Poem as Calendar: Adrienne Rich and the Working Writer’s Time

IMG_0715

Some cows, composing in the interstitial moment.

“It’s true that a poem can be attempted in brief interstitial moments, pulled out of the pocket and worked on while waiting for a bus or riding a train or while children nap or while waiting for a new batch of clerical work or blood samples to come in. But only certain kinds of poems are amenable to these conditions,” Adrienne Rich wrote in the early nineteen-nineties in her brief essay “How does a poet put bread on the table?” She goes on to draw a distinction between types of “free” time: the infrequent gulps of unoccupied time amid obligations versus the time that has no pressing frame around it, the time made of the absence of all obligations but the one the poet makes to her art.

I’ve taken more than a year’s hiatus from writing and posting here, in part because until a few months ago, I was job searching and felt I couldn’t post publicly about that process. Going forward, I want to address the search process while examining what it’s meant for my and others’ writing, but those future posts will be in retrospect. Now that I find myself in a job I like, time crops up like wildflowers: the time I spent feverishly writing cover letters, the time I spent stressing about how much I wanted to leave my old job, the time spent unraveling myself from those tensions: it’s all been returned to me as a blank page. Just part of the day for me to do with as I will.

Rich writes that a poet’s feeling of fluency, when we experience “the speeding up of our imaginative powers” and “what was externally fragmented is internally reorganized, and the hand can barely keep pace” grows out of an accumulation of unplanned moments, crucially without the temptation of either interruption or distraction, when we could “simply stare into the wood grain of a door, or the trace of bubbles in a glass of water as long as we wanted to.” As part of a life that obliges one to make a living apart from art, she writes, such moments are often “fearfully taken because [they] do not seem like work.”

That’s the psychic exercise I find myself embarking upon, now that I’m free of the invented urgencies of my old life. To rail against a job I disliked seemed to take priority over the centering of my own attention, over the will to jettison busy-ness in favor of my own work. Now I find myself tasked with making my way back to the kind of time that is suspended in time, and getting rid of the feeling that I don’t deserve that time, that I ought to be “busy” or worse, “relaxing,” instead. Actual bubbles in a glass – suspensions of air in water — of the kind that Rich’s uninterrupted poet can contemplate, are formed at activation points on the inner surfaces of their containers. The activation points of our time-within-time bubbles, especially when we divide the day into job and not-job, are necessarily those interstitial moments Rich describes: putting an ingredient for writing down on paper in the time waiting for a train, or cooking dinner, can mean the difference between feeling shiftless and feeling fluent when we do have an open expanse of time: a day off, or a partner away on a trip, or a long city walk to ourselves. 

“Only certain kinds of poems” can emerge, writes Rich, during the caught moment, the fleeting second when no one demands our attention – or during which we make ourselves temporarily unavailable. Fine: water takes the shape of its container, a poem takes the shape of the moment it’s made in. There’s the story of Williams making poems on his prescription pads. Here, Rich subtly builds on Woolf: a woman – she is pointedly speaking of women writers – needs not only the privacy and means to write, she needs the time. Rich goes one step further than Woolf, who argued that money for women meant privacy, meant freedom of speech: for the writers Rich knows, who don’t have to contend with the opinions of benefactors or inheritances, a little money translates directly into time.

But rather than embrace Rich’s suggestion that either we have the luxury of the kinds of poems that require long hours gazing at wood grain or we do not, that either capitalism squashes us into a corner where our freedom is compromised or it does not, I’d rather accept that the writing we do in the moments between our obligations will end up keeping our calendars for us, rather than existing only when we manage to banish the calendar. The working artist makes a long moment of many short ones; composes not the poem out of time, but the poem as time.

Advertisements

Keep the Humanities, Lose the Fetish: A Consideration of Life after the PhD and MFA with Brian Matzke

Leah Falk: Let me start by asking (although I know you’ve covered a lot of this on your blog) how have some of your expectations changed about being a humanities scholar from when you entered the University of Michigan to now?

Brian Matzke: Well, the first thing to bear in mind is, I started grad school at 22, fresh out of undergrad, so to be honest, I didn’t know what to expect. And to be honest, if a college student asked me about grad school right now, one of the first things I’d recommend is to NOT go to grad school straight out of undergrad. You just don’t have the perspective. I suppose I was somewhat naive about the process and figured a Ph.D. from a top-tier institution would be enough to secure a professorship. The biggest thing that has changed in terms of my expectations is I know that’s no longer true. 

