For our Application Week series, Jared Klegar tells us about pursuing a writing path while in college—and how to be an aspiring writer is to be caught up in a maelstrom of contradictory advice.
Alice in WonderlandThe Outsiders
You are in constant crisis about your English major. You’ve thought about a psychology double major, an Italian minor, an anthropology master’s—for no other reason than English not feeling like enough. At a party, a fratty-looking guy asks what you study, and when you say “English,” your voice is lower, more forceful than usual.
“That’s sick, bro,” he says, face twitching. He is making too much of an effort to be enthusiastic.
You would not consider your career prospects “sick,” nor would your friends consider theirs. In discussions you have with them about the utility of your English degrees, the same words appear and reappear: “hireable,” “unemployed,” “rent.” You hear “health insurance” a few times, but that’s not exactly what Frat Guy means by “sick.”
Even so, you are not fatalistic. You do things. You write for the campus paper, like Lana, Kyla, and Siobhan. You apply for and receive university grants, like Jo, Sarah, and Tobi. These things—clips, cash—are undoubtedly useful.
But most of the opportunities available to you seem more administrative or editorial than writerly. You could be a managing editor of the school paper, like Kyla; intern at a literary magazine, like Isabelle; work at a literary agency, like Morgan—and feel that you are moving toward something. But is that something being a writer? Certainly it benefits your own work to read and provide feedback on others’. Certainly it doesn’t hurt to network. (Network? Who are you, Frat Guy?) What, though, of buckling down and actually writing?
There are careers in which you would buckle down and actually write. Of these, journalism strikes you as the most stable . . . is a sentence you should not have to write, but, surveying the literary landscape, you’re not convinced of its falsehood. And, as it happens, Kyla and Siobhan are gravitating toward reporting, toward the relative clarity of newsroom internships and staff-writer positions. It’s a path littered with potholes, absolutely, but there are streetlights leading the way.
Writing for screen, in an era when the film and TV industries are booming, looks promising too. You attend a panel: college students talking about the entertainment internships they’ve done. You definitely don’t need connections to make it in the biz, they say, then proceed to mention the aunts and family friends and pastors who helped them obtain their posts. Should you be mad about the sophistry or grateful for the transparency? Who knows! Besides, even if you’re lucky enough to slink in connectionless, you see way more listings for production and development interns than full-on writing jobs; this summer, Eva and Andrew are doing the former. Getting a foothold in a bona fide writers’ room might prove difficult.
As for writing fiction, poetry, memoir—you’re not sure if there is a path to follow. At any rate, you think of this path, if it exists, as an old, wobbly bridge over a gap between two cliffs. You’ve heard of various approaches to crossing this bridge. You might scale it at a gallop; you might inch along very slowly, very carefully, so as to be safe. You might forgo the bridge entirely and try to jump the gap on a motorcycle. You never know: At any moment, the bridge could cave in on itself, like a bad metaphor.
When a famous writer comes to your university, you ask her how she navigated the bridge.
“Easy,” she says. “I just answered the troll’s riddle.”
Audience members nod and hum. Why are they nodding and humming? You haven’t heard of any troll, much less seen one. How do you get one to appear? Do you play that Justin Timberlake song? And is it the same riddle each time, or are there multiple riddles, and, if the latter, does The Princeton Review sell a Troll Riddles prep book? But you are not so bold as to pose these questions to the famous writer; you know how ridiculous they sound. No one else seems confused by the logistics of the troll’s appearance, so neither are you. Ah, yes, you muse, nodding, humming. The troll.
It’s of little comfort, then, when those who have crossed the bridge say there is no one right way to cross. For a moment, the singularity, the serendipity of their journeys inspire you. But suddenly, it dawns on you why so many stay on the first side of the bridge. Below. Think of all the bones.
You have to force yourself not to look down.
Let’s run through your options.
You could apply to MFAs right after college. (Ideally, you’ll have graduated.) Everyone says this is a bad thing to do, but hey—if you’re determined, why not? This is what Andrew, Tobi, and Miranda are doing.
Alternatively, you could wait. You’ll need a contingency plan anyway, in case the MFA applications fall through because your worst fears are true and every program hates you. (Not even your writing—you!) Most of your friends say they want to spend some time in the Real World, to interact with people who are not academics or writers. You might as well join them.
