[Note: The student I describe is a composite character of many students I’ve met in my 20 years of teaching.]
A few months ago, Tracy came to my office. She was majoring in something practical, “but I love reading, and I love writing,” she said.
She wanted me to talk her into becoming a creative writing major. But she needed assurances.
Her eyes got a little dreamy. “I know that somewhere out there, there’s a building where I can work and get paid to do what I love. Tell me. What is that building?” she asked. “How do I find it?”
My heart broke a little then, because once upon a time, I dreamed about that building, too. “Well, there isn’t just one building,” I said. “There are thousands of buildings.”
“You mean publishing houses,” she said, nodding her head.
I hear this a lot from students: I want to work in publishing. Usually it means that they love the world of books more than they actually want to be writers—and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that.
So I told her about a class we offered on Literary Editing and Publishing. I told her about the internship program in New York to which she could apply. “But Tracy, I want you to know that it’s hard to get a job in publishing. At least in the way that you imagine it.”
“It is?” She looked incredulous.
“Yeah, there’s this thing you might have heard of. It’s called ‘the internet.’ Traditional publishing—books, magazines, newspapers—it’s all shrinking.”
“But independent and small press publishing is growing.” I told her all about it.
“But you need to know this. Many people who do it have a day job and work on their publishing ventures on the side.”
“But what about…” She named a best-selling book by a self-published author.
“Yes,” I said. “There are some success stories, but that’s not what happens most of the time. The problem is that there are more people who desperately want to be writers than there’s a readership to completely absorb them.”
I shared stuff like the 10 Awful Truths about Book Publishing.
“Oh,” she said. “I figured with all things that are published, I could find a job as an editor.”
“Well, you probably wouldn’t search in terms of editor.” I hate saying this, but it’s the truth. “Search for words like communications and content.”
I did a quick Google search and found a full-time job in Connecticut for an English major to serve as a “communications specialist.”
Her face lit up. “What kind of company is it?”
I scanned the website. “They make welding electrodes and filler wires.”
“Oh.” Her face fell.
“It’s a full-time job where you would think critically, communicate clearly, solve problems, and apply your writing skills.”
“You’d get to travel to trade shows.”
“I’m sorry, but I can’t see myself doing something like that,” she said.
“I’d feel like I wasn’t really using my degree.”
“But it says right here they’re looking for an English major.”
“I love books!” she said, “not welding.”
“I know, I know,” I said, “but with a good job and good insurance, you’d have a stable life and money for books and maybe time to write, too.”
She looked around my office, at the books lining my shelves, the pile of stories waiting to be read, the three 20-page proposals that needed to be read by 3 o’clock for the College Curriculum Committee. “I’d really love to do what you do,” she said. “Teach English.”
“You want to major in English Education? Teach high school?”
“No, I want to teach college. How do I do that?”
I sighed. “Become a writer.”
Her eyes lit up again. “Yes, that’s what I want!”
“You’d go to graduate school.”
Tracy’s eyes practically rolled back in her head. “Yes!”
And even though she was still a [pre-professional major], not an English major, I pictured the day in the near future when she’d come to me asking for a letter of recommendation. Every time I write one, I ask myself: Am I contributing to the contingent faculty crisis in English?
In the last 20 years, I’ve written approximately 50 letters for students applying to graduate creative writing programs, and only two of them are currently in tenure-line jobs. The rest are pretty evenly split between those in non-tenure line jobs in academia and those working outside academia entirely.
When is the right time to tell people about their job prospects? In graduate school? Before they even apply to graduate school? Or sooner than that even—in their first creative writing class? Never? Let them Google it because it’s just too depressing otherwise?
I hadn’t even read a word of her writing yet, but I knew how Tracy’s story might go. I decided to be honest.
I took a deep breath. “Look, I need to explain something to you, Tracy. Last year, 4000 students earned a graduate degree in creative writing. And do you know how many tenure-track teaching jobs there were to which they could apply?”
“A thousand?” she guessed.
“A hundred.” I showed her the report from AWP to prove it.
“Oh.” She looked at the floor. “But what about Professor Jones? I had him for freshman composition. He’s a writer, and he teaches. He got one of those 100 jobs.”
That’s when I explained the utter unfairness that Professor Jones was one of our amazing full-time contingent faculty members. He’d published multiple books and had applied for hundreds of tenure-track jobs in the five years since he’d graduated with his MFA. “No, he hasn’t gotten one of those 100 jobs. Not yet.”
“But he’s teaching and writing, just like you,” she said.
That’s when I explained the utter unfairness that Professor Jones made half of what I made for doing pretty much the same job. I pointed to my computer screen, to the job at the welding company waiting in Connecticut. “You’d probably make as much there with your BA as he does right now with a graduate degree. Maybe more.”
Tracy pulled at her hair. “But it’s not fair! They told me to go to college and follow my dreams! Where am I supposed to work?”
“Please calm down. This isn’t the only job in the country,” I said. “It’s just the first one that came up on Google.”
But I knew why Tracy was angry. All my students are dealing with a post-employment economy and a trillion dollars of student loan debt. I recognize the looks on their faces. I grew up with a father full of the same righteous anger and disillusionment. He hired out on the railroad when he was 20 years old and fully expected that he’d have a job for life. But then the economy changed. The world changed. How many times did I find him quietly seething in the kitchen, smoking a cigarette, shaking his head in rage and disbelief?
That look broke me.
I was Tracy’s age when I went to see my college professors to discuss what I should do with my life. Even though I was a first-generation college student, no one dissuaded me from majoring in creative writing or from applying to graduate programs. There was no reason to.
At that time, there were only 10 undergraduate creative writing programs in the country.
