So following up with my last entry about being a good reader, I had an essay about what it means to be a good reviewer published in Full Stop. I was expecting to have some sort of dialogue pop up around the piece, but it didn’t – I wonder if that’s a lack of readers or a statement of consensus.
As a sort of continuation of this train of thought, I’m moving now from how to write book reviews to when to write book reviews and other short pieces. I said no to a solicited book review for the first time this week, and for a good reason, but I couldn’t help but think about the fact that a year or two ago I wouldn’t have even considered turning down any chance to have writing in print, no matter the circumstances. This line of thinking pushes me to spend time worrying about what I should be writing.
Of course, honesty check – if I spent as much time writing each week as I ambitiously plan to on Monday mornings, I wouldn’t really have to choose. Such is life.
This summer I had planned on spending a lot of time on a long-form project with the hopes of having an almost-complete book draft done before I started the MFA program. Given I have about a month and a half left, that doesn’t look like it’s going to happen. Instead, I’ve completed a variety of short-form pieces: a couple of book reviews, a couple of essays, and an academic presentation/article/amoeba. I think individually each of those pieces was absolutely worth it, but the amount of time they’ve taken, theoretically, from my long-form project was probably not worth it. I say theoretically because that’s not really true. I write short-form pieces faster because I can hold the whole scope in my head and because there’s a quicker pay-off. Delayed gratification and marshmallows and all of the nonsense.
I think there’s a lot of people at this place in their writing careers – at least, that’s what it seems to me watching others on Twitter and other sites. I think you have two choices, and both are difficult. You can throw yourself into a long-form project that may or may not get published and probably end up having to find a day job anyway. Or, you can pump out short-form pieces and attach yourself to various sites and publications as a reader, an editor, or a regular contributor and hope this eventually leads to a paying gig. (Here I am disregarding the infinite complexities of also being a spouse, a friend, a parent, a family member, a student, a teacher, or whatever other roles you take on “outside” of your writing life [outside in quotes because all of it is inextricably linked and tugging on each other].)
Obviously they’re not mutually exclusive (There’s tons of people who start off doing regular short-form work as writers and editors then break through with a novel. Thinking here of The Rumpus contributor Cheryl Strayed and editor Roxanne Gay, as well as journalists like Caroline Knapp) and obviously some people will tend toward having the skills of one or the other, but it’s a crappy choice to make because it’s so easy to fail at both. It’s also crappy because it feels like, for me at least, that if I worked just a little harder it wouldn’t be a choice at all, that I could write enough short-form to continue contributing, write enough of my long-form project to keep moving at a decent pace, and contribute to social media and other sites enough to stay semi-networked in.
And maybe that’s true or maybe it isn’t, but I guess it does no good to worry about it, or write entire blog entries about it, but here we are.
Outside Content: Speaking of delayed gratification and marshmallows, did you know that the infamous marshmallow experiment not only correlated their choices regarding the marshmallows with their performance as young children in school, but also showed significant differences in their brain activity as adults more than 40 years after the experiment? Scary.
Also, sorry for the lack of English subtitles, but this video is beautiful. A child realizes the eating animals means killing them, and decides he wants to eat potatoes instead. I think if more people really thought it through, they would make similar choices. Not all of the time, but enough to make a difference.
Finally, in the midst of all my anxiety over teaching for the first time, I had to go and read something like this. Although, in truth, I’m more worried about not being able to be fair when someone comes teary-eyed about a paper.
I had a few conversations/emails about my last blog entry, which was unusual, so I’d like to expound on the subject a bit more.
In my last blog entry I discussed being our household’s secondary income. I focused primarily on looking at what benefits our household gains by having me working primarily from home and with flexible hours. I did this in the context of the occasional feelings of guilt I had experienced over being the secondary income, especially in the wake of the decision to spend three more years in graduate school pursuing an MFA. Ultimately, by being aware of the benefits we gain and by being aware of what we value and want out of life, I’ve overcome that guilt for the most part.