Leah: Yeah. I think many people starting MFAs, too — whether right out of the undergrad gate or not — also labor under this misapprehension (although it seems to be understood that at least one book publication is also required to be competitive for the tenure-track). What do you think you might have done differently during your Ph.D. if you’d spent a few years out of school? (A sort of impossible thought experiment, I know.)

Brian: Probably the biggest thing I would have done is prepare a “shadow resume,” as some people have put it, and seriously explored alternative career paths. This is something I’ve just started to do in earnest, and I wish I’d done it 5 or 6 years earlier. I’m still pursuing TT jobs as well, but my options feel broader now than they did in grad school, and I think I would have felt more empowered if I’d had less tunnel vision earlier on.

A big part of that is also work/life balance. It’s easy to be a workaholic at 22/23, but now I’m engaged, I’m thinking about family, etc., and I don’t want to be in my office or in the library 12 or 14 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Leah Falk: For sure. You’ve written a little bit about alt-ac and how the lip-service paid to it isn’t really enough in the face of how competitive the TT job market is, the reality of how many humanities graduates will actually go on to non-academic employment — what kinds of resources would you like to see there, and how likely do you think current students would be to take advantage of them early on?

Brian: You know it’s funny, in my latest blog post I mentioned an alternative career paths seminar that [The University of Michigan’s] Rackham Graduate School was hosting. I actually signed up for it (I lied on the online form and said I was still a grad student–ha!). It was remarkably well-attended, especially by second and third year Ph.D. students in English. That was a really useful resource, actually (and would have been more useful if I were still in grad school). Simple things like sessions on how to write a resume, how to approach people for informational interviews, etc., can go a long way, and I definitely think students will attend.

In some ways I think I’m old enough at this point that I’m not representative of the current mentality. I entered grad school prior to the 2008 financial crisis, when things were still good enough that we could afford to be a little naive. I think current grad students are at least somewhat more realistic about the market and the need to keep their options open.

Leah: Among MFA students, especially those who come right out of undergrad, I’ve sometimes encountered the attitude that “I don’t have any other skills” but this particular kind of writing. Which makes me kind of mad, because out of necessity I feel like I’ve discovered all sorts of skills and interests in the working world that I wouldn’t necessarily have had to countenance in grad school, or if I’d gone straight from grad school to an academic job, etc. Do you encounter anything similar in English Ph.D. students, or do you think they tend to have a better-rounded sense of their own range of abilities?

Brian: Oh I absolutely encounter that among Ph.D. students, and am guilty of it myself. I still find it somewhat difficult to conceive of what the day-to-day experience of a lot of nonacademic jobs are like. But the important thing to bear in mind is, with academic jobs, so much of the actual work is basic white collar tedium–answering emails, attending meetings, serving on committees, etc. The basic skills that comprise 80-90% of an academic job are virtually identical to the majority of nonacademic white collar jobs out there.

I don’t know about you, but I see it as a two-pronged problem: on the one hand, an anxiety about being able to DO a nonacademic job, and on the other hand, an anxiety about not being FULFILLED by a nonacademic job. In both cases, I think that anxiety is fueled by a poor sense of what both an academic job and a nonacademic job actually entail.

Leah: Yeah, I agree. I think the fear of 9-5 (which I was totally guilty of, and now that I DO work 40 hours a week, it hasn’t totally gone away) comes largely from not being able to imagine any kind of stimulation coming from that rigid a schedule. I think I became more comfortable with a non-academic career path when I realized I’d have just as much time (or more) to write coming home at 5 pm (and not bringing much work home with me) as I would if I were teaching 3 courses a semester.

Which brings me to the question of scholarship: do you feel like you have time to privilege research and writing? And do you feel like your former teachers, who taught you as an assumed future professor (maybe) treat you as an equal in that manner?

Brian: Yeah, I got virtually no scholarly writing done this past year. Part of that was due to the demands of my teaching schedule; part of that was due to the time demands of searching for a job, since I’m still pursuing TT positions; and part of that was due to some unexpected family health concerns that took up an unexpected amount of time (which is another factor grad school doesn’t really prepare you for). With my teaching load at Michigan, keeping up with scholarship is theoretically possible, but it’s damn difficult.

As for how professors treat me, it’s a mixed bag. Some I’ve found to be very collegial, while others essentially still regard me as a grad student. Really, the most awkward encounters have been with professors who I didn’t know as a grad student. They seem less able to interact with lecturers, since their job is so research-focused, and they assume my job is so teaching-focused. 

