“Get an MFA or don’t, but please get to work”: An Interview with Aisha Sabatini Sloan

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Tell me a little bit about your background as a writer: how did you begin writing? What were some professional identities you’ve imagined for yourself over the years?

In the ninth grade I wrote a research paper about America’s prudish response to Sally Mann’s photographs of her naked children. I had recently gone to a public pool in Europe and had the image of a topless woman with a jungle print thong seared into my brain and I remember coming home feeling very aware of how Americans, including myself, are sort of dumb about nudity. I did poorly on that paper—and it’s just now occurring to me to wonder whether this was because of my writing or because of the topic—but I remember feeling so lit up by the prospect of using research to write about art and society even then. But I was and am equally inclined toward photography, printmaking and painting, and I’ve probably spent about as much time in undergraduate and graduate school pursuing studio art. I’ve had a harder time envisioning visual art as my professional identity, perhaps because I spent a year or so working in a gallery and felt pretty grossed out by the business side of art.

Why and at what point did you decide to pursue an MFA?

Before getting an MFA in creative writing I got an MA in cultural studies and studio art at NYU. It was an individualized study program brought to fame by the Olsen twins and for the thesis you could choose between writing a theoretical paper, doing a performance or making some sort of project. I put on an exhibit and wrote a theoretical paper about Adrian Piper, not realizing that I had gone a bit overboard. And I remember sitting in my thesis defense and the professors on my committee said, “I really enjoyed reading this. Have you ever considered writing?” I loved writing but this came as a bit of a surprise. It occurred to me that getting an MFA in creative writing was almost too exciting, I was somehow withholding this option from myself. But this moment gave me the permission to go for it.

Did you ever imagine yourself in academia, or do you still? What do you think is a healthy attitude for writers to have toward the academy when contingent labor is on the rise and full-time jobs are scarce?

After getting my MFA I ended up teaching composition as an adjunct for a several years and I promised myself that I would stop because it felt so disgusting to see how universities have shifted the burden of labor onto the most poorly paid instructors. But I have always adored teaching. It makes me exactly as fulfilled as writing does. I’ve been lucky enough to teach in some truly wonderful academic environments these past few years—at Carleton College, my alma mater, the New England Literature Program out of the University of Michigan, and OSU-Cascades’ Low-Residency MFA program. Even though I continue to be contingent in these contexts, and this is a problem for me financially speaking, I get so nourished by having the chance to teach, and I end up feeling so buoyed by my radical, hopeful, brilliant students that I end up feeling more empowered than disempowered. Or, in the worst of times, one cancels the other out. This might be an unhealthy attitude for a writer to have toward the academy. But I grew up with artistic parents who always had to stand up for themselves in all kinds of work environments so I don’t feel this problem is limited to academia. I think an important question to ask yourself is whether or not the student demographic that you are working with is composed of people you are happy to serve.

In addition to teaching, you work at the University of Arizona Poetry Center in their K-12 education program. What skills and experience do you feel you needed for that job, and what new skills have you learned while in the position? Have you discovered something you’re good at that you wouldn’t have identified before?

When I first interviewed for this job I realized that I’d done all sorts of things to prepare that I hadn’t originally realized were relevant. Like, a few years ago, I collaborated with some friends to put on a bunch of fundraisers and events for this initiative we called “Detroit Ho!” We did a reading and a silent art auction in Tucson then spent the summer in Detroit, fixing up my parents’ house and hosting literary and artistic events. I made a blog documenting the whole process. Another time, my friend Arianne Zwartjes and I went on a book tour and we put together our own tour dates and I made us a blog. Things like that—collaborative projects that you just dream up and start from scratch— end up feeling useful to me now as we are constantly brainstorming how to engage with our community and plan events, how to compile and present student work, who to work with and in what capacities. My colleague in education programming at the Poetry Center, Renee Angle, is so wonderful and encouraging, and she really built a lot of the infrastructure for this program by herself. So it’s been empowering to realize that if you want to do something, you should try it. And because Renee is so supportive I’ve discovered that I’m better at administrative things than I would have initially imagined. But I have a lot to learn.

How does academia feel different to you as a teacher and as a program administrator? Do you feel like you have more or less control over your work and its context? Are you treated the same or differently by the institution’s leadership? 

In some ways things haven’t changed much, because I also teach as part of this job—we offer a course on how to teach residencies for undergraduate/graduate students. I feel very free in terms of curriculum design and all that. We have a good amount of creative control in terms of our programming. But funding is really tricky. And I was disheartened to realize that I am making a lot less money now than when I was an adjunct even though the work feels quite a bit more dynamic. I’ve felt supported, or at least heard, when I’ve articulated my frustration. Even though I don’t feel well compensated I do feel respected as an administrator and even as a writer and a teacher. I am really invested in the work that we do and in the fact that we’re serving these amazing children, but I feel that at this point in my life I have to get better at noticing when I’m working for free. Because it’s so normal to do this when you are a teacher or a writer. You don’t even realize this is what is happening it until somebody does offer to pay you and you think, “YOU’RE GOING TO GIVE ME WHAT?” So I’m having to draw boundaries that I don’t necessarily want to have to draw simply because I have to learn how to respect my creative energy and my time. But it becomes a bit of an acrobatic trick to figure out how to give the highest quality service to the most people with the fewest resources. Which is another way of saying: I work for a nonprofit.

Where does your own writing fit into a regular day or week? To what extent does being in a professional setting with other writers help create a supportive community for producing creative work?

I work part time, so I get time to work on my own projects. I am a person who needs a whole day to get down to business, creatively speaking, so I don’t think I could do a full on 9-5. And it is absolutely awesome to be surrounded by brilliant creative minds at work, too. One colleague just published a book of poems and writes these amazing essays about Jem and the Holograms. The librarians are superheroines. Three people who have worked at the Poetry Center in the last year have books that were just on Entropy’s “best of” lists for poetry and nonfiction. The teaching artists we hire to teach these residencies are phenomenal teachers and writers. I work with extraordinary badasses. And a huge work perk is getting to spend time with visiting authors like Aracelis Girmay, Claudia Rankine, Camille Dungy, Eileen Myles, Vickie Vertiz, etc. Hearing these folks speak and read supports my creative practice a lot. But some days I miss waitressing, actually, because when you aren’t surrounded by language and poetry and brilliance all the time you crave it in a way that can actually be quite motivating.

Your work is sometimes identified by other people as memoir, sometimes criticism, sometimes creative nonfiction. Do you identify with any of these genres? Do the connotations of any of those genres highlight or downplay elements of your work you consider essential?

This labeling thing in nonfiction just keeps moving, huh? Creative nonfiction, lyric essay, auto-theory. I just spoke with someone who offered the identifier critic-at-large, which I love. But yes all of these terms seem to leave something important out. The problem with the word memoir to me is that people expect super linear personal narratives so if you don’t explain a transition or if you refer to more than one artist or writer in the same essay readers might get annoyed… I may or may not be summarizing two Goodreads reviews that continue to stick in my craw after I published my first book. When you call it criticism you can go ahead and usher in the imposter syndrome. And when you call it creative nonfiction, I think you have to pay a fee to Lee Gutkind. I get the sense that you have to be white to call something a lyric essay. I’m being aggressive maybe because these labels bring up questions about capitalism, ownership, power and exclusivity. But then you go back and read Audre Lorde and James Baldwin and you figure: who cares what it’s called. I mean, a great thing about being queer and part of any minority group as a writer is that your approach to form will always feel problematic. If it felt right it would mean something impossible had happened to the machine of America.

In the wake of the election, especially, it’s struck me that what people write to convince one another on social media occupies a rhetorical space that might have only been found in newspapers or magazines a generation ago. (This isn’t a particularly new observation about social media, I realize). As an essayist, to what extent do you allow yourself to use social media as a proving ground for your ideas, and to what extent is it useful for you to keep some of that in reserve for more formal, solitary writing?

