“My number one advice is don’t be snobby”: An Interview with Caitlin Jackson

Caitlin Jackson and I met as undergraduates in a poetry workshop at Oberlin College. Caitlin is a poet who got her MFA at the University of Central Florida. By day, she is a technical writer for a large corporation. 

Why did you decide to pursue an MFA?

I decided to get an MFA mostly to motivate myself to write, and to improve my writing. I had graduated from college 3 years previously and was ready to go back to school. I had a full time job and a lot of debt, so those two things worked against me pursuing the degree, but the most important thing to me has always been my writing. Before the MFA program I was still writing, but I felt like I was stuck in a vacuum and not improving or growing in the work I was producing. I was also pretty bored. Being a technical writer at a large corporation is not the most exciting or fulfilling way to spend your life. I decided I needed to re-prioritize and focus more seriously on my writing. And so I started investigating MFA programs. I needed a change. 

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

I attended my program locally and part time, and so I kept my day job, my boyfriend, and my friends close. Rather than leaving something behind, I instead lost the opportunity to move on. I applied to several programs and got into my top two picks, but attending either one would have meant quitting my job, moving away, and going far, far deeper into debt. At the time, with the economy so poor and hearing employment horror stories from all my friends, It seemed to be the smartest thing to keep my job and attend the MFA program part time and locally, but often I wonder what would have happened if I had quit and plunged into the program of my choice full time.

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

What was most important to me was that over the course of the program I would write a book. I wanted to have written a poetry book that I could attempt to publish and be able to carry that accomplishment with me forever. In that, I succeeded. Since I didn’t quit my job however, not much has changed for me except that now I don’t have 7 am to 10:30 pm days because of night classes, or any papers to write.

What kind of work, other than writing, are you doing now?

I am a Technical Writer at one of the world’s largest corporations. Don’t let the job title fool you, there’s not much actual writing here that I do. There’s always someone who has something they want you to proof read, or a newsletter to be written and distributed, but most of what I do is working with files in Adobe and Word.

Do you like your work? Why or why not?

I really detest my work. It’s very mindless and the bureaucracy of a large corporation is insanely frustrating. Also I’m surrounded by engineers all day who are very dismissive of anything having to do with literature or art. They see it as laughable and have no idea why anyone would want to read or write for fun, much less as a life’s endeavor. I won’t lie, it’s a miserable existence.

But there are trade offs. I make enough money that I can pay off my loans in a timely manner and not worry TOO much about bills as long as I’m careful with what I earn. In that I consider myself very very lucky. I also have a lot of down time at work, which I can use for writing. This is perhaps the most important thing about the job. It gives me precious time to write and revise every day, and that’s no small thing.

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

I work with engineers, and they hate writing or editing or anything to do with words on paper. I graduated with a degree in Creative Writing, and I could use Microsoft Word fairly adeptly, and I was in the right place at the right time and was hired to correct and format report that engineers write. Being able to write well is considered a menial task as it doesn’t involve designing power plants or re-building turbines. Not many people here want to attempt it.

Are you writing? Publishing?

I write or revise every day! I’ve had a few poems published in a couple journals and have others out now that I’m hopeful about. I feel that’s how you have to be when you’re trying to get published, always hopeful no matter how many rejections you get. I’ve also entered my book in various first book contests and am attempting to be hopeful about that as well.

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

As I mentioned before, it’s the best thing about my job. I’m able to write during non busy times during my days. I rarely have to make extra time to write, and that’s a wonderful thing.

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

I did not have the opportunity. Working full time really changed the game for me, because I couldn’t TA during my time as an MFA student. Thus I got no teaching experience, and can’t even put together a CV, much less hope for a teaching job.

Do you ever have any regrets about getting an MFA?

Looking at the loan payments coming up and listening to the snorts of engineers, I feel twinges of regret sometimes. Occasionally it seems like it was just an expensive and self indulgent endeavor that led nowhere. But then I look at the book I wrote, that I’m hoping to publish… or something completely random will happen like the lady at Super Cuts suddenly squealing when I explain I write poetry, quote some Frost, and then tell me very seriously that I’m doing a great thing. Then I know deep down it was completely worth while.

What is your response to the articles that pop up every so often condemning the MFA as misleading or bad for literature?

I struggle with this. My approach to my time in my MFA program was so completely personal. I really wanted to just concentrate on my own poetry. However in school we studied a lot of pedagogy about certain literature and theories behind writing and how to write that were worthy of eye rolls, and it’s alarming to think people are holding these sacred. I think if all writers actually start subscribing completely to rote ideologies about how you should write or what you should write then of course, it can’t be good for literature. In my limited experience though that is not what is happening in MFA programs at all. I feel both my writing and perspective have expanded because of my program, not shrunk. Students are smart enough to be discerning in what they study, and ultimately a really good writer is going to write what they need to write to be true to themselves, not to stay in line with some academic theory they read in an essay by Eliot a hundred years ago.

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

My number one advice is don’t be snobby. Apply to smaller, less prestigious programs and check them out, they may surprise you. I went to University of Central Florida because it was close and convenient, but to my surprise I was thrilled with the program. I got to take as many workshops as I wanted, the classes were tiny, the professors knowledgeable and helpful, but most of all, everyone in the program was wonderfully supportive of one another. I was astonished by the lack of competition and the high level of encouragement there was between students. I think if I had gone to one of the more competitive schools, I wouldn’t have had nearly as positive an experience. UCF may not be a big name in the MFA world, but I’ll never forget the writers I met there and the feelings of solidarity we shared.

*

Caitlin Jackson blogs at http://outloudwrites.wordpress.com/

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