A number of my conversations with writers this year have revolved around the difficulties of securing a job in the academic world. What happens if you’re a writer and can’t get an academic job? Or what if you have other career interests, or prefer different sorts of work? Because writers have to eat, too, it seems like a necessary time for Leah Falk’s new blog, MFA Day Job. The site features interviews by writers who work and write outside of academia. MFA Day Job also seeks to answer the daunting question so many of us are asked: “What are YOU going to do with your MFA?”
Leah Falk is a poet, essayist, book reviewer, and recent graduate of the MFA program at University of Michigan. She’s also been my close friend since our days at Oberlin College, where we were once creative writing students. Last week, I had the chance to talk with her at length about the origin and substance of MFA Day Job.
ELR: What was the seed or inspiration for your creation of MFA Day Job?
LF: My first year at the University of Michigan, I attended a panel on ‘alternative’ (non-academic) careers for MFAs. I thought the panel, while useful, was sort of done backwards–it focused on what jobs you might be able to get with an MFA, instead of suggesting that the advantage the people on the panel had in common was not their writing degree, but a creative approach to making a writing life work. To me, the flexibility and inventiveness of a person who takes that kind of approach to their career doesn’t come after the MFA–it is in the person to begin with, and perhaps filtering it through the degree program refines it a little. But I wanted to create a site that focused on the diverse ways creative people can make their professional and creative lives work.
ELR: What kinds of interviews and posts have you featured so far?
LF: The site just went live! So not a lot, yet. Our first interview was with Sarah Scoles, who’s a fiction writer and editor at Astronomy magazine, and I have conversations scheduled with people who run writing workshops, do technical writing, practice psychiatry, farm, you name it. I’m also trying to give the site a general liberal arts focus–there’s a lot of liberal-arts bashing in the media right now, because people are scared of the bad economy. You hear about scary things like Florida governor Rick Scott proposing that liberal arts majors pay more for their degrees than STEM majors. I’m hoping that by letting these writers tell their work stories, and linking to positive articles about the arts and humanities, I can provide a counterpoint to that kind of fearful ideology.
ELR: What kind of responses have you received?
LF: In just a week, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. The first post received almost a thousand views, and I’ve received a lot of email from people who want to be interviewed or just generally think the site will be a good resource for writers.
ELR: What’s been your own experience of getting an MFA (and the life after it)?
LF: I have really adored my time in the program at U of M. I’m a pretty solitary writer, so having time to myself was almost more important than a community or contact with faculty. But the people in the program, both faculty and my peers, are very available, and that’s been extremely valuable. I just finished our third-year fellowship, where we stay on after the degree to finish a manuscript, so my sense of life after the program is still somewhat limited. I do think that as euphoric as the experience of the MFA can be, people are hungering for some practical life advice. I think there’s a split responsibility between the students and the institutions to gather and transmit that kind of wisdom.
ELR: What kinds of writing and creative projects (other than MFA Day Job) are you working on now?
LF: This year, I’ve been revising and sending out my first poetry manuscript, and working on some new poems. I think I finally decided not to divorce my poems from the hours I spend in front of the computer, so I’ve been playing with some stories and ideas from the history of artificial intelligence–how we make computers that think like us (we think) and what impact that has on our own thinking. I’ve also been freelancing a little bit, mostly writing book reviews. I write for this quirky website, thejewniverse.com. It’s sort of like a Jewish encyclopedia, except less boring to read than an encyclopedia.
ELR: Do you have big plans for the future of MFA Day Job? (Expansion, new features, etc?)
LF: Eventually, I’d like to separate the advice people give from their work narratives–I envision the narratives of peoples’ jobs as being in the tradition of Studs Terkel’s Working. But I recognize that many people will come to the site specifically for advice, whether it’s practical or existential. I’d also like to get a feature going where I talk to employers who have hired MFAs–what about a person who happens to have that degree is appealing to a manager who doesn’t necessarily list the degree in their job ad?