This new blog, MFA Day Job, looks like it could become a good resource for post-MFA writers (or, really, any writers) looking to work outside of academia. It’s a brand-new baby blog now, but something to watch. They’re also looking to interview writers with non-academic careers, so if that’s you, go over there and submit your name! I thought about doing it, but then I realized that “don’t worry, you can always be an administrative assistant for a construction company!” is not necessarily comforting for MFA grads. It is also not necessarily a “successful career.” Or a “career.” (Oh god I hope it’s not my career.) Also, I got the job because of nepotism. So….
Here’s the thing: while yes, I do feel kind of crummy and pathetic for being, essentially, a human Xerox machine with a Master’s degree, it’s a job, guys. It pays the bills. When you’re getting out of school in this job climate, you can’t turn your nose up at employment, whatever it is. This applies to everyone, not just MFAs. Whether you want to be a professor of creative writing or a lawyer or the manager of a Best Buy or a freaking astronaut, that job probably won’t come to you immediately. And when it doesn’t, you take a job doing whateverthefuck, and in the meantime you keep applying for those dream jobs that you actually want. Let one of my Dad Proverbs lay some wisdom on you: It is always easier to get a job when you have a job. So sayeth the Dad. Truth, Dad. Truth.
That’s what I did when I graduated with my MFA. I worked my usual summer tutoring job in Nashville, and then I moved to New Orleans with no job lined up (because I just really wanted to live in New Orleans). I had applied for some jobs in the writing/reading/publishing/teaching arena (basically a scattershot at the wall that is my field) but hadn’t heard back, so as soon as I got my stuff moved in, I went out and found something to pay the rent. Within a week of moving to New Orleans, I had a job waiting tables. A month after that, I was offered a job teaching adult education–not exactly what I’ve always dreamed of doing, but at least a job using my skill set of Knowing All the Grammar and Sort of How Math Works.
And you know what my dad said to me when I told him about the waitressing job? (Not even the teaching job, the waitressing job.) He said he was proud. Proud! Of a waitressing job! But it wasn’t the nature of the job he was proud of, it was that I went out and got a job. Maybe my dad saw so many of my peers moving back in with their parents because they couldn’t find jobs in their fields, and he was proud that I was finding a way to survive on my own, fields be damned. Or maybe I just have the most chill and supportive dad in the world. Or maybe he just really didn’t want to deal with me living under his roof again. (Historically, that hasn’t gone so well.) Or maybe he just has really low expectations of me. Whatever it is, it felt damn good to hear him say that. (Full disclosure: I deferred my loans and was totally on food stamps and did have to ask my parents for money on at least one occasion that year because shit is difficult, and even when you’re really trying, you can’t always make ends meet.)
I hope I’m not coming off as some rich white grandpa yelling at the good-for-nothing young’uns to get a job. Or some better-than-thou soapboxer flaunting her extremely unimpressive work history. That’s not what I’m trying to do, although I did just spend 2 paragraphs patting myself on the back. I’m talking specifically to my fellow over-educated, under-employed, young, middle-class peers who are (very legitimately) stressing the fuck out about their futures right now. I know several people–who are not all writers but are actual employable people with hella degrees–who have been out of their post-grad programs for a year or more now and haven’t been able to find jobs. As such, most of them are living with their parents, which blows even if your parents are really cool, because who wants to live in their childhood bedroom when they’re 27 to 32 years old? These people are brilliant and abundantly qualified for the types of jobs they’re applying for, and they deserve to get exactly the jobs they want. Problem is that’s not how it works. Just because you’re qualified and an excellent candidate and worked really hard in school doesn’t mean that you’ll be hired, because there’s 200 other just-as-qualified resumes sitting on someone’s desk in HR. Because: recession. This is just the world we live in right now (and in some fields, always).
This unemployment is really getting to some of them–as it would anyone–because it’s fucking scary. It’s scary to get out of six to eight to ten years of school and look down the barrel of your future and see nothing there. It’s scary to start questioning if you made the wrong decision and wasted years of your life training for a job that no one wants to hire you for. (*Ahem* MFAs.) It’s scary to realize you may have to settle for something less than what you’ve always dreamed of. It’s scary to look at your life and see that it is not what you thought it would be.
I know this because I have been there–am still there in some ways. Did little Claire always dream of working as a secretary in a trailer on a job site in New Jersey that was formerly a literal toxic waste dump? (I am using “literal” in the literal sense here.) Um, no. No I did not. Do I sit here at my desk in the trailer on the job site and gaze down the trajectory of my life and tremble with fear that I’ll still be doing jobs like this when I’m 40? Hell yes I do. Do I doubt my ability to ever actually write a book that’s half-way decent? All the time. Do I wonder, at what point do I declare myself a failure and go back to school for, like, computer science or something? Frequently. (That may actually be my contingency plan. I showed an aptitude for it in college, and computers will rule the earth with the cockroaches when we’re all dead, so it seems like a pretty secure field.) Do all those thoughts scare the bejeezus out of me and make me want to give up and curl in the fetal position on the couch and watch supernatural teenage dramas until I develop rickets? Almost every damn day.
