You got an MFA at the New School. What were you doing before the degree, and how did you expect the MFA would change your life?
I went directly from undergrad into my MFA program, and really I had given little or no thought to how an MFA would change my life beyond the fact that it meant moving from Michigan to New York. As a first generation college student, I came from a family that ultimately believed just going to college and getting a degree (no matter in what) would be advantageous. I saw the MFA as an opportunity to develop more as a reader and writer. I did not think about it leading to any specific type of job after graduation.
You’re now the Assistant Director of Media Communications at Swarthmore, but like many of us, you’ve been around the block day-job wise. Where did you get the background this job required? Did you seek out communications work, or did it find you?
At the community college I attended, I worked for the school paper and took a couple of journalism classes. This led to me writing freelance articles and blogging through the years, which eventually led to me picking up basic web skills like HTML. I had also taken art classes and had basic Photoshop skills. After I left New York and returned to Michigan, I contributed to an alt-weekly paper and then eventually was part of a website startup that covered the arts. Through that experience, I picked up a number of marketing and communications skills. At this time, I was also adjuncting, and as such was uninsured. I became sick and needed surgery and also found out that I would require surgery every three to five years, so I decided I needed something more stable and with insurance (I’m still paying bills from my uninsured days four years ago). A friend told me about a communications job opportunity at Emory University, and thankfully it worked out. I worked there for three years before moving into my current position, which I’ve only been at for two months.
Did you harbor academic aspirations while adjuncting, or do you now? What did you enjoy about teaching enough to stay for a few years, and what made you want to leave?
I never had academic aspirations. After I completed my MFA, I stayed in New York and continued to work retail and in an office—both jobs I had while a student. I then worked for a B2B marketing company, and then an advertising agency. When I returned to Michigan, I briefly worked in a factory and bartended, and it was a friend there who said the community college (coincidentally the one I had attended) was in need of someone to pick up one or two classes. I was piecing together work at the time, so it made sense to pick something up. Of course very quickly, one-to-two classes became four-to-five, and I quit the factory and had already been laid off at the bar. I taught for three years and I had wonderful students and I enjoyed the material, but really teaching wasn’t a good fit for me. There is a lot of negativity in that environment that came from fellow adjuncts as well as full-time and tenured professors. I had no interest in going “on the market” to pursue a full-time position, and I had no interest in my continued exploitation as an adjunct.
I stayed for as long as I did because it afforded me a lot of free time to pursue other projects, such as the startup I was involved with. However, I was pretty miserable, especially the last year, and I had already given notice that I wouldn’t return in the fall even before I knew I was sick and before I had another job. I think adjuncts regularly feel trapped. It’s hard to search for a job when you are committed to work semesters at a time, so I thought I would just quit and figure something else out when I had the time to do so—I know that speaks to a certain privilege, but I had nothing saved up. I just knew I couldn’t teach anymore. I believed I would have been happier bagging groceries than I was teaching. I’ve regularly had more than one job at a time throughout my life, which has given me a wide range of experience, so I was confident I would find something, and luckily I did.
The adjunct movement is slowly gaining some traction in the U.S.—could better treatment of contingent faculty at universities ever entice you back into academe?
No. I support better treatment of workers, of course, but I don’t see myself ever returning to the academe as a way of life.
You also work as an editor for Coconut Poetry and Lame House Press. To what extent do you think of your editing work as a second day job, and to what extent is it an outgrowth of your writing practice?
It’s definitely something I see more as an outgrowth of my own writing practice and not as a second job. I love poetry and love to be able to read new work as well as discover writers I haven’t read before, and Coconut and Lame House provide me with those opportunities.
Given the imbalance many writers face between the income from their day jobs and the income from their writing, do you think we should be calling writing a hobby or a profession? Or doesn’t it matter? Why or why not?
I don’t think it matters what label one puts on it. I remember being at a wedding and someone asked what I did, and I said I was an administrative assistant. My dad was standing there, and he said, “She’s actually a writer.” In asking “What do you do?” the population at large usually means for money. Even though I don’t make much money from it, I don’t think of writing as a hobby either. Calling it a hobby, for me, downplays its significance because really what I do for money makes up the smaller part of my life. Still, this last weekend I was in a bar, and someone asked what I did, and I said I worked in communications at a college. But people should feel comfortable identifying however they want.
What are your techniques for balancing your writing life with the rest of your work life? Do you think it helps to be in a university environment?
When I was an undergraduate and knew I wanted to be a writer, I said that I didn’t care what I did to support myself as long as I had the time and energy to write. And while that has changed slightly, the sentiment is still true. I like working in a university environment, but ultimately what matters is having a job that you can leave at work—one that doesn’t eat away your hours or your energy. I also think having a job where people care about your health and well-being helps too because if you’re not well you’re not going to be able to use your time away from work for writing or for pursuing any of the things you care about.
What advice would you give to recent MFA graduates who are job-seeking? What advice would you give to current students who want to keep one toe in the non-academic job market?
I think recent MFA graduates should be flexible in regards to what kinds of jobs they are looking for. When I first completed my MFA, I wanted to find an administrative assistant job, but I was only looking at museums, art organizations, and other non-profits I was interested in. Someone gave me the advice to apply everywhere—to send out ten to fifteen resumes a day. I never sent out that many, but once I increased the number, I started getting calls and wound up at a digital media company where I got to work with a lot of talented programmers, designers, and animators, and where I was able to diversify my own skill set.
I think it’s good to realize jobs aren’t forever, and it’s easier to find another job while you’re employed. You can do something for a while and move on.
For current students who want to keep one toe in the non-academic job market, I’d recommend doing things outside of your MFA program. If you can afford to have an internship with a publishing house, do that. Intern at a newspaper or for the local TV or radio station. Or perhaps in the communications office at a corporation. If you’re not able to intern, try freelance writing. Offer to help someone clean up the text on his or her website. Or polish up someone else’s resume. There are so many different avenues to break into writing in a non-academic setting. Every corporation, government office, non-profit, school, etc. needs people who can write.
If your MFA program has a magazine, work for it—maybe add event planning to your resume by handling the issue launch party.
Or bartend. Be a waitress. Work in a store. Get a janitorial union job. Tutor. Start an after-school program. Be a phlebotomist. Teach ice skating. Farm. Join a commune.
Gina Myers is the author of two full-length poetry collections, A Model Year (Coconut Books, 2009) and Hold It Down (Coconut Books, 2013), as well as numerous chapbooks including most recently False Spring (Spooky Girlfriend, 2012). Originally from Saginaw, MI, she now lives in Philadelphia.