In 2014, Hanover College selected The Circus in Winter as its Common Reading, and I came to campus to talk to students. I loved the campus, the view, the students. On that first visit, sociology professor and writer Dr. Robyn Ryle told me that, like a lot of small, liberal arts colleges, Hanover had experienced an enrollment dip.
I found this news surprising and very worrisome. Hanover isn’t my alma mater, but I did go to a very similar kind of college—and The Circus in Winter had been the direct result of the quality liberal arts education I received at DePauw University.
So, when Hanover invited me back in 2015, I widened the scope of my “professionalization” concerns–which over time had morphed from a concern about creative writing students, to a concern about English majors, and now to a concern about liberal arts majors.
I gave the first-year students at Hanover a pep talk about why they were at the right school and screw all the haters who were saying, “What are you going to do with that?”
I called the talk “Stars to Steer By.” I haven’t published it yet, because I wrote it as a power point, but I will–just as soon as I can finish a draft of this novel of mine.
Yesterday on Twitter, Celeste Ng asked a great question, and people responded.
How do you start a writing career? Some of these books will help you with the craft of your writing (very important) and others will help you with the business of writing (more important than you think).
You also have to expand your notion of what “a writing career” is.
Maybe you write grants and promotional materials for a non-profit and work on your novel every chance you get.
Maybe you teach high school, sell cars, work in a bank, etc., and work on your poetry every chance you get.
Maybe you are a free-lance writer trying to actually make a living from YOUR creative writing or journalism.
There are many ways to create a literary life for yourself, no matter what your job title is.
1.Why aren’t there more FTWPTT creative writing jobs?
I have this theory about why the discipline of creative writing has not flourished more than it has in higher education. By “flourish,” I don’t mean numbers of students in classes or the number of majors or minors. We’re doing fine in that regard. Demand is high. By “flourish,” I mean jobs–good jobs, full-time (FT), well-paid (WP), tenure-track (TT) jobs–in English departments (or in some cases Art departments or Writing departments). I’ve taught at four different colleges (five if you also count where I got my MFA) and in every case, the ratio of FTWPTT faculty has always been off. Literature faculty generally outnumber Creative Writing faculty as well as Composition faculty and especially Teaching faculty. (In literature, for example, there are reasons for “coverage” and the corresponding FTWPTT positions to provide that coverage, although that model is also coming into question.)
2. Because we don’t have real power.
I think that the reason why there aren’t more FTWPTT creative writing jobs to go around (despite the demand) is that not enough FTWPTT creative writing faculty have risen in the ranks of academic bureaucracy and become deans and provosts, those who ultimately decide whether to create or convert a FTWPTT position or use contingent labor, those who deal with budgets and politics and meetings. I don’t think people understand this: departments only have so much power to run a search, and areas within those departments have even less power than that. You can ask, certainly, but ultimately, the people “upstairs” or “in the xxx building” decide. I know CWers who have taken their turn as directors of CW programs and as department chairs, but relatively few who’ve moved further up than that. (However, a year ago, I asked my CW friends on FB for examples of these folks, and I did get quite a few answers.)
3. Because we don’t want power.
Creative writers define themselves in terms of their published work and/or to their teaching and mentorship–primarily. Navigating THAT is difficult enough. Deciding how much time and energy to devote to your writing and to your teaching, deciding if you want to be “known” as a nationally recognized writer or as a great teacher, or hopefully, BOTH. What’s rare, I think, are creative writers who are willing to play Academic Game of Thrones, who aspire to be movers and shakers within their institution. Most creative writers I know spend as little time as possible trying to move up the ladder in this way. Actually, it’s rare to find any English faculty at all working their way up the food chain, but in my experience, creative writers tend to be the absolute least interested in this kind of work. We are an ambitious lot, sure, but the “prestige” we seek has nothing to do with the grandiosity of our academic title, the size of our office, the amount of power we wield, or even how much money we make. What we want is to be recognized and remembered as writers and/or teachers, not as academic leaders or as higher education bureaucrats. And so we go to work, teach our classes, take our turn, and try hard to avoid commitments that nibble away at what little time and energy we still have for our writing. Keep your head down. Keep your hand down. Do your job. No more. No less. Protect your time. These are our mantras.
4. Because we just want to write, damnit.
Maintaining a writerly identity is hard fucking work–no matter your day job, no matter if it’s inside or outside the academy, no matter whether it’s FTWPTT or “contingent” (meaning maybe not FT, definitely not WP or TT). I mean, here I am on sabbatical (thank you, employer), at an artist residency no less, not working on my novel but instead, getting this “theory” out of my head, where it’s been swimming around for months, like a little blue gill nibbling away at the line I’ve cast into the water. I don’t want that blue gill. I want to catch a big fish, damnit. But this little fish won’t go away. And every minute I spend worrying about this stupid little fish, I feel less and less like a “real” angler and more like an amateur angler or a like a conservationist or an employee of a fish hatchery or a fishing lure designer.
5. Because because because…
I’m not even going to come up with a fifth thing. I’m going to stop right now, because I want to go work on my novel.
Note: This is about LORs for the academic job market, not for applying to MFA programs. That post is here.
A few years ago, a writer I knew (I’ll call her Chris) sent me an email asking me for some information. A graduate creative writing program had asked her to speak with their MFA students about “going on the market.” How to do a CV. How to write a good letter of application. How to read job ads. How to ask for LORs. That sort of thing.
The problem was that Chris was not on the faculty of that (very prestigious) MFA program. She was visiting and had only been on the job market in a limited way. So when Chris asked me if I would share my job search materials with her to share with MFA students in this program, here’s what I said:
You know, no. And I’ll tell you why.
First, I think that it’s the responsibility of the faculty of that very fine school to mentor their students. Not mine. And really, not even yours. THEY need to make their CVs and job letters and wisdom available to people who worked really hard to get into that school. That is why one works hard to get into that school–for access to that sort of thing.
Second, my materials are for my students and for my friends. If YOU want to see my letter, my CV, really ANYTHING, I would give it to you in a heartbeat. But not to them.
Not every Creative Writing major wants to go to grad school, and to be honest, I’m not even sure if most of them want to be published writers. What brings them to our classes, I think, is a desire to be connected to the world of books. This essay by Dean Bakopoulos speaks to that desire.
Creative writing isn’t a pre-professional discipline. We’re not like some academic majors which prepare students for a concrete, discernible “next thing,” such as graduate study, this job, that career path. When my students say, “What I can do with this degree?” I talk about “transferable skills.” I point them in the direction of the career center. Continue reading →