Something I didn’t clarify, which I’d like to do, is that I’m not thinking about this in terms of gender norms. When I say that I occasionally felt guilt about our disproportionate income, instead I meant guilt over not contributing equally to our finances as half of a 30ish-year-old couple. It’s also a little more than that – there’s the guilt of knowing that if Carolina has any feelings about dissatisfaction with her particular job or a desire to go back to school, that she is obligated to place those feelings on hold (to a certain extent) for the seven years that will make up me finishing my BA and getting my MA and now MFA. So, inequality over finances, inequality over opportunities and freedom.
Another thing that I didn’t really explore (but did mention) is the idea of transitioning from IT to academia, and more specifically transitioning from the expected salary path of IT versus academic work (especially in light of having had ~5 years of IT experience for the former and choosing to go through ~7 years of grad school for the latter). This transition is something that I’ve more than accepted, though. As I mentioned in the last post, happiness has a cost associated with it, and with that in mind, I’m well in the black.
I first went to undergrad at 16. I wasn’t ready for it, I didn’t do well, I was dealing with other stuff in my life that stopped me from really taking advantage of my time there. The same goes for my second and third years, at 18 and 19 respectively. It wasn’t until I had grown up a little and went back to school that I was able to experience the joy that learning and being a part of a learning community can bring. Growing up, I loved school, and it wasn’t until school became about things other than learning in upper middle and high school that I started having problems (for more on this, see “A Gifted Education”).
There’s a lot of factors at play, though. I remember reading a discussion about the executive that quit his job and started the Cambodian Children’s Fund. Someone in the discussion pointed out that if the guy really wanted to do the most good for the nonprofit, he could’ve stayed at his job as an executive and made more money with which to fund the organization’s efforts. I see similar thoughts from people who want to pursue the most lucrative careers in order to retire early–essentially, people who view a job or a career as little more than a paycheck. The truth, of course, is something a little bit deeper. Journey, outweighing the end goal and all that. There’s also an element of trying to live in the present, as we can’t account for the future.
In the end, I guess you could sum up this thought exercise with me having done a post-mortem analysis of my transition into academia as part of my decision to sign up for three more years of grad school, and I’ve found the pros vastly outweighing the cons.
Outside Reading/Further Thoughts: Last year when CNBC ignited a firestorm among angry bloggers by putting University Professor at the top of a clickbait slideshow entitled “The 10 Least Stressful Jobs for 2013,” (not directly linking as it’s got no substance) people were quick to point out how being expected to love your job came at a cost. I won’t point out any specifics, but you should peruse some of them. I guess I’m hurting the cause, in my case. Doubly so, as I also write stuff that gets published without being paid for it. That’s a discussion for later, as I haven’t entirely wrapped my head around how I feel about it. Here’s an article that covers some of it, though.
I’m approaching the 5th anniversary of a big turning point in my life, when I quit my job in the IT sector in order to return to college and finish my undergraduate degree in English. Two years later, at age 26, I graduated from Southwestern University with a BA in English. The year after, I worked in the IT department at SU, and the year after that I began the master’s program for Rhetoric and Composition at Texas State. Now, in two and a half weeks, I’ll be graduating from that program, and I’ve made the commitment to continue on for three more years of grad school for an MFA. It’s been quite the ride.
Dropping out of an IT career that was about as unsatisfying as it could get in order to pursue what I’ve wanted to do for most of my life (write, teach writing) has been a 100% positive experience. Ask anyone who knows me; I’m happier and healthier (on the complete psychosocialphysio spectrum) than at any other phase in my adult life.
That said, there has been one aspect of this transition that does occasionally pop up and induce tiny tremors of guilt and anxiety. The transition from IT to grad school has also meant a transition from being a two income household to an effectively single income (cost of university and employment during university have roughly equaled out). This is something my wife (Carolina) and I have talked about and are both comfortable with in theory, but in practice it was still pinching at me every now and then. Recently, though, I’ve started thinking about it in different ways, and I think I’ve finally made peace with it, and I want to share some of that thought process. Some of this might seem kind of obvious, and I would agree. I know there are things that I was telling myself a while back but didn’t really sink in until lately.
