What do you do?
Washingtonians are so career-driven that “what do you do?” is typically the first question people ask in this city. I find it difficult to articulate what I do sometimes. To say I’m a teacher seems limiting in some ways. To explain that I teach English leads to confusion. To answer that I’m a college professor receives stares of doubt. To say I’m a writer seems too grandiose.
What I did.
At age 14, my first job was through a summer work program, and I was assigned to be a janitor at a clinic. Picture me mopping floors in a figure eight stroke. Later in college, my first job was as a telemarketer, a very humiliating and painful job — people hang up or they shout, scream, call you names then hang up. After I quit that job, I worked as a shoe salesman at Florsheim. I wore cordovan loafers with tassels for that job. Then I worked as a sales associate at Mervyn’s then at Robinsons May then at the Gap — all that folding and picking up after people, oy. I also waited tables for four years at Ihop; I brought home the bacon and the smell of pancake syrup. Then I went to school again and again, so for a long time I was a student.
I will do anything for love.
I love to read. I teach writing through reading; I edit through reading; I learn through reading. I do a lot of reading. As kids, my sisters and I would eat our cereal with a cereal box in front of each one of us just so we could have something to read. Ask me anything about Tony the Tiger’s Frosted Flakes and I’ll tell you, they’re great!
I write fiction, essays, conference proposals, conference papers, blogs, Facebook statuses, and lots of emails. I do a lot of writing. In fact, I write my daily blog in a word app on my Blackberry during the hour metro ride from home to work. Aside from brushing my teeth, writing is the one thing I must do every day. It is my daily bread. It forgives me my sins. By writing the word I shall be healed.
But I won’t do that!
It’s easier to say what I won’t do on a first date, at a dance club, or at an all-you-can-eat buffet than what I would do. I don’t skinny dip (I don’t swim and the water always looks too cold). I don’t get up on the boxes to dance with twinks (learned that lesson the hard way). I don’t eat the cottage cheese (sitting out of a cooler all day, dotted by flies, and melting seems threatening to my digestive system).
How do you do what you do?
Recently, two young people came to me because they want to do what I do and they were seeking advice about schools, majors, and degrees. They want to edit, write, or teach. Ah, to publish, be published, and to profess. They’re struggling between many choices: MFA vs MA, Creative Writing vs English, local programs vs top-rated schools, terminal degrees vs non-terminal, fries vs cole slaw.
I don’t think I helped them much. I got a degree in journalism, another degree in creative writing, and another degree in English. Who has time to do all that? The problem with college majors and our college system is they give college students the impression that what they choose to do as a major means they’re married to a specific profession. Do you take this career… forsaking all others, to have and to hold, until death do you part? There’s no chance for reinvention in those vows.
A to-do list for the two young seekers:
First, talk to editors. I got lucky with a temporary editing gig, but if you want to be an editor, take internships with other magazines and ask those editors how they got where they are. Chances are you’ll get a variety of answers. Many paths can lead to the same place.
Second, determine why you want to be a teacher. I believe the desire to teach really must come from within. Students can tell the difference between a dismal teacher and a passionate one. I knew I wanted to be an English teacher when I took 11th grade English with Mr. Ivins. He taught many books and stories but the one that stays with me is “The Catbird Seat” by James Thurber. Mr. Ivins taught me how to analyse, criticise, and interpret texts, and when he saw I was good at these, he encouraged me toward the English degree at his alma mater: the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. The seed he planted has since been nurtured by nearly every English or writing professor I have had up to my Georgetown thesis advisor, Dr. Lucy Maddox. Professor Maddox had an inviting way of teaching that I wanted to emulate — in her classroom, all voices were welcomed and validated — and she also had a wealth of knowledge of Literature and criticism I wanted to have, too. To become a good teacher is to learn by observing teachers that matter to you. Find them. Like I said, you’ll know whose examples not to follow.
Third, be willing to make sacrifices for writing. There is but one thing to say about writing: sacrifice yourself in order to reveal the true human experience. Living is hard, people suck, we do embarrassing and shameful things, we hurt people, we hate people, we fall in love, we have sex, we cheat, we lie, we experiment, we have dark thoughts about ourselves and others. “Oh, I would never do any of that,” declares the would-be saint among us. She or he can trust not to find a reading audience. (St. Francis of Assisi was a wealthy drunk man who satisfied his own pleasures until he felt the grace of God. I consider him my patron saint — my middle name is Francisco — and I confess I’m still in the early more human, less saintly stages of his living example.) A poet once wrote, the difference between poetry and rhetoric is being willing to sacrifice yourself instead of your children. I think what the poet means is in order to reveal real human emotions through poetry or fiction you must write from your life. You are Abraham placing himself on the altar.
Be aware that people, especially those closest to you, will be hurt by or angry with you for telling your truth. One of my relatives has told me never to blog about our talks again, so insistent was he that our conversations are private. What he doesn’t understand is that I’m writing about my life, my experiences, and only I (like you) experience the world in my way (as you do) and I can only write about my experience even if he’s part of that experience. Author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni said once at a reading at Politics & Prose that her first book of short stories was made up of events she experienced with family and friends; she joked that she’s now shunned at parties. (Sidenote: Divakaruni took her first writing class at a community college.) Beginning writing students often think that vague writing reaches more people. A nameless person lives in a nameless town working a title-less job doing unclear tasks feeling unrevealed emotions. They think readers would want to insert their own plot points in the blanks. Not so! Specifics resonate more with readers because readers live life in specific moments and events, and often those moments can be etched out of the experiences of our lives. If you can imagine yourself cutting open your guts and spewing out all the pain, sorrow, suffering, embarrassment, shame, desire, lust, and struggles of your own life, then you may make for a fine writer. Good luck on your journey and remember, like writing, even life can be revised.