Change Your Search Terms: An AWP Recap for Day Job Seekers

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This weekend I was at AWP, that most un-conference-like of conferences, where the book fair refreshment kiosk starts selling hard liquor and tacos at 11 am, and where you can take home a candy bar, a beer cozy, and a condom emblazoned with the logo of your favorite litmag.

I won’t bore you with my AWP philosophy – better poets have beat me to it – but having attended once before in an aimless way, this time I was glad to have a scheduled reason to be there. I spent an hour on Saturday as part of a panel called “What are You Going To do with that? Writers Side-Stepping the Adjunct Trap,” featuring off-the-academic-derech writers Erin Keane, Stacy Barton, Dan Bernitt and Daniel Bowman.

I’d spend the earlier days of the conference snooping around other post-MFA-oriented panels, most of which focused on things like how to get a job as an arts administrator. I admired (and live-tweeted) the other panels I went to, and couldn’t help noticing that on Saturday, when my colleagues and I sat down to answer our audience’s questions, the same ones came up again and again: what do you do if you want a job, but don’t want to leave your city? What if you’re told you’re overqualified for entry-level jobs in your non-academic field of choice? How do you get experience? What if you don’t feel like you’re good at anything else? Once your creative output stops being a means to a tenure-track end, how do you prioritize it? What is it for?

Some answers were full of satisfying tough love, like: sometimes you have to choose between a city you love and work you love. Or: if you want to break into a field, sometimes you have to do internships, and sometimes you’ll have to work for free. Or: working in business isn’t selling out – it’s a way to support your art-making. Some answers revealed the kind of surprising, personal, step-by-step details of the journey essential to helping others on the way: I learned to code on the job – I was doing what I loved, and my organization bit the dust – Now that I hire people, I would rather have someone with fire and gumption than someone with every skill on my checklist.

And some answers gave me the kind of frustrated feeling that made me start this blog. The frustrating answers were the ones full of holes, the kind that an person comfortable in his profession can give as lip-service to someone starting out and struggling. Freelance writing requires “hustle,” one panelist said, not detailing that “hustle” often means not just a hustle for work but hustle to figure out how to pay doctor’s bills without insurance, hustle to find work that pays in more than “exposure.”

So for those of you who couldn’t make it to Minneapolis, gathered below is something like a top five list from the conference for writers with day jobs or searching for day jobs. This is the list I wish I’d had pinned to my shirt like a preschooler’s allergy list when I wandered out of my MFA program and into the rest of the world.

Don’t let anyone shame you. One of the subjects that came up during our panel was shame: namely, the shame of not teaching. Among writers who’ve passed through academia, it can feel like there’s a pecking order determined by what you do to pay your bills. It can feel like if you’re not on the market, or driving across town to teach courses at two community colleges, you aren’t a “real writer.” But this is absurd, since writing, not teaching, is what writers do.

And I’ll just whip out some stats, here: since 1975, contingent faculty have increased by about 20% while tenure-track or tenured faculty have decreased by 20% as part of the total instructional staff at U.S. universities. Getting a job that pays you a living wage and treats you like a person, not an indentured servant, isn’t shameful or even a consolation prize – it’s acknowledging a bitter reality in higher ed.

You maybe can’t have everything. Over and over, I heard panelists and audience members tell stories of having to choose: the work they loved or the city they loved, their relationships or their work, hours every day to write or a job without a boss who called them “honey.” Sometimes, like if you have a family, a variable gets taken out of the game. Other times, you might have all the flaming bowling pins in the air at once: city, job, how you write, your relationships, your aging parents, your health. But start by catching one.

Change your search terms. Just as you might have to shuffle your priorities in terms of where you live, who you live with, what you do and how much time you spend doing it, don’t let the word “writing” limit what you do to support yourself. Not only are you probably good at more than just writing, but being good at writing already means you can do more than just write.

If you want to write for a living as well as for art, first, learn the names of the shapes writing takes in the business world: communications, social media, copywriting, technical writing, content creating, instructional design. Search for those jobs on Idealist or wherever else you’ve been looking, and take a look at what they actually entail. Better yet, talk to someone who does one.

If you think it might be better for your brain to preserve the writing lobe for your novel, first think about what you enjoy learning: math, or languages, or how to use new tools and materials. Ask people who work in fields you might want to work in –ideally, people who understand their own work holistically – about who uses those skills in their workplace. If you’ve had a job before, you’ll know something about what functions and skills a particular job uses, and it will be easier for you to imagine what “using math” in a library or “people skills” in a museum means. If you’re coming out of an MFA into the workforce for the first time, this paragraph is a longer process (and for another post).

Everyone wants a story. Writers tend to think that what they are adept at – using language – is nothing special, especially when it comes to the workforce. Why wouldn’t we think this way? Every other news story about humanities graduates talks about how there are no jobs for us, which suggests the notion that we’ve been prepared for a specific set of duties that no one wants us to do. This couldn’t be further from the truth: adeptness with language is flexible and, at a moment when every aspect of a company is part of its “story” and “voice,” particularly prized. Just look at the “Our Story” section of the websites of Walmart, Trader Joe’s, the media company Mindshare, Primerica, and that’s just the first page of Google results. Not the “about us” or “history” slugs of yore, this shift promises that people who understand how language works, how narrative and voice work, will be the people making sure companies are heard.

Life has seasons. After our panel, one woman in the audience said that she’d recently taken a job as a proposal writer after giving herself a year after the MFA to land an academic position. She had four kids, and worried about how her writing life would look during the transition into the new job. Stacy Barton, one of our panel’s playwrights, told her: there are many seasons in life. This might be your back-of-the-envelope season. Be very gentle with yourself during this time.

Jewish tradition has a kind of aphoristic recommendation that each person carry with them two slips of paper in two separate pockets. On one should be written: “you are created in the image of the Lord.” On the other: “you are but dust and ashes.” I find this useful: a kind of as-needed upper/ downer prescription, each phrase countering one side of a person’s natural seesawing view of herself. Doing any job, making any thing requires both phrases: we need the elevation of the first to be bold enough to create in the first place, and the bounded quality of the second to look back at our work, to see if it’s what we wanted — and if not, to see if we have the time to change it.

Be very gentle with yourself during this time.

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