A Day Job More Distant: An Interview with Paul Kerschen

kerschen

Why did you decide to pursue an MFA?

All sorts of reasons, the worst of which was thinking that the credential in itself would lead straight to literary success. The day my acceptance letter came from Iowa, I went bouncing around my dorm room with the Pixies blasting; I thought I was made as a writer. It didn’t occur to me that I hadn’t written anything yet.

A better reason, which became clearer over the course of the program, was simply that an MFA extended permission to write. Part of it was that rent and health insurance were taken care of. But at that stage it was important to have the writing take place in the context of an institution, and to lead to a degree that looked like any other advanced degree on paper. It helped to reassure me (and my family, who were very involved at that point) that fiction writing could be legitimate work.

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

The Bay Area tech economy. This was in 2000, right after the first dotcom crash, but there was still a lot of venture capital floating around and my friends with history and drama degrees were all landing jobs with startups. For me, choosing the MFA was an ascetic gesture; I thought I was turning my back on careerism, and I had a big head about it.

I also left behind close friends, which at that age was much scarier than I’d expected. A couple of months in I stopped eating for a week, got diagnosed with anxiety disorder and started a blog to keep in touch with people, which in 2000 was still an unusual thing to do. Things got better after that.

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

I had skewed expectations because a lot of people in the class above mine had gotten large book advances right out of the gate. Since I was young and had never been out of school, I expected things to go on in the same kind of managed context; I would find a literary agent, who would be something like an academic adviser, and steering my career would be that person’s problem. It seemed possible that I could make enough money from writing not to have to do anything else. I wasn’t planning for a teaching career, and I didn’t understand that teaching was assumed to be part of the successful writer’s life.

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

I develop mobile and web software for LawBox LLC in Berkeley, California. It’s a two-programmer shop, me and my best friend from a wayward childhood in Arizona.

Do you like your work? Why or why not?

It’s a far, far better day job than any I ever imagined for myself. I never thought I had the social energy to be an entrepreneur, but we’ve figured out how to do it in cycles. Some weeks we do emails and phone calls, some weeks we spend inside the code base without talking to anyone.

Running a small business is rewarding only if you have a good business partner; I’m fortunate there. It demands more attention than some jobs would, but being able to set our own projects and hours more than makes up for it. So does learning on the job; we cover a wide enough field that each new project brings in some new tools.

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

I started out programming as a hobby; my father is an engineer, and I used to go to his office on weekends to play with the monolith PCs they had there. Starting a blog before there were any blog-publishing tools was good for finding my way around a web server. I bashed my way through HTML and moved on to clumsy web programming in PHP, which professionals disparage for good reasons but is still the easiest way to start playing. I was learning ancient Greek and made a tool to conjugate the verbs; when I was cramming for the English GRE, I fed a bunch of poems from Beowulf through Ashbery into a script that would spit back snippets for identification. That kind of thing. I assumed I didn’t have the chops to make a career of it.

My partner wrote the first version of LawBox as a legal reference tool around the time he was finishing law school. It started out as an experiment—he learned to code in the process of making it—but once the initial tool was finished, it turned out to be an experiment with enough work for two people, and since my own plans were uncertain I was happy to pitch in. The first year was all trial and error. We were lucky to be working in mobile, which was growing very fast and offered ways around the sales problems that a more traditional company would have had to solve. We got by on investment money and token salaries until the company started to run on its own.

Do you ever find common intellectual ground between programming and writing?

Remarkably so! At the detail level it’s a bunch of logic puzzles, but the trend in modern languages is to leave more of that detail work up to the computer and free the programmer to think about the larger architecture. In making software you create models of real-world processes or, put otherwise, you come up with metaphors. As with a writing project, if your guiding metaphors are well conceived it’s much easier to implement them. Otherwise you run into problems, and you usually discover halfway through that your initial conception failed to take something into account and has to be revised. This is why it’s so hard to estimate completion time on anything but a very rote project. You’re discovering the proper form as you go. So the larger satisfactions and frustrations are much like those of writing a book, even though you spend many hours in a distinct engineering mindset, more focused on solving problems. There’s a quote that bounces around programming forums to the effect that there are only two hard problems in computer science: cache invalidation and naming things. The first of those is a logic puzzle. The second is writer’s work.

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

I had the largesse of a year’s fellowship right after the MFA. After that I moved to Portland, Oregon, which I thought was cheap living, and stayed afloat as a part-time paralegal. I did title searches, which meant getting paid to drive all over the western U.S. and check records in county courthouses. I had time to think, and I could do things like go to Guatemala for a month to research a novel. But it was also isolating, so after a year I went back for a literature Ph.D. at Berkeley. It was my last year there that LawBox started; the company was actually getting off the ground at the same time that I was filing my dissertation.

Are you writing? Publishing?

I published a collection of short fiction a couple of years ago, and I do occasional criticism and reviews for journals. My novel hit a sandbar when my daughter was born two years ago, but it’s resumed course since then.

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

I write for around an hour a day, usually after my daughter goes to bed. I have a very accommodating family and a very accommodating business partner who give me room to layer it in. I can’t imagine how much harder it would be with different people.

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

The MFA didn’t lead to a lot of academic opportunity in itself. The Ph.D. might have, but I decided halfway through that I didn’t want to stay in that environment. It was an enlightening, even transformative, experience; I worked on modernist fiction, and my dissertation helped me think through the particularly modernist aspects of the MFA aesthetic, which was not, as it turned out, timeless gospel. But it’s hard to spend a day on criticism and switch to creative work in the evening. You’re like a salmon that has to keep moving between fresh and salt water. I needed a day job that was more distant.

Do you ever have any regrets about getting an MFA?

Some of my teachers thought I shouldn’t go straight out of college because I needed to acquire life experience. It’s a strange line of thought, since unless you have a very charmed life you’re bound eventually to get more and harder experience than you could ever want. (Fiction writers seem to get this advice more than poets, who I guess are given up as hopeless antiquarians or solipsists from the start.) I don’t think there’s ever a bad time to take two years to read and think, and fail at experiments—as long as the debt burden is manageable. I was lucky to have help from family, and I kept doing computer and paralegal odd jobs while in school.

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

Write every day. Cultivate the habit in a supportive environment so you’ll have it when you’re on your own.

Consider the tech sector among others. It’s heterogeneous, and it offers reasonable ways to make a living while writing. Learning to code from a textbook or tutorial is joyless, because all you get is what was pictured on the box. Start with something you want to build, and figure out what you need to learn in order to build it.

It’s not necessary that your day job be connected to literature, and a literary day job may generate harmful interference patterns. It is necessary to have unconditional support from the closest people in your life. If they accept the bizarre burden you lay on them and yourself, love them for it.

*

Paul Kerschen’s collection The Drowned Library was published by Foxhead Books in 2011. His fiction and essays have appeared inMusic & Literature, The Southern Review and elsewhere. He writes fiction and software in California, and blogs atwww.metameat.net.
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