Cash flow is more than a paycheck. “Working” is a weird concept for me these days. I work set hours in the Writing Center and in classes, but my other work (writing, submitting) comes in 2-4 hour blasts at different times in the day, at different points in the week (and, of course, this fluctuates heavily). Then there’s the things that are borderline work: reading books, articles, and websites related to my research and writing topics. Add this all together and you get a number of “working hours” that is probably close to the standard 45ish hours. My hours, though, are flexible, and while other people in academia may disagree, I don’t get to the end of a day of work feeling exhausted like I have at past jobs (not counting days where class ends at 9:30pm and is followed by an hour commute home). This leads me to being able to do things that save/make money that I would not be able to (or not want to) do in a traditional job. A few examples: I cook. A lot. Lately, I even make our granola (which doesn’t really save money, but it tastes better and is healthier/more ethical). Cooking is a great pairing with writing, because your kitchen can be ten feet away from your workspace, and you can keep turning over your topic in your head while stirring a pot. When Carolina and I were both working in IT, we ate out 2-3 lunches a week and 2-3 dinners a week, and a lot of that was a feeling of not having enough time. (Big aside here – we still had free time, but the limitations of that free time [tiredness, limited daylight hours to get things done] pushed things like cooking off the priority list.) Now, we eat out maybe twice a week, and we get to be very choosy about when and where we go, because we’re eating out for pleasure, not convenience (not to mention the long-term cost savings by being healthier). Besides our food, there were other things we were outsourcing but no longer do, such as minor car repairs, lawn care, tax prep, etc., as well as things we’ve encountered since I’ve started that we might have outsourced under different circumstances (financial planning, minor home repairs).
Time is money and so is happiness. Above, I limited the examples to things that save us money. Saving time and adding happiness to our lives are just as important and just as possible. Anything I get done during the day while Carolina is at work is one less thing we have to spend our leisure/off/together time doing. We don’t have to use our lunch hours to get oil changes. We don’t have to (but we still do, sometimes, of course) fight the 5:30 crowd at the grocery on our way home from work. We can cut back on how much of our weekends get dedicated to laundry and errands. If we need someone to come to the house for a service, I don’t have to take a day off to be home for it. Same for pick ups or drop offs at the airport. Our dog gets walked more, probably a lot more, than she would otherwise. It opens up a lot and makes us more flexible, and this isn’t even beginning to account for the amount of happiness that the career shift itself has given me.
Not all of this has to do with a career shift or even a career at all. Part of it has just been getting in a mindset of thinking about (or altering how I think about) what I spend my time doing, what my time is worth, and what I’m achieving when I do something. Part of it is being very cognizant about my values and how my day to day life is matching those values. Part of it is seeing the people around me who are happy and the people around me who are unhappy and looking at what is shaping that. As far as the whole financial aspect, a shout out to /r/personalfinance (smaller shout outs to the more hit-or-miss related subreddits of /r/financialindependence and /r/frugal) and related sites that got me thinking about this. And, of course, I can’t end this without mentioning how awesome my wife is for being amazingly supportive and how important having communication is in a relationship.
I’m really curious to see how the movement to encourage opting out of standardized testing will go (FairTest, Seattle teachers, United Opt Out). I purposefully failed the standardized test administered to me in 9th grade, primarily out of defiance, and while I’m not sure if the short-term losses of large groups opting out is worth the long-term benefits (I hope they are but am unsure), it’s an accomplishable idea in a larger discussion about education reform that’s primarily theoretical.
Another cool idea I’ll be watching is the organization Sponsor Change which is organizing sponsors to make payments on student loans in exchange for “volunteer” work.
Four days into March and things are a little crazy in my slice of reality.