I remember a while ago the poet and essayist Wendy S. Walters posted something on Facebook about how she needed more time to process things than it seemed social media allowed for and I felt so relieved. I have something to say about Freddie Gray and I won’t know what it is until 2025. I find that if I write about something in a post that feels like it’s from my little jar full of fermenting ideas and images, I am letting go of whatever potential that this thing had to be art. Have you seen that TED talk where the guy says that if you say you’re going to do something you’re much less likely to do it? This is what I think is happening for me when it comes to writing projects and Facebook—posting on social media makes me feel like I’ve processed or internalized something that is still eons away from making sense. I honor writers who can, as you say, use social media as a proving ground. But my practice is so much more solitary and weird and time consuming than that. And predicated upon solitude and synchronicity and waiting in a very witchy way. I have the superstition that if I share something too early it will die from exposure.

What advice would you give to writers thinking of pursuing an MFA? Those interested in crafting a humanities career in general?

Now that they feel under threat I can’t think of a more beautiful word than “humanities.” I feel resistant to answering this for some reason. I really believe that we need to be better collaborators at this point in our history. I think art is essential but I think communication and brainstorming and problem solving with other people’s best interest at heart is much more important than pursuing our personal objectives any more. If getting an MFA is part of how you plan to get us out of this mess, go for it. If it’s part of the ego game you’re using to distract yourself from death, don’t. The humanities are an absolutely vital part of how we learn to think and communicate across difference. But the individualistic way we’re taught to envision our careers feels more and more corrupt to me. I hope that we can figure out how to be creative in ways that are essential. I say get an MFA or don’t get an MFA but please get to work.

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Aisha Sabatini Sloan was born and raised in Los Angeles. Her writing about race and current events is often coupled with analysis of art, film and pop culture. Her essay collection, The Fluency of Light: Coming of Age in a Theater of Black and White was published by the University of Iowa Press in 2013. Her most recent essay collection, Dreaming of Ramadi in Detroit, was chosen by Maggie Nelson as the winner of the 1913 Open Prose Contest and will be published in 2017.

 

An Interview with Nicole Sealey

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What made you decide to get an MFA, and where were you in your writing and the rest of your professional life when you decided to go for the degree?

Time to write was the reason I decided to get an MFA. I figured I’d have at least two years of uninterrupted writing time. I’d been working full-time at a literary nonprofit for 7+ years. Though I enjoyed the work, I was always tapped out by day’s end. My professional life was flourishing, while my creative life suffered. I very consciously decided to go back to school. I’ve not looked back since nor thought twice about my decision.

What does a typical workday look like for you — where, how, and how often does your own writing fit in?

I love what I do! Working at Cave Canem Foundation feeds me in a way that no other job has. A typical day at Cave Canem is atypical–each day really does vary one from the other. I write during my commute, after work and on weekends. I’m not a writer who wakes with the sun and writes for hours every morning…I’m pretty useless before 8 am.  

What skills and strengths does your day job involve that you feel you had already when you started it; what have you had to learn on the job or improve along the way?

I’ve planned programs of the highest quality for years. Nothing, however, prepared me for the pace at which programming is planned at Cave Canem. This fast-pacedness is actually one of the many thrilling things about the job. There’s never a dull moment, never an opportunity for boredom.

If you didn’t have to do your job to pay the bills, would you still do it?

Absolutely–my job inspires and motivates me!

You’re the Programs Director for Cave Canem, an organization of which you’re an alum. How did the Cave Canem fellowship experience impact your writing differently than the MFA did? If you were advising a young poet of color, which would you recommend they experience first?

As a graduate fellow, I would have no MFA were it not for Cave Canem.  Beyond confidence, Cave Canem invited me into a community, gave me much-needed artist tools and helped me find my voice. The MFA worked for me because I’d already received much of what I needed as an artist. I’d rather not use myself as a measure, so I would invite young poets of color to take from my experience what they will.

What’s it like to work for an organization whose programs you experienced as a participant?

It’s cool to experience Cave Canem’s programs from this vantage point.  From inception and promotion to administration and evaluation, I get to see firsthand the great effort and hard work that goes into each program. And, our constituents deserve nothing less that great effort and hard work on their behalf.

What advice do you wish you could have given yourself as a writer ten years ago?

My husband always says that publishing is cheap and easy… and he’s right. It is easier to publish an underwhelming poem than it is to write a compelling one. I’d advise my younger self (like I advise my current self) to write poems that have the capacity to endure.

Born in St. Thomas, U.S.V.I. and raised in Apopka, Florida, Nicole Sealey is the author of Ordinary Beast, forthcoming from Ecco in fall 2017, and The Animal After Whom Other Animals Are Named, winner of the 2015 Drinking Gourd Chapbook Poetry Prize. Her other honors include an Elizabeth George Foundation Grant, the Stanley Kunitz Memorial Prize from The American Poetry Review, a Daniel Varoujan Award and the Poetry International Prize, as well as fellowships from CantoMundo, Cave Canem, MacDowell Colony and the Poetry Project. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker and elsewhere. Nicole holds an MLA in Africana Studies from the University of South Florida and an MFA in creative writing from New York University. She is the Programs Director at Cave Canem Foundation.

There Is No Typical Day: An Interview with Rosalie Knecht

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You’ve been writing for quite a while – congratulations on Relief Map, which looks wonderful – but did not go for an MFA. Did you have a conversation with yourself at some point about whether or not to get the degree? What was that conversation like?

I definitely did have that conversation with myself, and I more or less concluded that if I was going to try for a funded MFA, I would have to leave New York, and I didn’t want to leave New York. Of course, there are some great low-cost MFA programs in the city, but I think I felt really cautious about committing resources to an MFA because I had this vague feeling that having low overhead was my main advantage at that point, as a writer. I was anxious about getting into debt. Of course I ended up getting into debt anyway when I got my MSW.

You’re also a social worker. What does a typical workday look like for you, and where/how often does your writing fit in?

I am just at this moment transitioning from working in residential foster care to working at a mental health clinic. So I’m in my last weeks in foster care. There kind of is no typical day. I see my residents, we talk about what’s going on with them – family, girls, school. I try to write service plans and reports, and get interrupted a thousand times. I go to the kitchen for mac and cheese. I’m getting nostalgic now.

When I get home at night I’m really not fit for anything but heating up dinner with my fiance and watching TV. I write on the weekends. Once in a while I give myself a treat and use a free morning (I sometimes work a late schedule) to write instead of going to the gym. That’s the best.

How has that balance changed for you since graduating from college? Can you give me a snapshot of a time when writing + making a living looked very different than it does now?

For a few years I was mostly working part-time, and for a lovely period I was working M-F 2-8 pm at a ballet studio and I wrote every single morning for two hours. I got a lot done then. I lived in very cheap housing because I was sharing with a dozen people, and I had the advantage of having gotten through undergrad without loans– I want to be clear that some of this was facilitated by that kind of dumb luck– so my overhead was low and I could pay my bills without working full-time. Eventually I moved out of that shared living situation and couldn’t make it work anymore financially, which is when my shift to social work started.

You live in New York, a place that retains some of the allure of being a great place to make art without always acknowledging how difficult it is to keep a roof over one’s head while doing so. Did New York ever hold that kind of attraction for you? If so, how has your view of the city as a home for artists or a place friendly to art-making changed over your time there?

New York is a bind. It is a good place to make connections – maybe for writers, the best place to make connections. But you’re right, the cost of living is hostile to artists. This issue was the primary problem in my mind for a period of about three years. I was keeping a roof over my head and writing, but it all felt very precarious. I didn’t have health insurance a lot of that time, and I felt like my skills were not specialized enough to be safe from losing a job, and I didn’t think I was getting anywhere.

But it’s a place where there are lots of other people doing the kind of work you’re doing, and having friends and support networks of like-minded people is such a huge help. So sure, if you’re an artist, move to New York. But you are going to have to have a whole functioning career aside from your art if you want to stay here. But that can be really good for you, I think!