Leah: At the same time, there’s an incredible amount of professional energy in the department devoted to the [English Department Writing Program] at Michigan (much more, I’ve since learned, than at other institutions). When you’re together with other lecturers, do you tend to talk about your students, the job market, your own research?

Brian: It really depends on which lecturers. We do really seem to be undergoing a sea change at U-M (I’m not sure how representative that is of the field as a whole). The lectureship seems to be more and more professionalized. Some people still treat it as a temporary position and are very focused on the job market while others are invested in staying in their current position. Those people are much more teaching focused. It’s common, however, for research/writing to take a back seat to teaching and/or the job search, however. 

Leah: You’ve written that you wouldn’t say “don’t” to someone interested in pursuing the humanities, except in the case that it involved going into debt. Imagine a scenario where a prospective student does regard the time spent as a kind of debt, one that he/ she has to pay off by advancing in a non-academic career several years behind her peers, but is still dedicated to the humanities as a field and wants to contribute to it. What would be your advice to this person?

Brian: That’s a really good question. I was just discussing the prospect of teaching at independent high schools with someone, and the sad thing is, that’s a career I’d be very interested in, but it’s one that it’s often hard to break into with a Ph.D. because you’ve essentially priced yourself out of an entry-level position. It’s a really difficulty cost/benefit analysis.

I guess I would say, on the one hand, if you’re contemplating grad school, but you also have some solid ideas of nonacademic jobs that you could be fulfilled in and still carve out time to read, write, and live a life of the mind in your free time, then you should not go to grad school. If you honestly can’t imagine anything other than grad school, then go ahead and go to grad school, and enjoy the time, but devote yourself in those years to really exploring alternatives and not simply doggedly pursing a narrow path.

Leah: Basically, the ideological advice there is to stop considering grad school in the humanities as a certain professional path — or as only encompassing one professional path. 

Brian: Totally. As a friend of mine recently put it, the myth of a “calling” can be very damaging.

Leah: Yes. That totally resonates with me. Although I wonder: if humanities departments really changed their career resources and the way they talked about students’ futures, they’d be accommodating those multiple professional possibilities and seem relevant as a form of professional preparation again. If they refused to, (and some MFA programs just don’t really talk about post-grad issues, because they bill themselves as a time and support resource for students, not a pre-professional program) would they lose some professional credibility? 

Brian: That’s a real risk. I know for PhD programs there’s a strong incentive to boast high placement rates in academic positions. And we do have to admit that professional development opportunities are kind of a Band-Aid on a bullet wound. Looking more macroscopically, the bigger problem is the erosion of professorships. 

Leah: Right. Which has been steady. 

Brian: I think I read recently that a generation ago 3/4 of university classes were taught by professors, 1/4 by adjuncts; now those numbers have flipped. You’d have to fact check me on that though.

[Ed.: See Figure 1, “Trends in Instructional Staff Employment Status” in the  2012-13 Economic Status report of the  American Association of University Professors for accurate figures since 1975] 

I’ve often thought that a kinder solution would be to simply accept far fewer students into grad school to begin with–only accept as many as you feel your program could place, and devote all your resources to placing them in professorships.

Leah: Interesting. And that also does away with the problem of the student who feels she’s gone into professional debt after a Ph.D. program that doesn’t result in a tenure track job. 

Brian: Yeah.  

Leah: A cold question, though: if there are fewer Ph.D. (and let’s just tack on MFA) candidates, who teaches the intro writing and lit courses? Do we increase the course-loads of full professors? Keep hiring contingent faculty, assuming that a gap between earning a degree and getting a job will persist? (Obviously this is not the main concern of the candidates, but it probably is a big one of university administrators).

Brian: I can think of two possible ways of answering that question, both of which are preferable to the current system, but both of which have the same problem (i.e., costing the university more money):

One would be multiple tenure-tracks: one that’s based primarily on research, and one based primarily on teaching, so it would be possible to attain tenure while focused on teaching freshman level courses.

Another would be to professionalize fixed term faculty, so you’d have more people appointed to what at U-M we call Lec3 and Lec4 positions, with a certain amount of job security and longer-term (but still non-TT) contracts.

None of those are actually plausible, I have to admit, but I’d advocate for them over the system of current contingent faculty and grad students teaching all the intro courses.

Leah: The first option sounds kind of like combining an R1 and a liberal arts college, and seeking a mixture of the kinds of faculty who’d do well at each. 

Brian: Yeah. 

Leah: I mean, I don’t see the second option as totally implausible – if you have fewer fully-funded grad students across the board, you have some additional funds available for long-term lecturers — although maybe not enough to cover health benefits, etc.

