Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Perception versus Reality

It’s that time of year again when college graduates flood the job market in record numbers, only to be subjected to dire pronouncements of media talking heads warning of the dearth of suitable employment for our country’s best and brightest. That’s one problem. The other is that it is also the time of year when those same college graduates have to readjust their thinking—that is, take their diplomas, swallow their collective pride, and take a variety of jobs that have little or nothing at all to do with their major course of study. It’s the old perception versus reality conundrum. Your perception—the job market’s reality.

As an English/French major back in the 80’s, it never occurred to me that there were few, if any, jobs out there at a level I thought I was suited for available to someone like me. Sure, if you were a nursing major, like the majority of students at my college, you could have come out of college and begun nursing immediately. If you majored in accounting, you probably landed a job that involved crunching numbers. And if you were smart enough to be a computer science major back then…well, we know where you are now. Counting the cash from your Microsoft stock splitting a billion trillion times since graduation. But if you graduated with an English/French major, your options were limitless and limiting, all at the same time. You were qualified to do a broad spectrum of things, probably, but just not what you thought. I wanted to be a writer. But unfortunately, none of the writing stores were hiring.

Thankfully, twenty-three years ago this month, I left college lucky enough to have a job in pocket when I processed across the stage. Sure, it only paid $13,000 a year, and sure, I wouldn’t get any vacation time for a year, but one thing was certain: I had to take it because not taking it would mean that I couldn’t live in my old bedroom in the family homestead. I could come back home but I had to be gainfully employed. Now that I’m older (and a mother), I can say that that sounds eminently reasonable. Back then? Well, I wasn’t thrilled. It was one of those jobs that I never thought I’d have to do; it involved typing, filing, answering phones, and being an all-around girl Friday to an editor-in-chief at a publishing house. I never had to get his lunch, and he was the nicest man in the world, but I did spend many day hunched over a broken down copy machine, looking for the paper jam that it proclaimed I had produced. I should have known that this was the only type of job I was qualified for after graduating with my liberal arts degree but I was sure that I would interview at a few places for this type of position only to have the interviewer say, “There must be some mistake. You are completely overqualified for this job. You are brilliant! A gift to the literary world! We will make you an editor right away!”

I remember wandering the streets of midtown Manhattan at lunchtime for the first few weeks eating hot pretzels from street vendors (because that was all I could afford) and reminding myself that I was a writer, not an assistant. It became something of a mantra.

But you know what? I worked with a lot of “writers not assistants” and they were all extremely bright and talented people, and much happier in the job than I was. What did they know? Were they just broken down? Had they completely supplanted their dreams and aspirations? Maybe. But they were a great group and I made good friends. Vicky Polito, Friday’s guest blogger, is one of them. I ended up having a lot of fun at my job, met some interesting people, learned some amazing things. I worked with writers and at that point in my life, that was enough to help stoke the fire inside of me to keep writing. I stayed in the field, in house, for fifteen years, and after that, another nine as a freelancer. Turns out I really liked what I did. And I was good at it. I eventually rose to the rank of editor and when the demands of that job became too great for me, I started freelancing. And writing again. It all came full circle.

If there are any liberal arts college graduates reading this blog, take it from me: if you have a passion, like writing, you’ll find a way to do it. But you have to be gainfully employed. It’s no fun being a starving anything, particularly a writer. Because if you are weak from hunger, you won’t be able to pick up a pen never mind sit in front of a keyboard for hours. However, if you are employed, even at a job you think is beneath you, it will all work out. You will dance, paint, write, act, or do anything else that your liberal arts degree prepared you to do. Maybe not right now. But someday soon.

Maggie

3 comments:

  1. I was a Political Science major. I was going to work on Capitol Hill --- until I did an internship there my senior year and never wanted to go back!

    Those first jobs teach us a lot.

    Marian, the Northern half of Evelyn David

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  2. I remember very well those days as an Editorial Assistant. We had two WANG word processor units and one printer to share among about a dozen of us, we had to be sure someone covered the phones because voice mail was not yet invented, and people could still smoke not only in the building, but at their desks!

    Whenever I tell a person even as old as in their twenties that this was how it was I get the "gee, Grandma, tell me more about when the earth was cooling!"

    But, we were happy. Young, energetic, most of our lives not so much as out-lined yet.

    I had the luck to work for a great man named Eben Ludlow, who was demanding but also always worked hard himself. So, he led by example and also taught me organizational skills I STILL use: how to keep files, how to keep phone notes, how to budget time and resources, etc. No price can be put on that.

    Spaulding Gray told a great story about how he was in LA researching a documentary and just for fun, he took the microphone to a Ralph's Supermarket and asked every person who came out of the store "Hi, we're wondering if your having any luck with your screenplay, how it's going and all?" EVERY person pretty much was surprised that old Spalding knew about their script, but they instantly told him how it was going.

    That's how it was in publishing: EVERY person you worked with wanted to be a writer.

    Come to think of it, nearly everyone I meet now tells me they want to be one . . .

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  3. I didn't go to college until my fifth child was in kindergarten. And then I went with the purpose of keeping the job I had working in a pre-school for developmentally disabled kids.

    Despite everything I had to do for my family, I managed to graduate with an AA in Early Childhood Education. I loved working with these kids and did so for 10 years. From there I went on to teaching in day cares in poverty areas. Loved that too. Then I had my own facility (my home where I lived and still do)for developmentally disabled women. Hubby and I retired from that after 22 years.

    Of course my dream was to be a published writer. And I did write--as often as possible. Of course I finally achieved my dream--and I can concentrate on my writing now. At least most of the time.

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