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.