Brian: Yeah, that’s a sticking point. I’m also sympathetic to administrators who deal with a lot of uncertainty with regard to funding and enrollment. That makes it really difficult to know how many people you can hire from one semester to the next. 

Leah: I remember at the end of the last semester I taught at Michigan, there was apparently $17 million or something withheld from the university by the state? 

Brian: Yeah, it’s utterly ridiculous what’s happening to higher-ed budgets. That’s another thing I’d say to those considering going into academia–if you think that this “life of the mind” career is somehow outside of the forces of neoliberal capitalism, it most definitely is not, and this is not a way to avoid those stressors. 

Leah: Right! It’s not a monastery.  

Brian: I’m curious how the MFA experience differs–the general tone of these discussions among Ph.D.s is that this problem is relatively “new,” but I’ve kind of assumed that alternative “day jobs” are much more the norm among creative writers–is that accurate or a pernicious Ph.D. stereotype? 

Leah: No, I think it’s accurate, in part because the MFA is a relatively new degree, and in part because the professionalization of the degree, in the form of “you get this degree so you’re qualified to teach in MFA programs” is even newer. Before Iowa became a big thing, for example, most writers who taught got Ph.D.’s. All of my creative writing professors in undergrad had Ph.D.’s, and were of that generation. And then MFA programs started to proliferate, so there was both more opportunity to concentrate on creative writing, and more opportunity to teach creative writing. But think of the numbers: for every new MFA program that accepts 10-20 people per year, and is 2-3 years long, there are probably only 3-5 full time faculty, most of whom do other duties in the English department or elsewhere. So the odds, even when times are/ were good in academia, were never great.

Brian: Wow. Yeah, as a lecturer I’ve worked alongside people with a variety of degrees, and one thing I’ve noticed is, a lot of us feel like we’ve experienced a bait-and-switch, where we got a degree in one thing, but ended up teaching something else. In English, the jobs are in teaching composition, but creative writing MFAs got in it to teach creative writing, literature Ph.D.s got in it to teach literature, etc. But we’re all just teaching comp. Not that there’s anything wrong with comp. I actually enjoy those classes a lot. But at least starting out, I and a lot of other people were less qualified than someone with a rhetoric and composition degree would be. And it’s not really what we envisioned.

Leah: I kind of enjoyed teaching comp, also. I think there’s a whole other conversation about what comp is for, how students transfer the skills they learn there, but that’s probably for another time.

Brian: Yeah, that’s something that didn’t really get discussed in our pedagogical training. 

Leah: I know one guy who had been an engineer before starting the MFA (and is again now, there you go) and they assigned him specifically to a writing class in the school of engineering. Which in some ways seems like the way to go: letting kids know that writing matters within the discipline they’ve chosen. 

Brian: Of course, that then raises the question as to whether there’s value in exposing kids to “humanistic” writing outside of their discipline–for the purpose of cultivating a well-rounded citizen, etc.

I tend to believe there is, but then I also believe that if that’s the case, then the course shouldn’t be graded, since grades hinder the ability to cultivate a “free” space for intellectual exploration.

Leah: I think the professors of those disciplines (engineering, nursing, etc) also have to agree that humanistic exploration matters. And that actually brings us full circle, in a way: if one does end up outside of academia, what matters is that you get hired by and work with people who recognize that what you know how to do, and the ways you have of finding and creating knowledge, matter.

Brian: Absolutely. Sometimes I think that people outside of the humanities (both professors in other disciplines and people in nonacademic professions) are better at recognizing that than humanities professors are, since humanities professors too often have a kind of disciplinary tunnel vision..

Leah: I work in an office now where there are lots of academics working outside of academia, and that’s a nice environment, too — everyone has a sense of the potential for research and ideas outside of their usual classroom / peer reviewed journal box.

Brian: That’s awesome.

 Leah: Sometimes those applications are just as impractical as they would be in the academy, but whatever.

A last word? 

Brian: I guess just to reiterate the point that academia can be great in a lot of ways, but the longer you’re in it, the more important it becomes to understand it as a form of work–one that can be rewarding but that comes with its own set of problems–tedium, opportunity costs, complicity in certain structures of capitalism, etc. It’s not something to be fetishized above all alternatives.

Leah: Hear, hear!

*

Brian Matzke received his Ph.D. in English Language and Literature at the University of Michigan in 2013. He currently works as a lecturer at U-M in the English Department and the Sweetland Writing Center. His research is on the depiction of science in literature and popular culture, particularly in twentieth century America. He lives in Ann Arbor with his fiancee, Paula, and pug, Jordan Baker.

