Wednesday, May 30, 2012

"all my life is on me now/hail the pages turning"

I am now officially a Master of Liberal Arts.

There's always that looming "what now?" question after a graduation that I've noticed a lot of my friends dealing with. I don't remember it so much from high school, (I barely remember my high school graduation and there wasn't even drinking involved. I think I've just blocked that era off.) but I certainly remember it from my undergrad. When people asked "what now?" I said I was taking some time off to figure out what to do next. In truth, I had no idea "what now," but I knew I needed some downtime to process everything, to figure out what was next. I also knew that part of what was next was going to involve giant life changes. Ravi and I had already begun to talk about potentially breaking up if he had to go to pharmacy school during my last semester of college. I was tired of living in Baton Rouge. I probably wasn't going to get into a good MA program with my dismal overall GPA.

While I sorted it all out, I stayed at my old job and I was promoted to executive administrative assistant. Basically, the most important secretary. It sounds like a mundane job and, in many ways, it was. There were a lot of boring meetings, spreadsheets, obnoxious and needy people. But there were some pretty great benefits as well. I had a great boss, financial freedom (which eventually enabled me to move to New Orleans to go to school before I had secured steady employment), health insurance, and I gained a skill set. I learned marketing, I wrote copy for the company website, for radio ads, for print ads, I got MUCH better at communicating with strangers, I learned more than I could ever want to know about the inner workings of a hospital and I can make an amazing financial spreadsheet.

When I moved to New Orleans, I had a hard time finding a job. I had been working since I was 15, but all those jobs had been office jobs and, at first, those jobs weren't hiring. The people that were hiring needed servers, bartenders, cooks. Skills I didn't have. I started to get a few nasty cracks about the worthlessness of my English degree, but I also got some pointed and smug questions along the lines of "don't you regret never having worked in the service industry?"

I ended up getting hired by Tulane as an academic administrative assistant--basically, I'm the academic secretary to a bunch of surgeons. Is it the most exciting career ever? No. Many days it's really boring. It has improved as I've been given more responsibility, but it's not something I want to do as a career.

Now that I've graduated from Tulane, I'm back in a similar position I was in after LSU. I'm waitlisted at LSU, but the odds of that coming through this year are slim. And, as I've mentioned here before, I'm not even certain a Ph.D is something I want to do right now. I would like my doctorate, but I'm not sure I want what comes with that title right now--the years of school and struggling and the shitty economic prospects that follow it. The difference between then and now is that I've used my "useless" English degree to my advantage--I've done some freelancing, I got a degree that I'm proud of (even if not many others are), I explored and expanded my life in ways I wouldn't have been willing or able to in Baton Rouge. I'm looking at my options, but right now, I'm staying at my job.

A lot of people mock this decision. Some think I should be doing something that offers more affluence than a secretarial position (some of these people suggest teaching like teachers are making some serious bank). Others, the same people with their smug questions about my experience in the service industry, hint at the idea that life as a secretary must be a dry well of experience. How can I live in NEW ORLEANS and be a SECRETARY, they ask. Surely I should be waiting tables, perhaps busking, doing something out amongst the people that would foster my creativity in ways that working a desk job surely cannot do.

Would I like to do something that offers more creative freedom? Sure. But I don't know what that something is yet. And right now, my job offers me opportunities that I have difficulty eschewing, opportunities that offer their own chance for creativity. It gives me the financial security (mostly) to live alone. It gives me hours that allow me to attend events and see friends regularly and volunteer for causes dear to me. It bankrolled my master's degree. On a non-creative front, it allowed me to get my teeth fixed when some asshole hit me on my bike. It gave me money to even get that bike. To donate to charity. To pay off my bills. To go visit my friends that live more than an hour away. To use for writing submissions.

I get irritated when people act like I'm crushing my soul or I must not care about some greater picture that's only their own view of reality because I'm not out living the great bohemian lifestyle. I think there's an arrogance in that. I'm not denying the arrogance in my own viewpoint, but I think it's disingenuous to imply that someone can't work a 9-5 and be creative at the same time.

I was recently discussing this with Christie, because she wrote an advice piece for recent Creative Writing grads. In it, she wrote:

As this didn't make me feel any more qualified, I started a list of things I wasn't willing to do with my life. My list was as follows: I'm not willing to sit in a cubicle, watch the clock, or do algebra. My posture will never be scrutinized by anyone other than myself. I will never work nine to five, and there will never be early nights or mornings. I'm not willing to work a job that doesn't engage me intellectually on some level, because  I have no method of making myself care about boring shit. I'm not willing to exchange my freedom for a career that earns more than I need, because that's what souls do a few years before they die or have kids. 

If I have any advice for new Creative Writing graduates, it is this: skip the list of things you're good at, and go straight for the list of things you're not willing to do with your life. Take your degree and scratch out "writing," because you're not qualified for that yet. Your degree is in Creative Living.

On many fronts, I agree with her points. You don't have to have the next 10 years laid out in front of you. You don't even need the next year. You should have an idea of compromises you don't want to make. Christie called that list her Dignity List.  I'd add that you might want goals section to that list, however varied and unachievable and conflicting they might seem or be. But, while understanding that Christie's list was personal to her, I took some issue with what I felt was the dismissal of the entire idea of steady employment in "uncreative" fields. I don't think someone needs to throw themselves into dire financial straits to be taken seriously as a writer. I don't think working a "boring" job to afford oneself the money and time to be otherwise creative is necessarily a terrible compromise and certainly not the death knell that many make it out to be. I don't even think that any job should be considered to be exempt from creativity, because the entire idea of what is creative is so subjective. I'd also add here that people can have kids and still produce art. I hope to be one of them. In the next few years, even.

I'm being careful here because, as I said, Christie's list was personal to her and she's reiterated that she didn't mean her post to be taken as dismissive. But I guess I just want to say, you can do something you're good at, even if it's, on the surface, tedious and unfulfilling (I'd argue that asking if someone wants a refill and washing dishes are also pretty tedious and unfulfilling). You can get really creative and channel those experiences into your writing, your art.

The way I see it, everything is a learning experience and art is a reflection, an expression of those experiences, even if it's simultaneously operating as an escape. I'm a Master of Liberal Arts and I'm not sure what now. I'm not even sure what that degree will mean in the long term, but I know what it means right now--it was a wealth of experiences, an excuse, an education, an opportunity and it'll eventually be a part of A Living.

In closing, consider Paterson, a poem by William Carlos Williams (a doctor, a poet). Per Wikipedia: "The Poetry Foundation's biography on Williams notes the following source: With roots in his [short] 1926 poem [also entitled] 'Paterson,' Williams took the city as 'my "case" to work up. It called for a poetry such as I did not know, it was my duty to discover or make such a context on the "thought".' While writing the poem, Williams struggled to find ways to incorporate the real world facts obtained through his research into the poem. On a worksheet for the poem, he wrote, 'Make it factual (as the Life is factual-almost casual-always sensual-usually visual: related to thought)'."

Who because they
neither know their sources nor the sills of their
disappointments walk outside their bodies aimlessly
   for the most part,
locked and forgot in their desires--unroused.

--Say it, no ideas but in things--
nothing but the blank faces of the houses
and cylindrical trees
bent, forked by preconception and accident--
split, furrowed, creased, mottled, stained--
secret--into the body of the light!

From above, higher than the spires, higher
even than the office towers, from oozy fields
abandoned to gray beds of dead grass,
black sumac, withered weed-stalks,
mud and thickets cluttered with dead leaves--
the river comes pouring in above the city
and crashes from the edge of the gorge
in a recoil of spray and rainbow mists

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