Do your social work colleagues know about your writing? Do you prefer to keep those parts of your life totally separate, or is it preferable to have permeable borders?

Some of them didn’t know until last week when I explained that I needed Tuesday off because I was going to be reading in Philadelphia on Monday night. I was uncomfortable at first bringing it into my work life, but then one of my colleagues said, “Well, you want to be seen.” And I did. I kind of did want to be seen. My first book was published while I was in this job. Again, I had to take a day off work to prepare for the launch! That would feel weird to keep entirely to myself. It would be like getting married and not telling anyone. It’s a big part of my life.

If you didn’t need your day job to pay the bills, would you still want to do it?

Yes. I would just want to do less of it. From experience, I can tell you that the ideal balance of work and life is to be working 20-30 hours a week. You get plenty of sleep. You exercise regularly. You cook. Your skin clears up. Your apartment is clean. It’s the best.

Elsewhere, you’ve written: “I’ve always been a writer and I’ve always found this fact embarrassing. Writing fiction is a suspiciously childlike activity. If I meet you at a party I will tell you I’m a social worker, which is also true, and then try to get you to talk about yourself instead.” Have conversations with strangers about your profession changed for you at all since publishing Relief Map? Has having a novel in the world seemed to legitimize saying “I’m a writer”?

Yeah, a little bit. I still find that it doesn’t come up organically very much. But when I was a kid, I was really secretive about being a writer, and for years I had a rule in my head that I couldn’t say “I’m a writer” to people until I had published a book. So by my own standard I should be saying it now. But I still feel a little inhibited.

You’re part of a long-standing writers group in New York – what’s been the role of a regular writers’ community for you in being able to write while working full time?

They are the best, and they are really understanding about long periods of time when I haven’t been able to contribute much. They’re great writers and great editors and they’ve been as flexible as possible about scheduling when I’m too swamped to do much of anything. Agents, hit them up! Helen Terndrup– writing a brilliantly constructed detective novel set in ‘50s New York; Tom Cook, working on adapting a screenplay about the AIDS crisis and the decolonization period in Botswana into a novel; Bonnie Altucher, writing a novel about the real-life Sorenson therapy sex cult; and Jenna Evans, who published Prosperity, a satire about a near future where debt is criminalized, with Dog Ear, and is now working on a novel about a climate-change-related weather catastrophe hitting hipster Brooklyn.

What advice would you give to someone who’s struggling to both keep a roof over their head and write every day? Someone who wants to quit their day job to write?

I don’t write every day. So first I would say: cut yourself some slack. The beautiful thing about writing is that you can do it a little bit at a time. All you have to do is not stop, and eventually you will be finished.

Also, don’t quit your day job. I mean, quit if it makes you miserable, but don’t quit to write. Looking back, I can see that the primary problem I actually had during the time when I was completely hung up on the idea that my job was keeping me from writing was that I was bored and miserable in the field I was in (nonprofit administration). I was constantly wishing I could go home and write all day because I thought my job was pointless. If you like your job and derive meaning from it, you won’t be staring at the wall all afternoon thinking about the things you could be writing instead. The day will move quickly and you’ll feel like you accomplished something that mattered and you’ll get a paycheck and you’ll write when you can and after a while, you’ll have a book in your hands, and you will also be able to go to the doctor when you have a rash.

Rosalie Knecht is a writer, social worker, and translator in New York. She was born and raised in Pennsylvania and is the translator of Aira’s The Seamstress and the Wind. Her first novel, Relief Map, was published in March 2016 by Tin House.

Landscape with Broken Fire Hydrant: An Interview with Jamie Zvirzdin

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You did a low-residency MFA at Bennington College, starting five years after completing undergrad and with lots of experience under your belt as a science editor. Tell me a little bit about why you decided to pursue the degree.  

From 2011 to 2013, when my family was living in the Marshall Islands—a very isolated string of atolls in the Northern Pacific Ocean—my days were devoid of television, billboard ads, and people telling me what kind of woman I should be. With such freedom from cultural constraints, this incredible wave of words was released. It was like a broken fire hydrant blasting pressurized water everywhere. With hermit crabs crawling over my toes as I typed furiously on the edge of Majuro Lagoon, I wrote several essays and poems, finished a novel, and created the Unbound Bookmaker Project, in which 300 Marshallese students from all over the Marshall Islands wrote and illustrated 15 Marshallese-English children’s books. I feel like remarkable things happen when we take time to shut out opinions of the world and think our own thoughts.

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Poem as Calendar: Adrienne Rich and the Working Writer’s Time

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Some cows, composing in the interstitial moment.

“It’s true that a poem can be attempted in brief interstitial moments, pulled out of the pocket and worked on while waiting for a bus or riding a train or while children nap or while waiting for a new batch of clerical work or blood samples to come in. But only certain kinds of poems are amenable to these conditions,” Adrienne Rich wrote in the early nineteen-nineties in her brief essay “How does a poet put bread on the table?” She goes on to draw a distinction between types of “free” time: the infrequent gulps of unoccupied time amid obligations versus the time that has no pressing frame around it, the time made of the absence of all obligations but the one the poet makes to her art.

I’ve taken more than a year’s hiatus from writing and posting here, in part because until a few months ago, I was job searching and felt I couldn’t post publicly about that process. Going forward, I want to address the search process while examining what it’s meant for my and others’ writing, but those future posts will be in retrospect. Now that I find myself in a job I like, time crops up like wildflowers: the time I spent feverishly writing cover letters, the time I spent stressing about how much I wanted to leave my old job, the time spent unraveling myself from those tensions: it’s all been returned to me as a blank page. Just part of the day for me to do with as I will.

Rich writes that a poet’s feeling of fluency, when we experience “the speeding up of our imaginative powers” and “what was externally fragmented is internally reorganized, and the hand can barely keep pace” grows out of an accumulation of unplanned moments, crucially without the temptation of either interruption or distraction, when we could “simply stare into the wood grain of a door, or the trace of bubbles in a glass of water as long as we wanted to.” As part of a life that obliges one to make a living apart from art, she writes, such moments are often “fearfully taken because [they] do not seem like work.”

That’s the psychic exercise I find myself embarking upon, now that I’m free of the invented urgencies of my old life. To rail against a job I disliked seemed to take priority over the centering of my own attention, over the will to jettison busy-ness in favor of my own work. Now I find myself tasked with making my way back to the kind of time that is suspended in time, and getting rid of the feeling that I don’t deserve that time, that I ought to be “busy” or worse, “relaxing,” instead. Actual bubbles in a glass – suspensions of air in water — of the kind that Rich’s uninterrupted poet can contemplate, are formed at activation points on the inner surfaces of their containers. The activation points of our time-within-time bubbles, especially when we divide the day into job and not-job, are necessarily those interstitial moments Rich describes: putting an ingredient for writing down on paper in the time waiting for a train, or cooking dinner, can mean the difference between feeling shiftless and feeling fluent when we do have an open expanse of time: a day off, or a partner away on a trip, or a long city walk to ourselves. 

“Only certain kinds of poems” can emerge, writes Rich, during the caught moment, the fleeting second when no one demands our attention – or during which we make ourselves temporarily unavailable. Fine: water takes the shape of its container, a poem takes the shape of the moment it’s made in. There’s the story of Williams making poems on his prescription pads. Here, Rich subtly builds on Woolf: a woman – she is pointedly speaking of women writers – needs not only the privacy and means to write, she needs the time. Rich goes one step further than Woolf, who argued that money for women meant privacy, meant freedom of speech: for the writers Rich knows, who don’t have to contend with the opinions of benefactors or inheritances, a little money translates directly into time.

But rather than embrace Rich’s suggestion that either we have the luxury of the kinds of poems that require long hours gazing at wood grain or we do not, that either capitalism squashes us into a corner where our freedom is compromised or it does not, I’d rather accept that the writing we do in the moments between our obligations will end up keeping our calendars for us, rather than existing only when we manage to banish the calendar. The working artist makes a long moment of many short ones; composes not the poem out of time, but the poem as time.

