite what Deresiewicz means, of course: he means that too much is for sale. He might be raging against Taylor Swift or Vine stars in an article that will mostly be read by young sculptors and fiction writers. But he also seems afraid that if we all share what excites us, what makes our brains feel alive, artists might end up discovering that they like marketing or making pickles or fixing up cars as much as they like making art. Or the other way around! And then we’d lose that separation from the daily and the mercantile that is supposed to give Art its access to truth.

I used to want to live in the woods and do nothing but write, but the last two things I’ve been proud of have been created in the space between sleep and the sign-out sheet at work, and that feels great. I’ve seen the extent to which writers with day jobs go to weave their art in and around those jobs, and around the business of art, and their work is better for it. Thinking too much about separating them often means that one will end up in a corner. Policing what kind of work gives us the buzz that means creation is happening is just a good way to be tired, when we already have so much to do. Do I, like Deresiewicz, feel that we need a vessel for our inner life? Yes, of course. It’s just that some days, it might be a pickle jar.

 

 

 

Cross-Pollination is Key: An Interview with Morgan Parker

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At what point in your writing life did you decide to get an MFA? Why? 

I was in college taking my second ever-poetry class with Josh Bell, during my sophomore year. I didn’t know what I was doing at all. When, in his office hours, he told me my poems were good, I was totally shocked. I had never heard of an MFA when he told me I should consider getting one. At the time I was just writing funny poems or depressed poems and reading them to my friends at parties. So the world has J. Bell to thank (or blame) for steering me in this direction and, basically, helping me to take myself seriously as a poet. I went into my MFA program straight from undergrad, wide-eyed about the possibility of nerding-out with other poets and becoming a more confident, focused writer.

What were you initially expecting to do after the degree? How did this expectation change (or not)?

Immediate worldwide fame. Just kidding. I really wasn’t sure. I was very focused on completing a manuscript by the time I finished school, and I didn’t see much past polishing and submitting it. While I was in grad school, I worked four days a week in the Visitor Services department at MoMA PS1. I’ve worked in the visual arts since college, so I was hoping to find a full-time job in the arts that wouldn’t distract me from writing. What I didn’t anticipate was the amount of work that goes into being a professional writer. It’s more than writing– it’s editing, it’s submitting, it’s ordering manuscripts, phone calls with publishers, giving readings, marketing, applying for fellowships and residencies– and it’s a lot of work. The balance between “work” and “other work” shifts all the time, and it’s taken me a while to get used to that fluidity and the fact that as a writer, you’re always working.

Were you ever interested in staying in academia? Why or why not? 

I’m definitely interested in it to some degree. Maybe one day there will be a Dr. in front of my name, maybe not. I know that the adjunct hustle is not for me. I have a lot of other hustles that keep me occupied and oppressed. I do love teaching, and I look forward to pursuing that more, maybe in academia, or maybe in a more nontraditional setting. In the meantime, museum education plays that role for me.

Your undergraduate degree is in Creative Writing and Anthropology. To what extent do the concerns of the social sciences influence your poems? Do you ever find yourself using ethnography or other parts of an anthropology framework in your work?

Yes– my majors always sounded like a weird combination to other people, but it made total sense to me to study people and how and why we act the way we do, particularly in relation to other people. Anthropology, for me, is about curiosity, observation, analysis, sensitivity, history, “culture,” rituals, all that good stuff. All of that fuels my work, or rather, the way my poet’s mind works. My anthropology studies were very interdisciplinary– I took English classes, African-American studies classes, a jazz studies class, even a class on “posthumanism.” I think of my writing in the same way. I draw on everything that surrounds me and interests me: race politics, feminist theory, pop culture, advertising, music, history. My work is about what it feel like to be this particular human, and I definitely think the anthropological side of my brain is very interested in that.

You’re now the Education Director at MoCADA – were you involved in the museum education/ visual arts world before starting to work there? How did you acquire the background and skills the job required?

MoCADA is my my first job in museum education, though I have worked in arts education/administration at previous gigs. I’ve been working in the arts for about six years now. I didn’t study art history but it’s a personal interest and passion. Since I took my first college job in arts administration, I’ve always loved the idea of being surrounded by artists and visual art. I was at PS1 part-time for almost four years, during which I became really connected to the art world and very in tune with how arts organizations run. I was able to talk and work with almost all of the departments, and tried my hand at everything from bartending for the rich and famous to climbing a ladder in heels to help out with installation. After teaching during my MFA, I was hungry for more opportunities to share my excitement about art, which is essentially at the heart of museum education. Working at MoCADA blends so many aspects of what I love: working with and within the Black community, teaching and spreading excitement about the arts, communications, and curating programs.

Many of your poems deal with contemporary American issues that impact the Black community (such as police violence). Does working at MoCADA give you opportunities to blur the line between what you think/ talk about in poems and what you think/ talk about at work? If the line is blurry, do you like having that cross-pollination, or would you rather keep your day job and poetry lives separate?