Today there are 592.
When I was in college (1987-1991), there were only about 50 graduate creative writing programs in the country.
Today there are 418.
And honestly, even if my professors had tried to dissuade me, I wouldn’t have listened. I wouldn’t have wanted to take that job at the welding company either. And because I was born at the right historical moment—before all this started to happen–and because I got my graduate degree just as the number of tenure-track creative writing jobs started to open up, I landed my first job (with no book) and have remained employed ever since.
If I was 26 right now rather than 46, maybe I’d say, Screw it, and do something else for a living.
Or maybe not.
Poor Tracy. Oh Christ, all the Tracys in this country looking for that magic building. Who believed all that marketing jazz from colleges all over this country. Your future starts here! Knowledge to go places! Tracy just wants her degree to mean something, and the key is finding the magic building where all the English majors work.
“Oh God,” Tracy says, “how am I supposed to pay back my student loans?”
I asked her how much she owed, and she told me. I swallowed. Hard. Also, I’d like to mention that Tracy had a child/a sick parent/a dying grandparent.
“Tracy, do you want to be a writer?”
She thought about it for a second. “I don’t know.”
I gave her the short version of this advice, which I’ve been giving for years. The job you get after graduation has nothing to do with whether or not you are a writer. And applying to (and being accepted into) a graduate writing program has nothing to do whether or not you are a writer. “If what you love is reading,” I said, “why don’t you major in literature?”
“Because creative writing is more practical.”
I almost choked on my coffee. “Oh my. What kind of classes do you think we offer in the creative writing major?”
Tracy paused. “Well, I figure it’s like the bookstore. There’s a mystery section, a young adult section, biographies, graphic novels. You know. And we learn how to write them.”
I patted her hand. “I’m so sorry. It’s not like that at all.” I explained that the taxonomy of creative writing was about choosing a genre.
“Right,” Tracy said. “That’s what I said. Choosing a genre.”
“Not that kind of genre.” I counted them off on the fingers. “Fiction. Poetry. Creative Nonfiction. Screenwriting. Playwriting.”
“So you’re saying I major in creative writing and get a job as a fiction writer or a screenwriter!” Her eyes got bright again.
“Or maybe something else.” I counted them off. Marketing. Teaching. Tech Writing. Non-profits. Publishing. I ran out of fingers, but I kept going. Library science. Law school. Student Affairs. Business. Publishing. Television. Peace Corps. Politics.
Tracy look frightened.
“We don’t give you the map,” I said. “We show you a sky full of stars to navigate by.” I broke out my horrible faux British accent. “’All I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by.’”
“It’s a poem. About finding your way without a map.”
“Screw that. I want the map.” She raised her voice to me a little, using a tone I’ve come to call “buyer’s remorse.” Tracy said, “I want you to teach me how to get one of those jobs you just mentioned.”
“We will! We’ll teach you how to write and think and speak and read and analyze and empathize and imagine.”
“But then why don’t you change the major from all those genres to something I can actually beeeee,” she pleaded.
“Like this, you mean.” I pulled up my university website and navigated to the Department of Technology and its degree programs.
I explained that my brother had graduated from this very university from this very department twenty years earlier. He went straight into a good paying engineering job with a company that made automobile parts.
“In this major, they identify the things you can beeeee…” I counted them off on my fingers:
1. A computer technologist
2. A construction-site manager
3. A graphic arts manager
4. A manufacturing engineer
5. A high-school teacher of technology
I held up my other hand. “And they create a curriculum that tracks you right into those careers.”
1. Computer Technology
2. Construction Management
3. Graphic Arts Management
4. Manufacturing Engineering
5. Technology Education
I brought my hands together with a clap.
Tracy shook her hands in the air. “Yessssssssssssss! It makes so much sense! But here’s what you guys in Creative Writing do!” She ticked off the five genres on one hand:
3. Creative Nonfiction
And on her other hand, she ticked off five “random” careers that our students have landed lately:
1. Residence Hall Director
2. Associate Professor of Communication Studies
3. Staff writer for BuzzFeed
4. Career Adviser at a small, liberal arts college
5. MFA student/poet/reading series coordinator
Tracy brought her hands together crosswise. “They don’t match up. Well, except for that one guy who got into grad school for poetry. How are the rest of us supposed to know what to do when we graduate?”
“You turn the wheel,” I said, reaching over and rotating her crossed hands until her fingers aligned.
“How do I do that?” She’d never looked more serious.
“With your mind.” I touched the side of my head. “And transferable skills.”
“You have to teach us how to turn the wheel!” Tracy said. “You can’t just expect that we’ll know how to navigate on a starry night.”
“I’ll give you that,” I said. “We could do better. But that’s also what the Career Center is for. Have you ever gone there?”
She looked like she might punch me.
“Tracy, do you know what happened to my brother?”
“He became CEO of the company.” She crossed her arms sullenly.
“No. He changed companies just as the economy crashed in 2008. He lost his job, and there weren’t any others like it in the region. He needed to think of something else to be, but for a long time, he couldn’t. And do you know why?”
Finally, she got it. “Because he didn’t major in creative writing.”
I smiled. “Sort of.”
“Because of this.” She brought her hands together. “Because they only gave him one star to steer by.”
I wanted to hug her then. “You don’t go to college to train for your first job, but for a lifetime of jobs,” I said. “That’s the real world.”
I told her to sign up for our Intro to Creative Writing class. “If you love it, then consider changing your major. Or stick with [her pre-professional major] and get a creative writing minor.”
Tracy thanked me and walked out the door. I’ve never seen her again, but I hope she found what she was looking for.
I really, really mean that.
Image: Kevin Dooley/flickr