But What Do They Want From Me? On Turning a CV into A Resume by Brian Matzke

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It took me a surprisingly long time to figure out how to turn my CV into a resume. Here are some tips I’ve picked up over the years:

When turning a CV into a resume, the first thing to bear in mind is length. CVs are as long as they need to be, while resumes are short–one page for recent college grads, two pages for those with advanced degrees and/or a few years of job experience. They’re never longer than two pages. This can feel really restrictive–my CV is seven pages, and cutting it down to two felt crushing. But that work of cutting ended up being really valuable, because the resume is a fundamentally different document from a CV.

This is one of the most important lessons anyone ever taught me about the nonacademic job search: A CV shows your accomplishments; a resume shows your skills. Academia is very results-oriented, so they want to know everything you’ve done. A CV gives academic hiring committees a comprehensive picture of what you’ve done: Here are the articles I’ve published, here are the conferences I’ve presented at, here are the courses I’ve taught, etc. Nonacademic employers care about what you’ve done, but in a different way. What nonacademic employers want is a narrative of your past experiences that answers the question, how have your past experiences shaped you into the kind of person who can do this job? As a result, you might have five or six different resumes tailored to different kinds of jobs, the same way you might tailor your cover letter for different jobs on the academic market.

You might end up cutting things that felt like major accomplishments in your academic career, but aren’t relevant, while elevating things that at the time seemed inconsequential, but that better highlight a key skill. For example, I was recently applying for an editor job, and I ended up including that I had been a research assistant for several professors–a job that would not be particularly impressive in an academic job search, but one that allowed me to legitimately establish in a one-line description that I had several years’ experience editing and preparing manuscripts for publication. On that resume, “Research Assistant” took up as much space as “University Writing Instructor,” a job that takes up more than a page of my CV, because on my CV I list all the various courses I’ve taught.

Finally, bear in mind that when submitting a resume electronically, a computer program is likely going to read it into a database and strip out any formatting, so keep it simple and be mindful of the keywords that they might be searching for. My resume has five sections: Education, Work Experience, Other Relevant Experience (such as extracurricular and volunteer work), Skills (such as language and computer skills), and Interests (another opportunity to insert keywords). Depending on the job and what I want to highlight, “Education” might come first or third, after “Other Relevant Experience,” but otherwise I keep them in that order. I’ve known people who’ve taken their Ph.D. off of their resume entirely, but I’ve yet to do that myself.

Note that this matters when applying to nonacademic jobs, but “alt-ac” is a little different. In the alt-ac world, they often use the terms “resume” and “CV” interchangeably, and depending on the job, it might make sense to submit your full CV even if the posting says “resume.” This is true of jobs at university libraries, university presses, and some academic support staff positions. It’s important to know your audience and use your judgement.

P.S. Brian was awesome enough to provide a copy of his CV-turned-resume for you to peruse! Brian Matzke Resume 2015. If you’re still stumped, here are some places to find more advice on this hurdle of transitioning out of the academic job market (or just looking in two places simultaneously):

From CV to One-page Resume, The Chronicle of Higher Education

Alison Green of Ask A Manager on resume mistakes. 

An Act of Translation: Turning a CV into an Industry Resume at the Northeastern University Career Development Blog. 

All I Need to Get By: An Interview with The Hustle Reading Series

The Hustle is a Brooklyn-based reading series that highlights all of the elements that go into sustaining the writing process: from day jobs that pay the bills to mentors and friends who read drafts, to living situations whose rhythms make it possible to retreat into writing. Last week in Bed-Stuy’s Herbert von King Park, MFA Day Job talked with The Hustle organizers Courtney Gillette, Jennilie Brewster, and Anna Marschalk-Burns.

 LF: Why don’t we just start from the beginning – tell me what the Hustle is, how it got started, how does it relate to your lives?

JENNILIE BREWSTER: I’m pretty curious to hear if we all have the same recollection of how it started.

COURTNEY GILLETTE: The three of us started meeting as something called Writers Support Group,

JB: But I would even go a step back further. Which is that you and I took a class together, and then you and I started our own writing workshop and basically edited our memoirs for several months, then the three of us linked up into Writer Support Group.

CG: Writer Support group was once a month, we’d get together, usually at Jennilie’s apartment, share what we were working on, and then just sit and work quietly for two hours. So it was like, accountability. I was applying for a fellowship and Anna and Jennilie read my cover letter, and Anna was preparing to do a reading, and we helped her pick something to read – that was how it began. And then – how did we come up with The Hustle?

ANNA MARSCHALK-BURNS: We were talking a lot in general just about how people make a living, our interest in how that happens for people, and I think as we were talking about a reading series – I don’t know if it became, let’s do a reading series and then we came up with a theme, or –

JB: I was interning for [The Renegade Reading Series] at the time, and sort of got to see what it would be to do a reading series, and Anna was like, but let’s do it differently.

CG: Yeah, Brooklyn needed another reading series like a hole in the head, so we were like, how will we start a reading series that offers something besides, ‘here’s six of my friends reading’? At first we came up with two ideas: we were either going to do one that was about process, where writers brought in rough drafts of something they had published, and shared both the rough draft and the finished draft, and we also came up with the idea to do a reading series about day jobs. And then we merged the two things, where we said, what if we did one that talked about process and also about day jobs and how you pay your bills, and what does it mean to you to be a writer, etc.

JB: I personally had a hang-up when it shifted from process to day job, because I was like, wait a minute guys, I don’t have a day job – but I could connect to the idea of “hustle,” and working different jobs at different times. Hustle was the practicals of paying your bills, but also ways of finding time to write, what do you read…

CG: …who has helped you, how do you find mentors, what’s the best advice you’ve gotten. In terms of day jobs, it’s like, I have my MFA, and I have worked in education for the last 14 years. My day job has been as the secretary of a nursery school. And Anna works full time as a teacher – so we had that kind of experience of, what about writers who don’t work in publishing, who don’t freelance, who don’t TA – how does that work?

LF: You’re thinking of ‘the hustle’ as less just the job that you permanently do in order to get by with your writing, and more the whole picture.

CG: The response to people wanting to talk about money – it worked out really well because our first event was in March, and I a few weeks before was when that Salon article, “Sponsored by My Husband,” blew up. On social media I could see all these people being like “yeah, transparency.” Is your husband an engineer, and you’re being supported by them? Do you work for a nonprofit? Are you living off a fellowship? People actually saying I write, but I do it in this way.

LF: People are posting about their accomplishments, and you see when someone’s new book comes out, but you don’t see all the stuff that happened to make that happen.

CG: The babysitting gigs, and their great uncle died and they inherited ten thousand dollars – just the nitty gritty. Some people don’t want to talk about that stuff, and that’s totally fair, but for me it’s been comforting in reminding myself that I can write, and I can pay my bills, these things are not mutually exclusive. Also, a lot of solid writing advice I’ve read over the years has been like, sit and write for six hours a day, six days a week, and I’m like that sounds awesome, but what if you’re working full time? What if you’re writing four hours on a Sunday, and that’s it? One of our first guests, Daniel Jose Older, said “one of the myths we have to break is that you have to write every day.’ If you’re working a lot, you can’t write every day, so write when you can. It was so refreshing to hear him say that.

JA: We’ve had two [Hustle readings] now, and we had Daniel, who writes sort of sci-fi/ fantasy, Ashley Ford who’s an essayist primarily, and Cynthia Cruz, who’s a poet, and we also asked each of the guests to share the best advice they’ve gotten as a writer. For Ashley part of that advice was “don’t let people not pay you for your writing” which was really good for people to hear, and then Cynthia was like ‘I’m a poet, there is no money” and that was good for other people to hear.

LF: How does the fact of living in New York play into these conversations – not getting paid as part of a poet’s life may be a thing one has to accept, and maybe that’s easier to contend with in rural Ohio, say, but in NYC, the cost of living is so much higher.

