Length: 15 min.
For the past couple of days I’ve been in Idaho at a pre-professional writing conference at Brigham Young University – Idaho. The purpose of the writing conference is to bring in published novelists, poets, editors, and professional writers to give students a glimpse into the careers they plan to enter.
Recommended link: If you’re looking for a small liberal arts school, check out San Diego University of Phoenix.
This is my second year presenting to students about technical writing. You may remember my post last year about Debunking the Boredom Myth of Technical Writing, in which I tried to disabuse students of the idea that technical writing is nothing but boredom and drudgery. This year I focused on Seven Steps to Getting a Job in Technical Writing. But that’s not the focus of this post. This year the conference made me reflect on the academic life I chose not to follow and evaluate whether that choice was right.
A little background. From 2002 to 2004, I taught writing courses at The American University in Cairo (in Egypt) with about 20 other composition instructors. Among those instructors, I met Josh Allen and his wife Suzy, who quickly became our best friends in Egypt. I had so much in common with Josh – both of us were composition instructors. Both of us were Mormon (the only Mormon teachers at AUC). Both of us were married and had children about the same ages. Both of us were first-timers in Egypt. Both of us shared a love of writing, literature, and the university setting.
After a couple of years at AUC, I questioned whether teaching was my vocation. Grading was drudgery, composition syllabi were a bit dull, and my job seemed to have little future. I looked ahead at several options: I could remain a composition instructor, continuing with roughly the same pay and lifestyle, with little prospects of advancement, only to find that at age 40 I had no real career. I could get a PhD in literature and try to move up the academic scale as a professor. As a professor, I would need to publish scholarly essays regularly. Or I could reject both of those options and follow a prompting I kept feeling – to be the writer rather than teach writing.
I chose the last option. After two years, I ended my teaching career at AUC and moved to Florida, where I turned to professional writing, first becoming a copywriter and then a technical writer.
My colleague Josh took a different route. He left AUC at the same time I did, but he applied for a teaching position at BYU-Idaho, which recognized his MFA as an acceptable degree for teaching literature classes. He moved to Rexburg, Idaho, a small town that wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the college, and started his four-classes-a-semester schedule, comfortably settling into a spacious home with a garage the size of an airplane hangar.
Every morning Josh wakes up early for his 8 a.m. classes, starts discussions about classic works such as My Antonia or The Catcher in the Rye or some novel by Henry James. He has one or two technical writing or composition classes a semester. He meets with students, reads at length in his office, and lives the academic life.
The life of an academic seems rich to me. Not materially rich, but intellectually rich. Dozens of books line your shelves, you’re immersed in constant learning, you’re surrounded by ambitious, dreamy-eyed students who haven’t yet become jaded. You have summers off, during which you can bury yourself in the novel or short story collection you’re writing. Even during the semester, your schedule is flexible enough to come home in the afternoons.
Being at this writing conference, surrounded by academics discussing recent books they’ve read, listening to a poet read his work, hearing a novelist discuss how she adds energy to her fiction, how she gets inside her characters’ heads to imagine how they would act in certain situations, made me remember my creative writing days at Columbia’s School of the Arts as both a student and graduate instructor.
As a student, I spent much of my time reading and writing, cut off from the world around me. I had freedom to roam the lost books in the library, to open a blank page and fill it with everything and nothing. I rarely looked at a clock. I could latch onto an idea and pursue it wherever it would take me. Every week I wrote dozens of pages. Our classes met in workshop settings, where we talked about narrative structures and character significance and arc.
I also taught composition courses to college freshmen and had freedom to assign my own essay prompts. I would spin controversial ideas for students to write about and then respond to their essays with copious feedback. Sometimes I assigned essays as prompts.
I could have continued in that academic setting, perhaps pursuing a PhD and turning to others publications. I could have looked for a job at a small liberal arts school somewhere.
Instead, I chose to become a technical writer. I figuratively turned in my university library card and stopped trying to publish creative works. I now wake up in the morning and drive to work, parking my car outside a shiny high-tech looking building. After riding the elevator to the third floor, I make my way to a cubicle where I dock my laptop, read and respond to emails in Microsoft Outlook, and work on help materials for a handful of software applications. I devote my time writing for users whom I will rarely meet.
Did I choose the wrong route? Should I instead have pursued a teaching position in a small college in a sleepy nowhere town? Should I be waking up in the morning reading Henry James novels and preparing notes for an 8:00 a.m. lecture?
I talked with Josh about company life versus academic life, and which one was better. Josh had previously spent a few years as a contract technical writer before teaching, but he found that documenting software all day left him with a sense of emptiness. It provided no thought-provoking discussions; it lacked immersion in good literature. The whole endeavor felt a bit worthless. It was just a job for a paycheck, with no intellectual engagement or inspiration.
He had just returned from teaching a class on My Antonia when I met up with him. He had been discussing “the search for the American Dream” and how the idea plays out in Willa Cather’s plots.