Yesterday I accepted an offer of admission into Texas State University’s MFA program for fiction. Kind of. The application allowed me to send a short story and a nonfiction piece, and people have written nonfiction for their thesis, but my curriculum and such will primarily be aimed at fiction. Not that there’s a huge difference in how I write the two genres, other than the fact that my nonfiction actually gets published every now and then. I’m still figuring out the whole working thing while in school (lecturer vs. TA / convenience vs. experience and pay), and I’m still having moments of existential crisis about graduating again at age 32, but overall I’m super excited.
On Friday, I had a piece published in Full Stop about Kentucky Route Zero – a beautiful video game featuring my home state (which I’ve discussed in this blog before). I’m very happy about the essay because the pictures from the game are so pretty and work well with the writing, and it’s the first thing I’ve gotten to publish either about Kentucky or about video games.
On Thursday, I sent my complete thesis to my committee. At this point, my advisor has approved it. The committee has three weeks to read and respond to it, then I make changes, then I defend the thesis in April 2nd. Let me tell you how much I love the language of “defending a thesis.” It’s so valiant. A much better use of violent metaphors than the whole cancer thing.
On the topic of my thesis – it turned out different than I expected. I’m pretty proud of it. It’s longer than I expected. I put more real work into than I expected. I purposefully chose a topic that I was only moderately excited by, because I figured a small level of detachment would help me stay sane and help me be objective during the revision process, and I’m happy with that decision. There were days when making myself work on it was painful, of course, but overall my individual thesis is something I’m happy with, much to my surprise. I still have doubts about the thesis process overall. In my case, I’m going to present some of my research at the International Society for the Study of Narrative‘s 2014 conference in Boston in a couple of weeks, and then after that, I’m not sure anything will ever happen with my thesis again. My sample size was tiny and I wasn’t in direct conversation with contemporary scholars. There’s just not a lot to really work with, despite it being a 90 page document. That said, I have no intention of giving up on academic writing as I transition into a creative degree program. I still have several shorter pieces that I continue to think about and work on, including one that’s going to be workshopped at the Rhetoric Society of America‘s Research Network program in May.
I am breathing a lot easier since finishing my thesis. I have no more deadlines (besides the one for Guernica I missed yesterday). I want to read Ulysses and make big progress on writing a book and drink a lot of coffee. Like, enough to kill a small animal.
Just a few good articles this time.
When May I Shoot a Student?
When Elite Parents Dominate Volunteers, Children Lose
How Neil Gaiman Took the Road to En-Dor
The Problem with Little White Girls (and Boys): Why I Stopped Being a Voluntourist
Notes from Freedom County
and, finally, a blog entry that features my own hometown of Paducah, Kentucky: Jesus Guns
In Spanish the word for “to hunt” is almost the same as the word for “to marry” (cazar/casar). While this has its own set of interesting implications for relationships, it always comes to mind when I think of the phrase “job hunting.”
I’m supposed to graduate in four months, which means that I’m not too far from needing to be gainfully employed myself. I would say it’s hard not to be discouraged by the prospect, but that would be lying. Yes, it’s true, I am inundated with negative statistics on every side: The ever-increasing percentage of academic teaching positions held by adjunct professors, the bottom rung of the academic ladder I hold by chasing an MA in the humanities, the apparent duty I have as someone who may or may not be part of the so-called millennial generation (Pew Research says I am) to complain about not being able to find a job, and finally, the geographic factor of “158 people moving to Austin every day” (a fact that’s cited in a few dozen articles but I can’t find a source for other than the name Mark Sprague).
Add onto this the fact that I don’t have the option of moving for a job and I hit pretty much every common sad story. Thankfully, I don’t have to deal with the dreaded “two-body problem.”
But I’m making myself stay optimistic. After all, most of my friends are doing what they want to do, even if they are having to do it or had to do it on a much smaller scale/payscale than they had hoped. Hell, even my friend in journalism got a promotion recently (insert journalism dying joke here)! Also, I’m getting started early, and feel a lot better prepared/confident than I did the last few times I needed to do serious job searches.