CG: I think it makes the question even more important. I think about Patti Smith making statements like “you can’t be an artist in New York anymore, you have to move to Detroit.” Because there are so many writers in New York, [the question becomes not just] how do you pay the bills as a writer, but how do you pay the bills as a writer in New York? I do pay attention to people outside of that conversation. One of our guests last month was Stacia Brown, who drove up from Baltimore to read, and she said at one point, you don’t’ have to be in NY to do this writing thing. You can live somewhere with a lower overhead.

JB: That was another good ‘myth buster.’

CG: it’s easy to get stuck in that here. This week was BEA, and all my friends from publishing and I were all going to parties, and I was like this is why I live in New York, because I’m standing on a boat with all these Riverhead people, like Edan Lepucki. but I’m sure if I didn’t live in places where I was invited to a boat with Edan Lepucki I might get more writing done?

AMB: I feel like I sometimes have the opposite feeling about it, where the more that I learn about money in NY, the more I feel completely idiotic for living here. I see this incredible privilege of being able to have experiences like what you’re describing, and being able to know you all – those are things I wouldn’t find in other places, but at the same time, I might be able to not work sixty hours a week. So it’s humbling to think about that, and ask, is this actually what I want to be doing with my life? Maybe not. Maybe not for good.

LF: Have any of you had the experience of working a day job with other people who have another thing going on (roller derby, amateur opera, writing?)

CG: I think you get more of that in New York. I have more friends who are writers and have other day jobs, than I do friends who are just full time writers. I have friends who are booksellers, and work for nonprofits, and have worked in magazines, or…babysitters. At my workplace, there’s one guy who’s a painter and a poet, and my first year we all came back from summer break, and we went around the circle and he was like, yeah, I finished a book of poems, and I was like, what? But this job at the nursery school is the first job I’ve had as a writer where people know that I’m a writer, and that I’m just doing this to make cash. And it’s been really freeing. There is some awkwardness – I’m leaving the school after this year, I’ve been there too long, and we announced that I’m leaving, and all the parents are like ‘where can we read your work? this is so exciting’ and I’m like ‘I write lesbian memoir and explicit sex scenes and lots of stuff about how I’m sober and I used to drink a lot.’ There’s a weird professional line – I’m okay with telling you I’m a writer, but I’m not going to share my website with you. But it has been my first experience where people knew I had another interest outside of the job.

AMB: I don’t have that experience at my job at all. The school I work at is very intense, there’s actually not a lot of time for [another pursuit] so, nobody. Everybody’s like, I’m a teacher, or I’m going to leave teaching to become a lawyer. It’s pretty much on the straight and narrow. The one thing that’s been so great about knowing Courtney and Jennilie, is that when things that are good have happened to me in terms of my writing, and I go to my coworkers who I’m close friends with but don’t’ have any stake in this game, they have no idea how to react to it. It’s like oh, that’s neat –? And I’m like no, this is a big deal! I’ve been working so hard for this. So it’s really nice to have people who know all of the blood, sweat, and tears that gets put into this.

LF: A couple of you have done a number of residencies. What did you take away from residencies that you came back and applied to your more harried writing lives?

CG: My most concrete thing was, my writing studio [at Vermont Studio Center] had this big bulletin board above the desk, and I just collaged it. By the end it was covered with quotes and pictures and magazine clippings and I loved it so much that I was like, why am I not doing this in Brooklyn? So my first week home I took down everything above my desk and did the same thing, so when I make it to my desk now, the first thing I see are these inspiring quotes, and the list of people who backed me to go to Vermont, I still have that – a concrete list of 45 people who absolutely believed in me, I can’t refute it – so that was the most literal translation of this was my writing studio in Vermont, and I just brought it home.

JB: The last couple residencies I’ve done I applied to them as a painter, but the last two I’ve been writing at. They were open to that — it wasn’t about production, it was about time and space to explore.

CG: One of the writers at Vermont was in the metalwork studio every day learning how to make knives.

JB: I definitely had the experience of just really connecting to a different kind of pace. It’s very easy to fill up one’s time in the city with “I’m going to meet this person for coffee.” I think I came back from my residency and it was like, I’m not doing all the coffee dates anymore, I don’t need to catch up with everybody.

CG: All the brunch. I love brunch, but goddamnit.

JB: It’s like, there goes a day! It’s allowing a change — the residencies I did were also all out west, and it’s just spatially different, mountains, desert. It’s like geologic time — I guess I try to bring a little bit of that back in my life. But with New York I find myself constantly renegotiating my internal rhythm with the city’s rhythm. It’s very easy to just get caught up in the current, a current that maybe isn’t so conducive to doing the kind of writing I want to do. So just trying to find the psychic space in the city.

AMB: I’ve never done a residency, but I did have a day job four or five years ago that I quit three months before my contract was up in an attempt to give myself time and space to write, and I did nothing. I watched six seasons of Law and Order. And that really scared me, and since then it’s been a terrifying thought to actually stop working, because I think the best things I’ve written are the things I’ve written at 3 am before they’re due for a class that I’m in, and trying to cram things in in the margins of a really full day is when I’m able to get things done. It’s very hard for me to have a wide-open time frame.

JB: Everything changes.

AMB: I might have more discipline now.

CG: At Vermont, I would leave my phone in my room-room, and when I was at my computer it was just me. But I also napped a ton — I had to accept that that’s what my body needed. Maybe you needed to veg out for three months.

JB: I immediately started thinking about some of the stories I’ve read of Anna’s and how the pacing of Law and Order may have affected her fiction writing.

AMB: That’s a huge compliment.

LF: I like to think about two categories: the things that have ‘happened to you’ as a writer or artist – you get into a program or residency, someone accepts your work – and then there’s a category of things that you feel like you made happen. And sometimes those things overlap: someone couldn’t have accepted you to this thing if you hadn’t put work into it. So since there’s a junction between them, but there’s also the way we feel about those two things. What are some things during the last couple years that you feel have happened to you by a stroke of luck, and things you have pushed through and made happen?

JB: One thing that I feel like really good about is The Hustle. That we have gotten together and that this sort of emerged out of our community, and that’s a cool thing that’s happening. And there was no waiting for someone to give us permission, it was about actually building something.

CG: One of my big ones was I sent a story in 2012 to The Master’s Review…and I was a finalist and then one of 10 stories chosen by A.M. Holmes to be in this volume. I later met A.M. Holmes at the Brooklyn Book Festival, and I was like ‘hi, I’m Courtney, you picked my essay for this thing’ and her face lit up, and she was like, ‘I remember that essay,’ she was like, ‘I look forward to whatever you write.’ She signed my book, and for a couple of months I slept with that book under my pillow, because I was like, A.M. Holmes likes my work. I will float on that for a while. Because my self-confidence plummets every day. Every day it is like me versus self-doubt. And I think for the ‘working hard’ thing, one of my things has been I just have started to freelance. I’ve always sent work to literary magazines and now I’m starting to send to online publications, because you actually hear back quickly and you get paid, which is incredible. I had this essay I had written for modern love, I workshopped it with some people from my MFA program, Jennilie and Anna read it, I sent it to Modern Love, it got rejected. It sat on my desk for a year, I spruced it up and sent it to Buzzfeed, and they were like, yes, love it. And I worked with that editor back and forth for a few weeks to get it into the best shape, and that was one of those moments where I was like ‘I burned this.’ So I think those are my two —

JB: This isn’t something that’s happened yet, but — I’ve been working on a book project for a long time, it’s a text that accompanies a series of paintings that I did. But I just allowed myself in the past couple months to say ‘I’m a writer,’ this is what I’m doing and it goes beyond this book, and I’m gonna write an essay. I’m gonna untether myself from this one project, and explore writing in another form. I sent it to a few people…and then to a couple other people who’ve been kind of like mentors to me, and who’ve both published a lot. I felt like I was asking my friends who are further along in their writing life for permission – like, can I do what you guys are doing? And I really felt like I got the thumbs up for this essay. Two women have both offered me ‘I’ll give you this editor’s email, or I’ll give this editor the heads up that this essay is coming.’ Who knows if that’s gonna play out, but I feel like it does touch on this idea of luck. It’s like I’ve worked five years to be able to write this essay, and it would be really nice if this personal connection happens and it gets noticed and moved out of a pile of a thousand into a smaller pile. Networking is sort of a dirty word, but the reality is you start to make friends who are doing what you’re doing. So I don’t know. I hope that luck works out for me in this one.