Leah Falk received her MFA in poetry from the University of Michigan in 2012, and is the founder and editor of this here blog. More about her here.

 

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

lucky

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.

Academia’s Freedom is Also Its Dysfunction: Farren Stanley on Why She’s Leaving

farren stanley

You made a decision to leave adjuncting behind after this past semester. What motivated this decision?

In order to be able to live, I was teaching three classes (with three preps) and working a 25-35 hour-a-week job as a supplement. The result was something like 70-hour work weeks, and no weekends. I had 5 (FIVE) professional email accounts. It was grinding me down. Eventually, the money at my part-time job got very attractive, and then I began to notice things. For example: I have agency at the firm I work at now. If I see a problem, I can take it to my boss and it will be corrected. If I need something for the office, it’s provided. I get regular raises, bonuses, promotions. Every day the skills I need to employ are new and necessary.
In my experience, adjuncting occurs in a vacuum. There is little infrastructure for the students (where do I send my student who is ill/mentally disturbed/in need of tutoring?) or for the instructors (I have never once seen my evals, or been given professional development opportunities). There are no awards, no promotions, no raises. Nothing to strive for. There is no upward or even lateral movement available.The offer on the table for adjuncts is: keep teaching the same 3 combinations of classes for the same amount of money, for the rest of your life. Fast food workers have a better potential quality of life than do adjuncts/instructors. There are better offers out there.

Continue reading

I Never Want to Go Back to Academia: An Interview with Sean Patrick Hill

sean patrick hill

You got an MFA at Warren Wilson after moving to Louisville, where you currently live. What made you decide to do so, and how do you think doing a low-residency program impacted your MFA experience and the writing you produced during those years?

At the time I decided to apply to Warren Wilson, I was actually in residence at the Vermont Studio Center. It was July 2010, and I had just completed a very difficult year teaching high school. My tenure there had drained most of my creative energy, and my time in Vermont, doing nothing but writing and the occasional hike, made me realize that this was the life I wanted to lead.

At the time, I was reading Heather McHugh’s poems, and also Joe Wenderoth who had studied at Warren Wilson. I wrote Joe to ask him what he had thought of the program, and he was nothing but positive. I also wrote Heather, and she asked me to send her some poems. Once she read them, she told me to apply, and that she’d help by writing a letter to put in my file. Before I left Vermont, I resigned from my public school job. Continue reading

Whether Students are Treated Like People in College Has Shocking Effect On Their Lives Afterward

Harvard-University-Tour

When you applied to college, did you know what the f* you were doing? Not me. I thought I might like to live in New York, where my father grew up; I sent away (ah, I date myself) for Columbia’s fancy paper application. When my parents and I visited a few colleges, I liked the combed green of Swarthmore’s campus and the uncombed hair of the wiry tour guide. Eventually, I had a list of brand-name schools, plus the university where my father taught (I could go there for free) and a school in rural Pennsylvania which would offer me a full scholarship.

Of the fancy schools, I got into one. I went there, turning down full rides at my dad’s university (too close to home) and the rural PA school (too fratty, I told myself). My father allowed me to do this, believing that the connections I would make, not to mention the quality of the education and the overall experience, would be better at the private liberal arts school I attended.

But what does it mean to have a better college experience? Yesterday’s Purdue-Gallup poll of college graduates suggests that most of the things middle- and upper-class parents and kids believe matters about college (how hard it is to get into; public or private; its size) barely matter at all. What matters – and for those of you about to click away because this isn’t about MFAs, hang in there – is how good the student’s experience is. Continue reading

What a Difference a Day [Job] Makes: Some Notes and Reflections

Image

Cary Grant, ladies and gentlemen.

It’s been a little quiet around here lately. There’s a good reason for that, and no, it’s not because I poisoned some old gentlemen and hid them in the windowseat. Lo and behold,after a few months of asking people about their day jobs, I have one too.

Going forward, I’ll keep most of the details of my work life, like who I work for, names and projects, private. But I’d like to take a moment to think about how, in just a month of working a job—and yep, outside academe—my ideals and daily practices have changed.