But you can’t let it paralyze you. You can wallow for awhile and try to set the Guinness World Record for the most days without a shower; you can take advantage of your temporary freedom and set off on that Great American Road Trip you’ve always wanted; you can get angry and tell all the bartenders in the city about how your generation is fucked–but whatever you do, you eventually have to pull yourself up/come back home/get yourself sober and find a freaking job. (Note: I did all three of those in stages when I couldn’t find a job after undergrad. It’s kind of like the stages of grief, I think, but for unemployment.)
Also, sidenote: YOU’RE IN YOUR 20S FOR FUCKS SAKE (or early 30s maybe). Stop thinking that nonsense about failure and giving up! You have plenty of time to figure shit out, and you’re way too young to be this fatalistic. Sheesh.
(Yes, I am talking to myself here just as much as anyone else.)
Look–if you don’t get that job immediately, do something else that is in some way related or can put you in the path of the type of work you’d like to do. (Aspiring accountant? Take that job as a bank teller! At least you’re in the freaking bank and not eating Cheetos on your couch.) If you have no other choice but to be a barista or fold shirts at the Gap, go volunteer for a non-profit organization involved in your field so you can make valuable connections and have something useful to put on your resume. (You want to teach English? Volunteer to tutor at-risk youth. Look! Teaching experience!) DO NOT GIVE UP; do not settle for the crap jobs permanently; do not stop applying for those better jobs, but also don’t do nothing. Don’t sit around in your mom’s house eating all of her food and playing World of Warcraft all day while you wait for a job opening. It looks WAY BETTER to have something on your resume than nothing, even if that something is selling tickets at the Megaplex. At least that way it shows you have work ethic. All that having nothing on your resume shows is that no one would hire you–not even the Megaplex.
We have this idea in our culture that our job defines us, and it’s hard to get around that when that job is, in fact, taking up 40 hours of your week. It feels pretty shitty to say to people at parties, “I am a… uh… Purveyor of Expedited Cuisine. *cough*IworkatDomino’s*cough.*” And maybe it would feel better to say you’re an environmental engineer who can’t find work because the job market is hard and there are more environmental engineers graduating right now than there are jobs in environmental engineering, because then at least you get to keep that identity intact. But why the hell can’t you be both? I betcha that if you say, “Well, I’m an environmental engineer and I went to these awesome schools, but I just can’t find a job in environmental engineering right now, so I’m doing what I have to do and working at Domino’s until I can,” anyone worth your time will be like, “OMG I hear you, I said that I was in advertising but I’m actually working at Target because there’s no job openings right now LETS BE BEST FRIENDS.” If they behave otherwise, forget them; they’re snobs.
And you know what, I bet any potential employer would like to hear that too, and I bet they would respect you for it. Especially if the other option is, “Well, I was living with my mom for three years just waiting on this interview!” Subtext: HIRE ME PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE OBI WAN KENOBI YOU’RE MY ONLY HOPE.
(You know, maybe we writers have it pretty damn good. No, we’re not very employable. No, we can’t find much paying work for our craft. No, we can almost never make a living writing and will ALWAYS have to have a day job. But at the same time, we can have all the lackluster, crappy day jobs in the world, and we still have writing. For a writer, most jobs will simply be a means to an end, while the career–the real thing that matters, the real job–is always writing. And that doesn’t depend on the job climate or the economy. All that depends on is you.)
Maybe part of the problem is we were all brought up being told we were special snowflakes who could be anything we wanted to be, but we somehow missed the part where it would be hard work. And the part where we’d be competing against all the other special snowflakes for a limited number of jobs. And the part where we might have to take some jobs we don’t want in the meantime. And the part where we maybe, just maybe, don’t ever get to be what we wanted to be after all, and we have to figure out some other way to be happy.
Fuck, that was depressing.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, Yes, it sucks. It’s going to continue to suck. All the endless applying and applying and getting your hopes up and having them dashed is going to suck, and suck hard. Probably, even finding that crappy temporary job is going to suck, too. But you can’t stall your life while you’re waiting on the right job to come along. You’re cheating yourself, putting yourself into a state of limbo, and every day you stay there, it hurts you a little more. You get a little more stuck. Go get the best job you can find, move out of your parents’ house, make some friends, meet some people, find some other things that pique your interest like biking or gardening or making model trains and start seeing yourself as a Biker and a Gardener and a Maker of Model Trains and all these things beyond your occupation that make up the beautiful complex being that is you, and keep checking the job listings for when that right job does come along.
You’ll figure it out. It may not happen like you thought it would, your 5-year plan may be in the shitter, but you’ll find your way. At least that’s what I’m banking on. Fingers crossed.