Josh has a sharp mind and can extract and analyze reasoning from any subject you bring to him. As we walked around the gardens of BYU Idaho’s campus, he asked what appeal the company life has for me. Why would anyone choose to work in a company rather than burying themselves in the classics and academic discussions? What value does the company life have for me?
Honestly, I didn’t know. It troubled me. As I slept that night, I tried to figure out what had propelled me to move away from academia into the corporate sphere. Did I make the wrong choice?
The next day we talked some more. I began to see an argument forming, but it wasn’t entirely clear. It wasn’t until I listened to a Book Lust podcast with Michael Perry, a nonfiction writer, that I began to understand. In an interview about his creative works, Nancy Pearl asks Perry:
You’ve now written four books and they’re all about your life and your experiences in the world …. Talk about how that all came about.
The reason the books are as they are, is that I was always living and working in a “real” place while I was writing. So when I had the opportunity to write books, I just wrote about what was around me. And part of that was being on the local volunteer fire department with my brothers and my mom, and being a resident in a small northern Wisconsin town, and now that I have a little family and we’ve moved to a farm and we’re raising our own food or most of it. I guess for me, if I’m going to write creative nonfiction essay style work, if there’s going to be any veracity to that work, it comes from actually living it.
In other words, living and experiencing the world gives you content for your writing. It gives you substance to write about in a natural way.
This substance is exactly what I lacked as a grad student in a creative writing program at Columbia. We had time to write, time to read, but no substance in our writing. Our essays ended up exhausting our personal experiences. Our lives seemed all we had to write about. I ended up writing missionary stories about my two years in Venezuela. Another student wrote about her dying mother with cancer, another about her stint as a nurse in a psychiatric ward, another about her sordid affairs with married men, another about her past relationship with a rich guy in Soho.
While the essays had all the literary devices of narrative fiction, the writing lacked substance and information. It was too navel-gazing and self-centered. It was hard to get outside of our lives, trapped in the cloister of the university. It was almost as if our lives had been paused the minute we entered the writing program. We could only look back on what had taken place before.
I listened to another podcast with writers who explained the same problem. One of the writers had a good friend who moved to Ireland so she could write. In Ireland, she hunkered down in solitude and wrote and wrote and wrote, but her writing lacked substance. The sentences were highly refined and polished, but boring. Those same events that seem to take us away from our writing are also what give us substance in our writing, or so the writers on the podcast explained.
A writer needs to be immersed in the world to have something to write about. You can only experience and learn so much from within the walls of a classroom. This is one reason I like Ted Conover so much. Conover goes out into the world and lives and writes about it. For example, he spends a summer riding the rails with hoboes (Rolling Nowhere). Or he moves to Aspen to live among the rich (Whiteout). Or he becomes a prison guard at Sing Sing (Newjack). His living in the world, almost like a social anthropologist, provides him with material to write about.
I feel a writer’s real job is to be out there with people who are strange to you.
Could he have written any of his books while being cloistered in the university? His work is nonfiction, but even fiction writers can’t imagine everything sitting in a library.
As much as I like Ted Conover’s immersive method, it seems a bit difficult for me. I can’t simply uproot and immerse myself in an unfamiliar setting. But entering the field of technical writing (rather than remaining in the university) has given me substance to write about. Immersion in projects within a corporate setting brings up all kinds of issues to write about — wikis, content strategy, community, DITA, usability, print versus online formats, quick reference guides, single sourcing, help authoring tools, the STC, presenting at conferences, context-sensitive help, podcasting, and so on.
If you were to take away my experiences in the company setting, the thoughts and problems and ideas and situations that arise from being involved projects, you would also take away all the substance from my writing. I would be in the same situation I was in grad school, twiddling my thumbs looking for content from random personal experiences to string together. Having a career in the world gives me a framework of content to write about, which I can approach from a literary perspective. I can take a topic that might otherwise be dull and make a story out of it. I can approach an issue as a literary essay, mixing personal experience with information and reflection. The result won’t be navel-gazing and insubstantial.
I’m not saying that academics can’t venture out into the real world. Nor am I saying that being a technical writer is the equivalent of an anthropological experience like Conover’s. I am saying that perhaps for a literary writer, it’s better to avoid the cloister — in whatever form, not just a university. Venturing into the world gives you something to write about.
You can make other arguments about the value of company life over academic life. For example, living in the world allows you to carry out the ideas of the classroom. Or the world allows you to prove and evaluate what you read in the library. Or the world gives you an opportunity to serve others with the knowledge you acquire in the university. But for me, as a writer, it comes down to having substance to write about, and that substance isn’t always apparent inside the classroom.
Some subjects will always remain at the university, I imagine. Arcane philosophical discussions, abstract discussions about the American Dream, or transformations of identity through the writing process in John Barth’s novels (my undergraduate thesis). But I am happy to leave those ideas in the classrooms. An idea that only has merit inside a classroom, that emerges from an assigned text, may be refreshing, but it is not the substance of my life.