1. Part-time is a state of mind.

My job, for the time being, is only two days a week. My twenty-two year-old self might have resented a less than full-time gig and clocked in and out accordingly. But I like this job, and eventually I’d like it to be possible for someone to consider hiring me full-time, or even just for more weekly hours. So the time and energy I put in tend to expand—as they do when I sit down to play with a manuscript, or as they did when I dreamed up lesson plans. I have to hold little tribunals with myself about how often it’s okay to check work email on my days off. But I’m certainly not all virtue. The tribunals (made up of my regular self, a version of me with sunglasses and no pants, and a medieval rabbi version of me—what would Freud say) extend to whether it’s really okay to wait until Tuesday to start thinking about that urgent thing that’s due the week after. Does this eat into my writing time? Maybe. Does it also make me feel pretty useful and stave off depression? Probably.

2. Good ideas and smart people are everywhere.

I’ve been lucky enough in my life to have experienced several situations where I felt almost spoiled by the talent, goodness, and passion of the people around me. I felt this way as a high school student spending a summer at the Pennsylvania Governor’s School for the Arts (now on long hiatus), a number of times in college, and in graduate school. In these situations, brilliantly engineered by admissions counselors and teachers, people spontaneously created theater projects together, had three-hour dinner conversations with folks they had met that afternoon, and traded work they’d never shown to anyone else.

I don’t think it’s an accident that I got to experience this kind of atmosphere multiple times—in fact, I know that I sought to reproduce it in my life again and again. So why should I—why should anyone—expect that just because they’ve left “the bubble” of a great MFA program or community of writers, they can’t find another place where people care about ideas, good conversation, and working on projects whose outcomes they wholly support? My workplace now, I’m happy to say, is full of people who would happily interrupt their data-entry to discuss the work of a 20th century Lithuanian poet, and who listen carefully when someone else has an idea. There’s some luck involved in finding that kind of place, I admit; but it can also be something you actively seek out or even carry around with you.

3.  Dust and ashes.

Let me get a little existential here. Like many people I’ve interviewed on this site, I do a lot of writing, editing, and submitting when I can. Nothing much about the way I do that has changed, except that there’s a sense of both urgency and ordinariness to it now—I don’t feel lifted up, promised, the way I did as an MFA student and post-MFA fellow. Writing is something I wake up and do, like going for a run or making coffee or getting on the train to go to work. But where as a student—and even as a younger person with other day jobs—I felt like I had all the time in the world, I usually feel that writing must be done now. There might not be time later, and later my head might be full of something else. I move through the usual good and bad writing feelings (usually: somebody likes me/ nobody likes me/ I am created in the image of the Lord/ I am but dust and ashes), and I try to recognize that whole range of feelings as a possible daily range. Anger is not just for special occasions, and neither is pride.

*

As I continue to “live” this blog–as an MFA with a day job–on a daily basis, I’d also like to hear from you guys: have you taken a job (or two or three) recently, and have you witnessed a shift in your priorities or practices? Positive, negative, or in between, write about it and send it this way, sil vous plait.

 

In Thirty Seconds Or Less: An Interview with Hieu Huynh

Hieu profile pic

Hieu Huynh is a writer/producer with CNN’s On-Air promotion department based in Atlanta, GA. She is enrolled in NYU’s inaugural low-residency MFA program with workshops in Paris. When she’s not writing poetry, she’s eating her way around the world.

You’re currently a writer-producer at CNN. Tell me a little bit about what that work is like on a daily basis. 

Every day is different and that is exactly what I love about working at CNN. I love knowing that what I do makes an impact and that my work can be seen all over the world. Today, I may be writing about the aftermath of the government shutdown; the next day, I could be writing about a national tragedy…all in thirty seconds or less.

Continue reading

Let’s Not Forget an MFA is a Fine Arts Degree: An Interview with Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum

andrew MK

Why did you decide to pursue an M.F.A.? 

I wanted to be a poet. I already was, technically, when I made this decision in my second year of undergrad at Virginia Tech to be an English major. I had published some poems, was doing well in my poetry classes, and was in the process of forming The Brush Mountain Review at the time, but I also knew I wasn’t very good at it.

Continue reading

The Week in Day Jobs, Call for Submissions

In case you missed it, Ali Shapiro weighed in at the Rumpus with a brilliant cartoon on selling your poet-skills to hiring managers. And “being into day jobs is really trendy right now,” at least for the set that used to scorn them (James Bond?). According to Amy Gutman, quitting dramatically so you can go home and write = out, figuring out how to balance your job with your creative pursuits = in.

In other news, CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS: if you’re a writer with an MFA who has recently completed a job search, or is in the middle of one, I’m interested in your story. Send me a summary of what you’d like to write about or a completed piece (about 700 words max) and a little bit about who you are.