LF: Part of luck is others working on your behalf, to some extent.

JB: Another artist told me: it’s your job to be prepared for when luck happens. Have the work ready.

CG: I’ve tried in the last few years to view it not so much as networking but more as kindness. Whether that’s just being gracious at an event, or offering to read something – to be as generous and forthright as you can be. And that I think has gotten me pretty far in terms of people being accepting, and available. That’s become my framework for it.

LF: There’s a poet who wrote an essay about asking an older male writer for advice on getting into a particular journal – and he declined to give her the information she was asking for, like it was an industry secret that he couldn’t tell her. She said that made her want to tell anyone who asked her the secret information that they were asking for. Like, oh, you want the name of that editor who’s not listed on the website? I have it; you can have it. Do you want to know the best way to write a cover letter? I will tell you; I’ve written a successful one. And she considers that a sort of feminist way of spreading information.

JB: I’ve been looking toward women my age or even younger, as opposed to that older dude who’s part of the establishment.

CG: Binder Con has been a huge forum for women and gender non-conforming writers helping other women and gender nonconforming writers. The Binders [Full of Women Writers] Facebook group was started last summer, and Binder Con grew out of that as a physical conference experience that I helped with in NY last fall and it was magic. I remember standing outside of the speed-pitching sessions, where women editors had come to listen to pitches by women and gender nonconforming writers and these women were coming out of the pitch session high five-ing and hugging each other. It was this camaraderie that I think is absent a lot. There have been a lot of awesome dude writers in my corner, but there was something really unique about that experience.

AMB: Both [getting into Brooklyn College, and] my first published fiction, which came out last year, and felt like so much luck to me. Because it was just a slush pile submission.

JB: I guess I was thinking luck more “when the world sort of smiles at you.” That seems to me, your work had to be so great that it stood out — nobody knew to look for your name.

AMB: I guess that’s probably true.

CG: And your part is that you submitted. When we had writers support group…we’d share which journals we were submitting to, and I remember when [Anna] submitted to [The Atlas Review], and finding out months later that you were being published, it felt like a win for all of us. I think that’s especially with submitting to litmags, it’s such a numbers game. Yeah, you’re going to get rejected a lot, but if you don’t submit, there’s no chance.

AMB: I think getting into the MFA program felt really like luck to me. In part because the person who wrote my recommendation letter is a graduate of the program, close to the program director – I’m sure that helped. But also just the way that the program has been so welcoming and kind, it doesn’t possibly feel deserved. It’s like this is the nicest reception I’ve felt in this particular arena in my life, and I’m confused by it. I think it just brings up a lot of feelings of impostor syndrome, but you know, I feel very lucky.

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Keep the Humanities, Lose the Fetish: A Consideration of Life after the PhD and MFA with Brian Matzke

Leah Falk: Let me start by asking (although I know you’ve covered a lot of this on your blog) how have some of your expectations changed about being a humanities scholar from when you entered the University of Michigan to now?

Brian Matzke: Well, the first thing to bear in mind is, I started grad school at 22, fresh out of undergrad, so to be honest, I didn’t know what to expect. And to be honest, if a college student asked me about grad school right now, one of the first things I’d recommend is to NOT go to grad school straight out of undergrad. You just don’t have the perspective. I suppose I was somewhat naive about the process and figured a Ph.D. from a top-tier institution would be enough to secure a professorship. The biggest thing that has changed in terms of my expectations is I know that’s no longer true. 

Leah: Yeah. I think many people starting MFAs, too — whether right out of the undergrad gate or not — also labor under this misapprehension (although it seems to be understood that at least one book publication is also required to be competitive for the tenure-track). What do you think you might have done differently during your Ph.D. if you’d spent a few years out of school? (A sort of impossible thought experiment, I know.)

Brian: Probably the biggest thing I would have done is prepare a “shadow resume,” as some people have put it, and seriously explored alternative career paths. This is something I’ve just started to do in earnest, and I wish I’d done it 5 or 6 years earlier. I’m still pursuing TT jobs as well, but my options feel broader now than they did in grad school, and I think I would have felt more empowered if I’d had less tunnel vision earlier on.

A big part of that is also work/life balance. It’s easy to be a workaholic at 22/23, but now I’m engaged, I’m thinking about family, etc., and I don’t want to be in my office or in the library 12 or 14 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Leah Falk: For sure. You’ve written a little bit about alt-ac and how the lip-service paid to it isn’t really enough in the face of how competitive the TT job market is, the reality of how many humanities graduates will actually go on to non-academic employment — what kinds of resources would you like to see there, and how likely do you think current students would be to take advantage of them early on?

Brian: You know it’s funny, in my latest blog post I mentioned an alternative career paths seminar that [The University of Michigan’s] Rackham Graduate School was hosting. I actually signed up for it (I lied on the online form and said I was still a grad student–ha!). It was remarkably well-attended, especially by second and third year Ph.D. students in English. That was a really useful resource, actually (and would have been more useful if I were still in grad school). Simple things like sessions on how to write a resume, how to approach people for informational interviews, etc., can go a long way, and I definitely think students will attend.

In some ways I think I’m old enough at this point that I’m not representative of the current mentality. I entered grad school prior to the 2008 financial crisis, when things were still good enough that we could afford to be a little naive. I think current grad students are at least somewhat more realistic about the market and the need to keep their options open.

Leah: Among MFA students, especially those who come right out of undergrad, I’ve sometimes encountered the attitude that “I don’t have any other skills” but this particular kind of writing. Which makes me kind of mad, because out of necessity I feel like I’ve discovered all sorts of skills and interests in the working world that I wouldn’t necessarily have had to countenance in grad school, or if I’d gone straight from grad school to an academic job, etc. Do you encounter anything similar in English Ph.D. students, or do you think they tend to have a better-rounded sense of their own range of abilities?

Brian: Oh I absolutely encounter that among Ph.D. students, and am guilty of it myself. I still find it somewhat difficult to conceive of what the day-to-day experience of a lot of nonacademic jobs are like. But the important thing to bear in mind is, with academic jobs, so much of the actual work is basic white collar tedium–answering emails, attending meetings, serving on committees, etc. The basic skills that comprise 80-90% of an academic job are virtually identical to the majority of nonacademic white collar jobs out there.

I don’t know about you, but I see it as a two-pronged problem: on the one hand, an anxiety about being able to DO a nonacademic job, and on the other hand, an anxiety about not being FULFILLED by a nonacademic job. In both cases, I think that anxiety is fueled by a poor sense of what both an academic job and a nonacademic job actually entail.

Leah: Yeah, I agree. I think the fear of 9-5 (which I was totally guilty of, and now that I DO work 40 hours a week, it hasn’t totally gone away) comes largely from not being able to imagine any kind of stimulation coming from that rigid a schedule. I think I became more comfortable with a non-academic career path when I realized I’d have just as much time (or more) to write coming home at 5 pm (and not bringing much work home with me) as I would if I were teaching 3 courses a semester.

Which brings me to the question of scholarship: do you feel like you have time to privilege research and writing? And do you feel like your former teachers, who taught you as an assumed future professor (maybe) treat you as an equal in that manner?

Brian: Yeah, I got virtually no scholarly writing done this past year. Part of that was due to the demands of my teaching schedule; part of that was due to the time demands of searching for a job, since I’m still pursuing TT positions; and part of that was due to some unexpected family health concerns that took up an unexpected amount of time (which is another factor grad school doesn’t really prepare you for). With my teaching load at Michigan, keeping up with scholarship is theoretically possible, but it’s damn difficult.