That said, I fully anticipate not having a full-time job lined up come this fall. It would be nice, and there are several I’m planning on applying for, but I’m fine with doing some combination of teaching/writing/editing on lots of part-time bases. As far as teaching, I’d like to end up at Austin Community College as that’s the place I have the best shot of transitioning into something full-time (and the best writing class in my memory was a night class at a junior college). I’ve also applied for some interesting positions, like being the writer-in-residence at Exeter Academy. That job would be awesome – I was initially worried about my qualifications, but looking at their past candidates, my publication history is on par if not better. Main difference is that every one of them got an MFA, not an MA. So we’ll see. Finally, I’ve also reapplied to an MFA program, just to keep my options open.
A few thoughts on selecting a teaching position: Larger universities generally offer better opportunities for research and to focus, but it takes a long time to take advantage of those opportunities. There’s a married pair of professors I’m familiar with who teach a similar subject matter but one’s at Texas State and one’s at Southwestern University, and the one who is at SU (a SLAC) says his favorite thing about teaching there is most years he has a chance to teach a class on pretty much anything, thanks to the flexibility. Personally, I’m drawn to community colleges for a similar reason to why I’m drawn to writing centers – informal setting, and students who show up generally have a desire to be there. I have no intention of being heavily involved in research, which is a further positive for community colleges: they won’t emphasize the need for academic publications as much, and my nonacademic publications might have more weight.
So there it is. My hopeful, pregame show. We’ll see where I’m at come July, eh?
Outside content: BOOK REVIEWS! I reviewed Daniel Alarcón‘s At Night We Walk in Circles for the Fiction Advocate. My buddy John Savage reviewed Diane Ravitch‘s Reign of Error for The Texas Observer. Also, is the current culture of people like me doing book reviews for free everywhere too scared of writing negative book reviews? The New Yorker ponders this.
Maybe it’s not really applicable since I don’t have any looming deadlines, but it feels like I’ve been procrastinating some these past couple of weeks, even though ultimately what I’ve been doing will contribute to my work (I hope).
Attending a NASCAR race as a sort of participatory journalist.
Spending a couple of hours documenting a graveyard near my house.
Reading a book of 50 years worth of stories about animals by a World War II vet.
Replaying Kentucky Route Zero.
I think I’ve mentioned this before, but one of the best lessons I’ve learned from grad school is to constantly be thinking about how to use the things you do for fun, or to relax, as part of my work/writing. This has already paid off – I picked up a copy of Homage to Catalonia a couple of months ago because I’ve always wanted to read more Orwell, and that slowly led to writing a review of the book, which will be published soon! Kind of exciting.
My thesis has been approved by my advisor and the university’s Institutional Review Board, which is the impetus for actually having some free time. With the frequent discussions about theses among my cohort, I’m curious to see how much it will help me, assuming I never go into a PhD program. In our RhetComp program, you have the option of instead creating a portfolio, taking a timed (72 hour) exam, and an extra class in the place of a thesis. This seems more practical – pieces in a portfolio are way more likely to get published than a 60-80 page thesis. Best case scenario from a thesis, you’ll have 2-3 articles published. Sure, books happen, but not often. I guess the reason I’m going with a thesis is that it seems like it will look better as I apply for teaching jobs. Who knows if that’s true. Maybe I’ll be regretting the decision soon.
I’ve also been using some of the “free” time to start in on some good old fashioned worrying about my career post-graduation. I knew going back to school that my paycheck would be a long way away from getting back to what it was in my IT career pre-college degree, so I’m not filled with despair about the job market. I fully expect to work 2-3 part-time jobs doing some teaching, some freelance writing/editing/grantwriting, and who knows what else. I’m also looking into more unorthodox choices, like the possibility of doing a residence at a high school in New Hampshire. Which would be an awesome experience, assuming I have a shot at getting in.
The good news is that people of my program and other similar programs that I’ve been in touch with have not had a hard time finding employment, it seems, even if that employment is not quite what they were hoping for. Beyond a paycheck, moving forward and continuing to keep a good work ethic regardless of your employment situation seems to be extraordinarily important for my writing.
Your outside content for today: