In the wake of last week’s post by me about the difficulty of providing sufficient opportunities for talent to be properly recognized, and Matt Reed’s on the single office hour conversation he had as an undergraduate with a professor that put him on his future life’s trajectory, I’ve been thinking about the paths we make available (or unavailable) to students.
These paths take the form of narratives, the most basic of which is: Go to college, work hard, get an education, and live happily ever after. As I argue in Sustainable. Resilient. Free.: The Future of Public Higher Education, this narrative has broken down for many. Higher Ed has been turned into Tressie McMillan Cottom’s “Lower Ed” for many, a form of “negative social insurance” where the cost of the degree (or pursuit of the degree without graduating) does not result in improved life prospects.
That disconnect and the corresponding disillusionment is a significant threat to the future of higher education in the U.S., while also being a symptom of the larger systemic problem of inequality and wealth disparity overall. We have a broken system, and so the part of the system that’s meant to play a role in moving people through the system isn’t going to work either. Education by itself was never going to overcome the tougher headwinds of our societal structures. That we thought it could was a temporary illusion of another era. We should not hold these illusions any longer.
But underneath that bigger picture, I’ve been thinking about the smaller picture, the narratives that impact us on an individual level, like Matt’s “1 conversation,” and what happens when the narrative we were told to believe turns out not to be true.
When I was in college, taking my first creative writing classes, there was a clearly delineated path towards a career as a working and teaching fiction writer.
Work hard, write a lot, publish a story in a major outlet (The New Yorker/Harper’s/The Atlantic/etc…) get noticed by an agent who sells your story collection and first novel, and then keep plugging away writing a couple more books while doing your professoring, and ultimately ride off into the sunset.
The lucky ones would write books that sell to actual human beings, bringing in additional money, maybe even a film or TV option if you’re really lucky. Maybe you win a prize that allowed for a change in institution and a reduced teaching load, or if you’re really really successful, an endowed superstar position with all the benefits that status confers.
But if your books don’t sell, you’re still okay. You’ve got your tenure and a network of university presses that may be an outlet for your work if the commercial publishing universe hasn’t panned out. There’s campus invites from friends and colleagues where you get to show up and be feted for a day or two, give a reading to a small crowd, make nice to everyone over plastic glasses of chardonnay and cocktail shrimp.
Your career never reached the promise of someone who published an early story in The New Yorker, and your later books sell between a few hundred and a couple thousand copies, but you also have your students and a job where writing books is part of what you’re expected to do with your time. You sometimes wonder what could’ve been with one more good review, or a little luck on timing, but it’s not a bad run, all things considered.
I recognize my tone sounds a little scornful, but in reality, it’s wistful, because by the time I rolled into the system, these routes were being closed off.
The amount of fiction published in these cultural gatekeepers declined, as did their status. The New Yorker all but ceased publishing work off the slush pile – the route to success that two of my college professors used to secure their futures – and other outlets like Esquire, The Atlantic, and Playboy, stopped publishing fiction all-together. There remained a robust universe of literary journals, but publishing in these did not deliver the jolt of a literary agent and a two-book deal. That two-book deal became a one-book deal with an advance perhaps 10% of what a new author would’ve earned 20 years earlier. It was enough to allow the creative writing professorate to limp along, but writing “literary fiction” as a commercial enterprise in this universe was a rare thing.
In place of the old pathway, a new one arose. This path went through the Internet and occasionally intersected with academia, but was largely untethered from it. McSweeney’s, my old employer was among the first spots where one could get noticed. Future superstars like Roxane Gay could be found at a place called HTMLGIANT honing their craft, building community. There were dozens of others, most of them no longer funct. We had the blogosphere. If you got noticed, commercial publishing may come calling and you got to take a swing, but unlike the previous generation with their professorships, there was no safe place to fall back to. You sank or you kept swimming. Floating peacefully along was not recommended.
This is me, the keep swimming person, head above water, but always needing to keep paddling towards the next new thing. My first two books came out of work published on websites. My last three books too. The sum total of what I’ve earned from my books barely reaches a single year’s salary of a tenured full-professor at a large state university.
And I’m a success story.
On the one hand, this life has given me access to many experiences that I otherwise never would have had. A secure, tenured professor of creative writing is not going to take up a blog for Inside Higher Ed, I don’t think.
On the other hand – boy am I tired! Every week I write a column for the Chicago Tribune, a blog post for this joint, plus two Substack newsletters all while holding down a full-time job and trying to further my career and presence as a voice on writing pedagogy.
I also spend many hours worrying about the myriad threats to my portfolio of work. I started one of my newsletters explicitly as protection for if and when the vampiric hedge fund that has its sights on the Chicago Tribune takes full control, and decides that the few hundred bucks a week that go to the guy who’s been writing a column for ten years is an extravagance.
Honestly, I often love the hustle, but I wish it wasn’t, you know, quite so necessary.
But before I get too far on my own pity party, I spend time wondering what pathways exist for students of this generation who would like to do something like my work, and it seems exponentially harder. There is not only the debt with which they’re likely starting their lives, but even greater uncertainty around employment and financial security.
The most important writerly currency is not talent or quality, per se, but the amount of attention one can generate for their work, or more importantly, themselves. For sure, talent is a route to attention, but it is not the only or fastest route by any stretch of the imagination.
I may be among the last generation of writers who isn’t also required to be some combination of capital-P, personality and spectacle, things which most writers are not cut out for provided they are in it for the writing, rather than the attention.
When working my stint as a visiting instructor, students who loved writing and thought my gig looked pretty good – because it was most of the time – would come seeking wisdom about how they might forge a similar life, and I felt obligated to tell them the truth. I told them that my job was precarious, that it paid $35,000 a year or less – here their eyes would go wide – that I had to subsidize my living with all kinds of other work, and the only thing that made it even possible was a well-employed partner and our choice not to have children.
What’s the advice? Marry well and do not procreate, I guess?
I would also tell them of the success stories I knew, of my friends and acquaintances who had ascended higher than I had to achieve security inside the life of a writer, as well as those who had decided to take other paths and leave writing as a pastime who were just as or more happy than the rest of us.
I wanted students to understand that they had control over their own destinies, but also, there would be times where that control might be illusory and the world was simply going to come for them and the only thing to do was brace for impact.
I wonder if that’s where we all are at the moment, coming out of the duck and cover of the last year and a half.
As we emerge, maybe we can think about the road ahead for all of us.
What is the story we’d like for the next twenty years?
 My book Fondling Your Muse: Infallible Advice from a Published Author to the Writerly Aspirant came out of a single post at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, which was read by an editor who commissioned me to do an entire book in the style of that one article.