What, however, are you meant to do in this Real World? Do you throw yourself hard-core into work, tough it out, and quit once you’ve saved up? You could probably brave consulting for a year or so, but then again you might bump into Frat Guy. You can picture it: him crooking his arm around your neck, complimenting you on your slide deck. (That is what consultants do, right? Make slide decks?)
Or do you enter the field of publishing, ascend steadily through the ranks, only to interrupt that progress when you leave to get your MFA, since you still want to do that? Or do you make barely enough to satisfy your basic needs—as a barista, say—and have ample time to write on the side? Would you have the discipline and self-confidence to come home every night and plug away at your novel? And if the work you produce doesn’t get you into an MFA program, doesn’t get published—will this interlude have been a total waste?
Do you want an MFA? Your friends raise some good points, both in favor and in opposition. Isabelle doesn’t want to be in school forever, but neither does she want to take for granted how cool it would be to live and work among a community of writers. Miranda thinks there is validity to the argument that MFAs are making all writers sound the same—not that this is deterring her from getting one, but it’s worth keeping in mind. The certification is nice, Eva tells you, but it doesn’t matter all that much if your writing is bad. And no one wants to do an MFA if it’s not a fully funded program. Weigh the pros and cons all you want; at the end of the day, though, there’s a small part of you that believes maybe, just maybe, if you get your MFA, the troll will reveal himself to you.
It’s not too late to pivot to a more conventional, more recognizable career. When Katherine speaks about the healthy work-life balance of her computer science internship, you wonder if you should brush up on your coding skills. But even armed with just an English degree, you have other choices. Miranda is considering teaching middle and high school. Alex is going to law school. Your college English department’s website says your degree will be attractive to medical schools; surely reading Chaucer has given you, if nothing else, a sympathetic bedside manner.
You are being cynical, but deep down you know there is some truth to this marketing copy. Ever since you started calling yourself a writer, you’ve been keen to try new things, invite new perspectives. It’s like when you’re on a swim team, Jo says, and you swim, obviously, but you also have dryland training: push-ups and burpees and such. A writer’s dryland training, on that account, would be to go out, talk to new people, and find new ways to consider the world.
Sarah agrees. Most nights, she says, “I would rather be home eating Jaffa cakes and watching a K-drama. But like, I’m gonna go into this underground club because when else am I gonna go into an underground club?” The things she wouldn’t normally do—these are exactly the things that would help inform writing a person different from herself.
This, you realize, is what you love about writing—the way it’s changed how you inhabit and observe the world. Defamiliarizing some experiences, rendering others more intimate. Attuning you to the beauty and messiness of life. Sharpening you toward details, microexpressions: your flight seatmate’s chipped nail polish, the twinkle in your pediatrician’s eye as she soapboxes to you about pubertal testicular enlargement. (You had simply asked if she thought you were done growing.)
This, you realize, is what you love about writing—the way it’s changed how you inhabit and observe the world.
If accolades and glory were what you were after, you would not have chosen writing. You have chosen writing for the act of it. For the thrill of putting into words something you previously thought ineffable, something you never knew until it was staring back at you on the page. You’d like to say you’re preparing for writing. But perhaps it is more apt to say writing has prepared you—for a richer existence, for a more daring, fulfilling life. That sounds nice, doesn’t it?
It is tempting to fixate on what you are preparing for, hoping for—the dream publication, the book deal that goes to auction—and lose sight of the joys of preparation itself. But, as Alex tells you, these kinds of lofty, long-term goals can backfire. Imagine a scientist, Alex says, who wants to cure cancer. But she gets to her lab and discovers she is working with mice, and she does not care for mice. Plain evil, those little rodents! Quickly, her passion dwindles. She still wants to cure cancer; she’s pretty sure of that. What she isn’t sure of is if she can live with her day-to-day.
Take things day by day then. Don’t think of the cliff on the far side of the bridge. Find contentment in the traversal; however you choose to cross, make sure it’s something you can live with day-to-day. Read widely; trust your voice. Every so often, check to see if any magazines have gotten back to you about “Girl Thing.” Is this what it is to be a writer? You don’t know. Ooh la la, indeed.