The cross-pollination is really, really key for me. The work I do and experience at MoCADA, in particular the conversations and debates I’m able to have with both coworkers and museum visitors, has totally transformed my writing. These are issues that color my life– not just work issues or themes I explore in writing. Art, Black communities, racism, intersectional feminism, activism– these are my concerns all the time, and I love being able to address them with my personal art and in a different way at work. Different strategies, same essential goal.

Do your colleagues know about and support your writing? 

I’m really the luckiest girl when it comes to this. My co-workers are incredible fans of mine. They come to readings, I send them poems, and they’re genuinely interested in my work and my success as a poet. Once, I hadn’t written a poem in months, and I took a day off to write. I signed onto my email in the middle of the day and was promptly accosted by g-chats telling me to go write poems! That kind of support is invaluable to me. But it’s also in the culture of working in the arts, particularly at such a small, inclusive institution. All of my coworkers are wildly talented artists of some kind, and we push and encourage each other.

How do you create time for writing around your other work obligations? 

The real secret is that I can work in front of the TV. While I’m sippling wine and catching up on Top Chef or whatever I’m usually drafting or editing something. Also, I’m single. So, like, what else am I doing? But honestly, and most importantly, I have a really great community of writers who push me. I’m really into meeting friends to write at a café or bar or hosting “writing days” at my apartment where we just listen to records and drink spiked coffee and write for hours. At this point, I’m proud to say I don’t even usually think about it, I just do it. I have to.

The artist collective BFAMFAPhD recently released a census report noting that in New York City, only 15% of artists make a living from their creative work alone, and that those who do earn a median of 25K/ year. (And of those, 74% are white, non-Hispanic). The collective’s response to this data is that artists should attend/ support alternative arts education institutions rather than go into debt. Do you agree? What other ramifications do you think this data has for the future of the arts in NYC?

I definitely agree. I’ve seen this report floating around on social media (confession: my newsfeeds are mostly made up of non-white, non-male artists) and in terms of ramifications, I think that awareness is the first step. And our response should be anger. We should demand more. We should agree to change the system. Because I surround myself with visual artists and musicians as well as poets, I wasn’t even the least bit surprised by this data. The art world is a dark, rich place. In some ways, I think that when one decides to become an artist, there’s a bit of giving into that super-capitalist system and almost agreeing to its rigidity and exclusion. So I’m excited by this information being fuel for revolution, for refusing to put up with these traditions. I think part of what drew me to museum education was an interest in alternative education, community-led education, and artist-as-educator models. And when I say we should demand more, I don’t just mean money. I mean worth. I mean investment in ourselves and the power of art. Alternative education can absolutely help this, as can community organizing around how to expand one’s art practice to allow for more optimal living.

What advice would you give to young writers just starting an MFA? To those doing a degree in New York? To writers of color specifically?

Try not to get distracted, but let yourself get distracted. Write what you care about, not what other people care about or want to hear. If you don’t care about anything at the moment, don’t write about anything at the moment. Go to readings. Give readings. Go to office hours. Be hard on yourself but forgive yourself. Write shitty, terrible drafts of things. Get super used to rejection. Do like Jay Z says and brush the dirt off your shoulders. Find community. And I don’t just mean friends (though those are great, too), I mean people you can trust and who understand not only your work but you as a person. In the NYC MFA community, you probably won’t naturally find a community of writers of color waiting for you in the classroom, but they exist, so don’t be afraid to seek them out. Don’t think you don’t need them. Say you’re gonna go to law school, but don’t. Say you’re gonna go into I-Banking, but don’t. Submit everywhere. Ask for favors. Do people favors. Read everything.

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Morgan Parker is the author of Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up At Night (Switchback Books 2015), selected by Eileen Myles for the 2013 Gatewood Prize, and There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé (Coconut Books 2016). Her work has been featured or is forthcoming in numerous publications, including the anthology Why I Am Not A Painter, published by Argos Books. She works as education director at the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA) and  a poetry editor of Coconut Magazine

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I Never Want to Go Back to Academia: An Interview with Sean Patrick Hill

sean patrick hill

You got an MFA at Warren Wilson after moving to Louisville, where you currently live. What made you decide to do so, and how do you think doing a low-residency program impacted your MFA experience and the writing you produced during those years?

At the time I decided to apply to Warren Wilson, I was actually in residence at the Vermont Studio Center. It was July 2010, and I had just completed a very difficult year teaching high school. My tenure there had drained most of my creative energy, and my time in Vermont, doing nothing but writing and the occasional hike, made me realize that this was the life I wanted to lead.

At the time, I was reading Heather McHugh’s poems, and also Joe Wenderoth who had studied at Warren Wilson. I wrote Joe to ask him what he had thought of the program, and he was nothing but positive. I also wrote Heather, and she asked me to send her some poems. Once she read them, she told me to apply, and that she’d help by writing a letter to put in my file. Before I left Vermont, I resigned from my public school job. Continue reading