As for how professors treat me, it’s a mixed bag. Some I’ve found to be very collegial, while others essentially still regard me as a grad student. Really, the most awkward encounters have been with professors who I didn’t know as a grad student. They seem less able to interact with lecturers, since their job is so research-focused, and they assume my job is so teaching-focused. 

Leah: At the same time, there’s an incredible amount of professional energy in the department devoted to the [English Department Writing Program] at Michigan (much more, I’ve since learned, than at other institutions). When you’re together with other lecturers, do you tend to talk about your students, the job market, your own research?

Brian: It really depends on which lecturers. We do really seem to be undergoing a sea change at U-M (I’m not sure how representative that is of the field as a whole). The lectureship seems to be more and more professionalized. Some people still treat it as a temporary position and are very focused on the job market while others are invested in staying in their current position. Those people are much more teaching focused. It’s common, however, for research/writing to take a back seat to teaching and/or the job search, however. 

Leah: You’ve written that you wouldn’t say “don’t” to someone interested in pursuing the humanities, except in the case that it involved going into debt. Imagine a scenario where a prospective student does regard the time spent as a kind of debt, one that he/ she has to pay off by advancing in a non-academic career several years behind her peers, but is still dedicated to the humanities as a field and wants to contribute to it. What would be your advice to this person?

Brian: That’s a really good question. I was just discussing the prospect of teaching at independent high schools with someone, and the sad thing is, that’s a career I’d be very interested in, but it’s one that it’s often hard to break into with a Ph.D. because you’ve essentially priced yourself out of an entry-level position. It’s a really difficulty cost/benefit analysis.

I guess I would say, on the one hand, if you’re contemplating grad school, but you also have some solid ideas of nonacademic jobs that you could be fulfilled in and still carve out time to read, write, and live a life of the mind in your free time, then you should not go to grad school. If you honestly can’t imagine anything other than grad school, then go ahead and go to grad school, and enjoy the time, but devote yourself in those years to really exploring alternatives and not simply doggedly pursing a narrow path.

Leah: Basically, the ideological advice there is to stop considering grad school in the humanities as a certain professional path — or as only encompassing one professional path. 

Brian: Totally. As a friend of mine recently put it, the myth of a “calling” can be very damaging.

Leah: Yes. That totally resonates with me. Although I wonder: if humanities departments really changed their career resources and the way they talked about students’ futures, they’d be accommodating those multiple professional possibilities and seem relevant as a form of professional preparation again. If they refused to, (and some MFA programs just don’t really talk about post-grad issues, because they bill themselves as a time and support resource for students, not a pre-professional program) would they lose some professional credibility? 

Brian: That’s a real risk. I know for PhD programs there’s a strong incentive to boast high placement rates in academic positions. And we do have to admit that professional development opportunities are kind of a Band-Aid on a bullet wound. Looking more macroscopically, the bigger problem is the erosion of professorships. 

Leah: Right. Which has been steady. 

Brian: I think I read recently that a generation ago 3/4 of university classes were taught by professors, 1/4 by adjuncts; now those numbers have flipped. You’d have to fact check me on that though.

[Ed.: See Figure 1, “Trends in Instructional Staff Employment Status” in the  2012-13 Economic Status report of the  American Association of University Professors for accurate figures since 1975] 

I’ve often thought that a kinder solution would be to simply accept far fewer students into grad school to begin with–only accept as many as you feel your program could place, and devote all your resources to placing them in professorships.

Leah: Interesting. And that also does away with the problem of the student who feels she’s gone into professional debt after a Ph.D. program that doesn’t result in a tenure track job. 

Brian: Yeah.  

Leah: A cold question, though: if there are fewer Ph.D. (and let’s just tack on MFA) candidates, who teaches the intro writing and lit courses? Do we increase the course-loads of full professors? Keep hiring contingent faculty, assuming that a gap between earning a degree and getting a job will persist? (Obviously this is not the main concern of the candidates, but it probably is a big one of university administrators).

Brian: I can think of two possible ways of answering that question, both of which are preferable to the current system, but both of which have the same problem (i.e., costing the university more money):

One would be multiple tenure-tracks: one that’s based primarily on research, and one based primarily on teaching, so it would be possible to attain tenure while focused on teaching freshman level courses.

Another would be to professionalize fixed term faculty, so you’d have more people appointed to what at U-M we call Lec3 and Lec4 positions, with a certain amount of job security and longer-term (but still non-TT) contracts.

None of those are actually plausible, I have to admit, but I’d advocate for them over the system of current contingent faculty and grad students teaching all the intro courses.

Leah: The first option sounds kind of like combining an R1 and a liberal arts college, and seeking a mixture of the kinds of faculty who’d do well at each. 

Brian: Yeah. 

Leah: I mean, I don’t see the second option as totally implausible – if you have fewer fully-funded grad students across the board, you have some additional funds available for long-term lecturers — although maybe not enough to cover health benefits, etc.

Brian: Yeah, that’s a sticking point. I’m also sympathetic to administrators who deal with a lot of uncertainty with regard to funding and enrollment. That makes it really difficult to know how many people you can hire from one semester to the next. 

Leah: I remember at the end of the last semester I taught at Michigan, there was apparently $17 million or something withheld from the university by the state? 

Brian: Yeah, it’s utterly ridiculous what’s happening to higher-ed budgets. That’s another thing I’d say to those considering going into academia–if you think that this “life of the mind” career is somehow outside of the forces of neoliberal capitalism, it most definitely is not, and this is not a way to avoid those stressors. 

Leah: Right! It’s not a monastery.  

Brian: I’m curious how the MFA experience differs–the general tone of these discussions among Ph.D.s is that this problem is relatively “new,” but I’ve kind of assumed that alternative “day jobs” are much more the norm among creative writers–is that accurate or a pernicious Ph.D. stereotype? 

Leah: No, I think it’s accurate, in part because the MFA is a relatively new degree, and in part because the professionalization of the degree, in the form of “you get this degree so you’re qualified to teach in MFA programs” is even newer. Before Iowa became a big thing, for example, most writers who taught got Ph.D.’s. All of my creative writing professors in undergrad had Ph.D.’s, and were of that generation. And then MFA programs started to proliferate, so there was both more opportunity to concentrate on creative writing, and more opportunity to teach creative writing. But think of the numbers: for every new MFA program that accepts 10-20 people per year, and is 2-3 years long, there are probably only 3-5 full time faculty, most of whom do other duties in the English department or elsewhere. So the odds, even when times are/ were good in academia, were never great.

Brian: Wow. Yeah, as a lecturer I’ve worked alongside people with a variety of degrees, and one thing I’ve noticed is, a lot of us feel like we’ve experienced a bait-and-switch, where we got a degree in one thing, but ended up teaching something else. In English, the jobs are in teaching composition, but creative writing MFAs got in it to teach creative writing, literature Ph.D.s got in it to teach literature, etc. But we’re all just teaching comp. Not that there’s anything wrong with comp. I actually enjoy those classes a lot. But at least starting out, I and a lot of other people were less qualified than someone with a rhetoric and composition degree would be. And it’s not really what we envisioned.

Leah: I kind of enjoyed teaching comp, also. I think there’s a whole other conversation about what comp is for, how students transfer the skills they learn there, but that’s probably for another time.

Brian: Yeah, that’s something that didn’t really get discussed in our pedagogical training. 

Leah: I know one guy who had been an engineer before starting the MFA (and is again now, there you go) and they assigned him specifically to a writing class in the school of engineering. Which in some ways seems like the way to go: letting kids know that writing matters within the discipline they’ve chosen. 

Brian: Of course, that then raises the question as to whether there’s value in exposing kids to “humanistic” writing outside of their discipline–for the purpose of cultivating a well-rounded citizen, etc.

