The One Thing I Tell Young Journalists

I don’t really know the answers. That’s the first thing I say to young journalists when I get invited to speak to them. If anything I say discourages the path they imagined for themselves, they should ignore what I have to say and keep trying to do what they want to do.

And then I tell them this story.

In my freshman year at The University of Iowa, I signed up for one of the handful of Writers’ Workshop classes for undergraduates. Once a week a group of us had encounters with a M.F.A. candidate who, in addition to working on the next Great American Novel, or an epic poem, or something, was supposed to be our writing instructor. But he didn’t do much of that. He scheduled office hours in out-of-the-way cafes. He was evasive when students sought guidance around writerly problems. And one day he delivered a speech meant to discourage us from seeking a path that was something like the one he had gone down.

It doesn’t matter if you’re an English major, the instructor proclaimed. A lot of young people who get liberal arts degrees go on to humdrum jobs doing nothing interesting, he added. That’s what you should expect, he concluded, you shouldn’t expect to be like him working on his master of fine arts.

The speech was sort of like that essay a lot of us have been reading and arguing about on Twitter for the past day. And in a way, it worked on me. I struggled through my final assignment for the class, got harsh feedback from the instructor and mostly gave up on creative writing for the balance of my years in college.

At some point after I left college and started finding my way working in things other than creating literature, I started thinking again about this instructor and how dispiriting I found that lecture. So I Googled him.

I discovered that his M.F.A. degree had, as he warned us, not turned into a career as a successful creative writer. He worked in communications. He published poems here or there in literary journals I had never heard of. There was also the occasional Amazon review. Not much of a body of literature to speak of. And this was the fellow who had discouraged me and other people from visions we had for ourselves.

I was disappointed about how I had been taken in by someone projecting his own feelings of discouragement onto a group of people younger than himself.

That’s the story I’ve started out telling students when I’ve been invited to speak about the career I’ve had so far. I’ll then say some things about who’s hiring and who isn’t, the pathways into jobs where people I know have gotten to do cool things and the warning signs for digital media start-ups you might not want to work for. But it’s all foregrounded in my belief that smart, young people can find their own way. The last thing I want to do is discourage anyone.

Shoot me a note if you’re looking for career advice, or would like me to speak to a class you teach. I consider it a mitzvah and I enjoy doing it.

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