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.

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Don’t Fall Into a Pit of Angst: Writers at the Academic Job Market Crossroads

You got that right. Britney Spears won’t take $2,987 per course anymore.

Last week I had a phone call from an old friend, someone I’ve known for more than ten years. We’d talked for over an hour, and after the obligatory inquiries about each other’s jobs, partners, and families, we got down to it: she’d been on the academic job market for the second time this past winter, and nothing much had come of it. By most writers’ standards, she’s lucky: she has two coveted adjunct positions in her city, a rich network of contacts from her publications and fellowships, and both the emotional and financial support of her partner. But after years of feeling like she was on a firm path, it seemed to have been grabbed out from under her – or at the very least, she wasn’t sure how to keep moving forward.

This is the story of countless arts graduates: even if we excel in the closed laboratory of our degree programs, even if we put our work into the world and are rewarded with publication and other recognition, even if we’re offered sponsorship for some amount of time, we’re likely to encounter a crossroads – which I’m tentatively calling the MFA Day Job Crossroads, so pertinent is it to the stories of writers on this site – where we’re faced with the perfect storm that is the recovering American economy, the administration-heavy state of university spending, the adjunct crisis, and the ever-growing glut of eligible young candidates for tenure-track positions. Often, the message that heavy weather has for us is that the job we’ve been preparing to do for years just isn’t available to us right now.

Different writers (and other artists, and humanities professionals – the ways in which professionals in other fields experience this crossroads is material for another post) experience this message differently. For someone like my other friend J., who attended a top-tier university for undergrad, who has her own alumni network and maybe that of her professional parents to lean on, and who worked for a little while in a white-collar field before starting her MFA, the message hits hard, but after a few phone calls and some soul searching, she has the beginnings of a plan B. She might, like so many writers featured on this site, create her own systems for continuing to write and publish while working outside of academia, or she might stop for a while.

For a writer like O., an immigrant and first-generation college student, the news might hit harder. Since his involvement with his local spoken-word scene, and, later, a creative writing class in college, he’s seen his talent with words as a potential way to achieve a middle-class existence and to help his parents have a better life. Getting into an MFA program only made that dream feel more like a reality. The news that academe isn’t a sure thing means he has to create his own alternative, perhaps from scratch – while still, if he wants to, privileging his writing. (Note: I’m making up these “friends,” though their circumstances are drawn from a composite of real ones.)

A quick scan of the Facebook statuses of recently graduated writers I know reflects a range of existential feelings: from dread and despair to hopefulness. Almost everyone has applied to the same fellowships and jobs, with mixed results; a few lucky folks have broken the tenure-track code, but most have not. Almost all continue to write, and report their publications and other triumphs; their fellow writers celebrate these joys more or less equally. But studies show that we tend to paint a more optimistic portrait of ourselves on social media than we really feel to be true – in private conversations, we admit to feeling doubtful about our future, dreading that our best and most creative years are behind us, hoping that our parents don’t ask us about our plans, hoping no one asks us for money.

Some critics might go back to condemning the MFA as a vanity degree, or criticize the programs themselves for not providing more guidance. But I think that there’s something else going on: as a nation of artists, we may be approaching the end of a sixty-some-year period during which the university was the surest source of steady employment for makers of art with variable or very little ready market value. As a consequence, the youngest of us (or newest to the field, whatever our ages) are at a crossroads between existential angst about the worth of our work and the will to redefine the terms of our success as professional artists. Which will we choose? Will we let a network of systems fail us, or will we find a way through them?

This isn’t an easy question, and it’s even disingenuous to pose it as an either-or question. Systems fail us every day despite our determination not to let them. But we can approach the messy composite answer to this question bit by bit. When I started my first job after getting an MFA, I thought of my new life as divided sharply into 9-5 “making a living” work and post-5 pm “life-making” work, i.e. writing. But a year and a half later, the boundaries have blurred in more ways than one: I write on the subway and on my lunch break, and even jot down ideas during slow moments when I’m on the clock, because I know I’ll have a better day and face my “making a living” responsibilities more cheerfully that way. And I’ve also realized that just because I have a day job doesn’t mean I have to take everything that’s thrown in my lap at face value: I’ve found little ways to learn tools that I think will serve me well professionally in the future, started projects that use skills I developed while working with other writers and students, and found ways to use language creatively as often as possible. I can’t say I’ve landed exactly where I want to be yet, but I’ve stopped thinking of my job as merely the hours when I’m not writing.

“The will to redefine the terms of our success” isn’t meant to be a woo-woo euphemism for patting ourselves on the back just for writing every day. No – it’s a call to all disappointed, academe-oriented writers to look the university square in the face. Make a list. Make a real, honest list of what you love about being in an academic environment: is it working with undergraduates? Is it one-on-one conversations with students, or presenting to a room full of people? Is it the challenge of providing detailed feedback on student work that allows the next steps in learning? Is it the relative flexibility of your working hours? Is it collaborating and exchanging ideas with colleagues? Is it the way reading texts closely with students influences your own writing? The side projects and committees you participate in with faculty from other departments?

If you’re like the many writers who entered an MFA program taking for granted that a life in academia would be compatible with and supportive of your writing life, or that teaching was something you would learn to love, use this list to take a good, hard look. Then take that list and put it in order: what’s your favorite part of what you do? What do you wish wasn’t such a big part of your week? (Grading papers, anyone?) Now, do the most difficult thing: take that ordered list and make some phone calls. Send some emails. Read in-touch, honest career websites like Ask a Manager and Evil HR Lady and The Billfold and other stuff you never thought you would have to read. Do all this to figure out one thing: where can you find the things you love most about being at a university in another job – one that might even pay more, and leave you more hours to write, than your adjunct gigs?

Even though it feels like things suck, this is an exciting moment for artists, particularly visual artists and writers – those of us whose work isn’t necessarily time-based or capital-intensive, who don’t require millions of dollars up front or months of rehearsal time to create something. As artists, we have always figured out our own standards for a good piece of work, for success in terms of the work itself. Now it’s time for us to make choices about the other parts of our careers: we can hedge our bets and enter an adjunct market for what should be the 5-10 most interesting, fertile years of our art-making lives, the years where we learn and grow the most and change direction if we want to. Or we can look at the odds, make our lists, and walk away.

Among writers, there’s a cultural trope of love-hate for the starving artist/ adjunct existence – we talk about creative writing pedagogy and the naïve but lovable things our students say, and in our way we love the fringes of the great universities on which we develop as teachers and draw our paychecks. But just because we’ve made the choice to be artists doesn’t mean that we have to take whatever the world gives us. In a world where nothing is what we, or our teachers, could have expected, we must be unsentimental. “Kill your darlings,” goes the old saw. This must apply to the careers that keep us afloat as well as to our writing.

Whether we like it or not, today’s academic job market will create a huge cohort of professional-quality writers and artists who cannot enter that market. In fifty years, this generation of artists could be remembered as the artists who created the 21st century “blended career” – not the New York Times bestsellers or the art market’s 1%, nor merely hobbyists, but rather people who found fulfilling ways to feed themselves while reminding the world that art is not a joke.

Now, whether you’ve been disappointed by the academic job market once or four times: delete that last rejection letter. Make your lists of what you love. And turn your life into something that you, not a department budget or a semester-long contract, control.