I tend to believe there is, but then I also believe that if that’s the case, then the course shouldn’t be graded, since grades hinder the ability to cultivate a “free” space for intellectual exploration.

Leah: I think the professors of those disciplines (engineering, nursing, etc) also have to agree that humanistic exploration matters. And that actually brings us full circle, in a way: if one does end up outside of academia, what matters is that you get hired by and work with people who recognize that what you know how to do, and the ways you have of finding and creating knowledge, matter.

Brian: Absolutely. Sometimes I think that people outside of the humanities (both professors in other disciplines and people in nonacademic professions) are better at recognizing that than humanities professors are, since humanities professors too often have a kind of disciplinary tunnel vision..

Leah: I work in an office now where there are lots of academics working outside of academia, and that’s a nice environment, too — everyone has a sense of the potential for research and ideas outside of their usual classroom / peer reviewed journal box.

Brian: That’s awesome.

 Leah: Sometimes those applications are just as impractical as they would be in the academy, but whatever.

A last word? 

Brian: I guess just to reiterate the point that academia can be great in a lot of ways, but the longer you’re in it, the more important it becomes to understand it as a form of work–one that can be rewarding but that comes with its own set of problems–tedium, opportunity costs, complicity in certain structures of capitalism, etc. It’s not something to be fetishized above all alternatives.

Leah: Hear, hear!

*

Brian Matzke received his Ph.D. in English Language and Literature at the University of Michigan in 2013. He currently works as a lecturer at U-M in the English Department and the Sweetland Writing Center. His research is on the depiction of science in literature and popular culture, particularly in twentieth century America. He lives in Ann Arbor with his fiancee, Paula, and pug, Jordan Baker.

Leah Falk received her MFA in poetry from the University of Michigan in 2012, and is the founder and editor of this here blog. More about her here.

 

Change Your Search Terms: An AWP Recap for Day Job Seekers

lucky

This weekend I was at AWP, that most un-conference-like of conferences, where the book fair refreshment kiosk starts selling hard liquor and tacos at 11 am, and where you can take home a candy bar, a beer cozy, and a condom emblazoned with the logo of your favorite litmag.

I won’t bore you with my AWP philosophy – better poets have beat me to it – but having attended once before in an aimless way, this time I was glad to have a scheduled reason to be there. I spent an hour on Saturday as part of a panel called “What are You Going To do with that? Writers Side-Stepping the Adjunct Trap,” featuring off-the-academic-derech writers Erin Keane, Stacy Barton, Dan Bernitt and Daniel Bowman.

I’d spend the earlier days of the conference snooping around other post-MFA-oriented panels, most of which focused on things like how to get a job as an arts administrator. I admired (and live-tweeted) the other panels I went to, and couldn’t help noticing that on Saturday, when my colleagues and I sat down to answer our audience’s questions, the same ones came up again and again: what do you do if you want a job, but don’t want to leave your city? What if you’re told you’re overqualified for entry-level jobs in your non-academic field of choice? How do you get experience? What if you don’t feel like you’re good at anything else? Once your creative output stops being a means to a tenure-track end, how do you prioritize it? What is it for?

Some answers were full of satisfying tough love, like: sometimes you have to choose between a city you love and work you love. Or: if you want to break into a field, sometimes you have to do internships, and sometimes you’ll have to work for free. Or: working in business isn’t selling out – it’s a way to support your art-making. Some answers revealed the kind of surprising, personal, step-by-step details of the journey essential to helping others on the way: I learned to code on the job – I was doing what I loved, and my organization bit the dust – Now that I hire people, I would rather have someone with fire and gumption than someone with every skill on my checklist.

And some answers gave me the kind of frustrated feeling that made me start this blog. The frustrating answers were the ones full of holes, the kind that an person comfortable in his profession can give as lip-service to someone starting out and struggling. Freelance writing requires “hustle,” one panelist said, not detailing that “hustle” often means not just a hustle for work but hustle to figure out how to pay doctor’s bills without insurance, hustle to find work that pays in more than “exposure.”

So for those of you who couldn’t make it to Minneapolis, gathered below is something like a top five list from the conference for writers with day jobs or searching for day jobs. This is the list I wish I’d had pinned to my shirt like a preschooler’s allergy list when I wandered out of my MFA program and into the rest of the world.

Don’t let anyone shame you. One of the subjects that came up during our panel was shame: namely, the shame of not teaching. Among writers who’ve passed through academia, it can feel like there’s a pecking order determined by what you do to pay your bills. It can feel like if you’re not on the market, or driving across town to teach courses at two community colleges, you aren’t a “real writer.” But this is absurd, since writing, not teaching, is what writers do.

And I’ll just whip out some stats, here: since 1975, contingent faculty have increased by about 20% while tenure-track or tenured faculty have decreased by 20% as part of the total instructional staff at U.S. universities. Getting a job that pays you a living wage and treats you like a person, not an indentured servant, isn’t shameful or even a consolation prize – it’s acknowledging a bitter reality in higher ed.

You maybe can’t have everything. Over and over, I heard panelists and audience members tell stories of having to choose: the work they loved or the city they loved, their relationships or their work, hours every day to write or a job without a boss who called them “honey.” Sometimes, like if you have a family, a variable gets taken out of the game. Other times, you might have all the flaming bowling pins in the air at once: city, job, how you write, your relationships, your aging parents, your health. But start by catching one.

Change your search terms. Just as you might have to shuffle your priorities in terms of where you live, who you live with, what you do and how much time you spend doing it, don’t let the word “writing” limit what you do to support yourself. Not only are you probably good at more than just writing, but being good at writing already means you can do more than just write.

If you want to write for a living as well as for art, first, learn the names of the shapes writing takes in the business world: communications, social media, copywriting, technical writing, content creating, instructional design. Search for those jobs on Idealist or wherever else you’ve been looking, and take a look at what they actually entail. Better yet, talk to someone who does one.

If you think it might be better for your brain to preserve the writing lobe for your novel, first think about what you enjoy learning: math, or languages, or how to use new tools and materials. Ask people who work in fields you might want to work in –ideally, people who understand their own work holistically – about who uses those skills in their workplace. If you’ve had a job before, you’ll know something about what functions and skills a particular job uses, and it will be easier for you to imagine what “using math” in a library or “people skills” in a museum means. If you’re coming out of an MFA into the workforce for the first time, this paragraph is a longer process (and for another post).

Everyone wants a story. Writers tend to think that what they are adept at – using language – is nothing special, especially when it comes to the workforce. Why wouldn’t we think this way? Every other news story about humanities graduates talks about how there are no jobs for us, which suggests the notion that we’ve been prepared for a specific set of duties that no one wants us to do. This couldn’t be further from the truth: adeptness with language is flexible and, at a moment when every aspect of a company is part of its “story” and “voice,” particularly prized. Just look at the “Our Story” section of the websites of Walmart, Trader Joe’s, the media company Mindshare, Primerica, and that’s just the first page of Google results. Not the “about us” or “history” slugs of yore, this shift promises that people who understand how language works, how narrative and voice work, will be the people making sure companies are heard.

Life has seasons. After our panel, one woman in the audience said that she’d recently taken a job as a proposal writer after giving herself a year after the MFA to land an academic position. She had four kids, and worried about how her writing life would look during the transition into the new job. Stacy Barton, one of our panel’s playwrights, told her: there are many seasons in life. This might be your back-of-the-envelope season. Be very gentle with yourself during this time.

Jewish tradition has a kind of aphoristic recommendation that each person carry with them two slips of paper in two separate pockets. On one should be written: “you are created in the image of the Lord.” On the other: “you are but dust and ashes.” I find this useful: a kind of as-needed upper/ downer prescription, each phrase countering one side of a person’s natural seesawing view of herself. Doing any job, making any thing requires both phrases: we need the elevation of the first to be bold enough to create in the first place, and the bounded quality of the second to look back at our work, to see if it’s what we wanted — and if not, to see if we have the time to change it.

Be very gentle with yourself during this time.

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

MFA pic

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.