Great Human Things, Cosmic Inflation: An Interview with Sarah Scoles

Sarah Scoles is an Associate Editor at Astronomy magazine. She earned an M.F.A. from Cornell University. 

Why did you decide to pursue an MFA?

I took a Creative Writing course as an elective at the end of my junior year of college. In the Fall, I expected to be applying to Ph.D. programs in Astronomy, as that’s what I was actually studying. But when I took a second Writing class during the first semester of my senior year, I thought that perhaps I loved writing too much to spend six years in graduate school for something else right away. I didn’t know anything about MFA programs (I didn’t even know what the letters stood for, so immersed was I in the science world, until that year), but I knew I wanted to do more writing, I knew I wanted to become a better writer, and I was fairly certain I wasn’t qualified for any jobs.

When you started the degree, what were you leaving behind?

Well, I had wanted to be a research astronomer since I was about four years old, and all of my plans for my future centered on that goal. So I was essentially leaving behind the whole life-path I’d planned to trek down.

When you started your program, what did you envision happening afterward?

I envisioned that I would follow the MFA up with another advanced degree and remain in school till I was 75. I began with the idea that while I was completing the MFA program, I would apply to graduate school in Astronomy and then go be an astronomer who wrote fantastically literary short stories on the side. Note: I decided that I didn’t want any of that, except the “fantastically literary short stories on the side” part, to happen.

What are you doing now that the program is over?

I’m an Associate Editor at Astronomy magazine, where I write and edit magazine content, blog, attempt to make humorous videos, and dream up illustrations and diagrams, among other tasks. 

Do you like your work? Why or why not?

I like my work because

  • it’s varied–when I become bored with an article about Martian rocks, I work on an article about supernovae
  • it requires creativity and insight
  • it uses both of the skill sets I’ve worked hard to acquire. I can use my astronomical knowledge and make sentences less awkward under the same job title. I’ve found that having a creative writing background has been particularly useful in the editing world. When a story comes in, it’s my job to make it flow a little more smoothly while still maintaining the author’s voice and the magazine’s style. Editing each story requires getting into the mindset/voice of a different character, of a sort. 

How did you get involved with the field/skill set that your current job requires?

I think I mostly explained it above, except that I left out the job I had in between my MFA program and working at Astronomy. I worked for a few years as an outreach coordinator at the Green Bank Observatory, where I mostly worked with students and helped them do their own, legit scientific research. While I was there, I started a blog (Smaller Questions) with a friend who works in Microbiology. We realized that hundreds (thousands? quadrillions?) of new science papers are published each month, and only a select few about hip topics like HPV and dark matter are covered in mainstream media. So we set about trying to make some of these other, less glittery results appealing to “the public.” Entries from the blog were my only “professional” writing samples when I applied to this job. But I guess that worked out okay.

How long did you spend looking for work after the MFA?

I had the outreach coordinator job lined up at the time that I finished.

Are you writing? Publishing?

Yes and yes! I’ve worked in non-fiction-writing (not nonfiction-writing) spheres since graduation, and I’ve had stories accepted for publication fairly regularly (nine total! which is a number that I’m happy about, even if not everyone would be). I try to write on a fairly regular schedule, but I give myself a break from the “You should be writing great human things as soon as you get home even though you spent all day writing about cosmic inflation” guilt when I need to. I have had to learn, and am still learning, not to beat myself up when traveling, the job that pays me, the dates I occasionally go on, and taking my dog for long runs on nice days put writing on the back burner for a while. I’ve found that if I become resentful of “having to” write, I don’t enjoy it, and I don’t look forward to it, and uninspired sentences like, “She looked out the window,” emerge on the page. So I write regularly, but I do not write all the time.

Do you feel that with your job, you’ve been able to structure your time to privilege your writing? How do you do that?

I wouldn’t say that I privilege my writing over my job, because my job is my job, and if I don’t do a good job, it won’t be my job anymore, and I’ll have to eat plain rice and never use the heat … whereas if I don’t do a good job writing a short story, the worst concrete thing that happens is I don’t publish, or don’t publish as soon. I do privilege writing in that I keep time open for it (with the qualifiers given in answer to the last question). And I try to separate “work writing” from “home writing” in terms of brain-use-regions, so that it doesn’t feel like I’m using the same muscles both in the office and at my guest-room desk. I’m lucky that even though I have a job in publishing, it’s really 9-5, so I do have time for both my own writing and other hobbies.

Did you have the opportunity to work in academia after you graduated? How did you respond to that opportunity?

I did not want to work in academia, so I didn’t seek out opportunities.

Do you ever have any regrets about getting an MFA?

No. I may have had regrets if I had gone into debt. But I’m fortunate to have been accepted into a fully funded program. Being in an MFA program made me better able to predict how different kinds of readers would react to different aspects of my stories. And, most importantly, it made me write (at the time that I applied to programs, I had not been writing long and so had only completed the two stories I used to apply to programs).

Do you have any words of advice for recent or soon-to-be graduates of MFA programs? For writers just entering those programs?

For me, writing my own fiction while I was helping students write their own fiction and talking about the fiction of famous people (while being surrounded by people who were also writing their own fiction while they were helping students write their own fiction and talking about the fiction of famous people) was not an ideal way to be a productive fiction writer. I needed–and I think a lot of other people need–the kind of balance and perspective that come from beingaway from The Writing World. That’s not an option that people talk about very often, because the possibilities for non-writing work are, essentially, endless and completely dependent on each person’s skill set. So a professor can’t speak generally about what non-writing work students should do when they graduate (except waitressing, which is actually a great job for a story writer if you have a good memory, an ear for dialogue, and a high tolerance for annoying people).

I would say that you should write when it adds value to your life. Don’t write when it makes you miserable. You may ingrain a Pavlovian-type response like “when I sit down to write, I, as a result, become angry and hit things, so I will not sit down to write, because I do not want to become angry and hit things.” You probably won’t write all the time. It’s okay! Write sometimes. Write enough. Write well.

For writers just entering MFA programs, I would say, a) have fun, b) maintain stoicism when your piece is being workshopped, c) read a lot, d) if you have self-doubt and think that no one believes you are good enough to be there, set out to prove everyone (read: yourself) wrong, e) get a hobby that is not writing.

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You can read Sarah’s story “Modeling” at DIAGRAM

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