November 12, 2022

Dear Graduating MFA Students

Nine-paneled cartoon shows writers in various tableaus intended to illustrate "Why We Write." The reasons are listed as: For deep introspection; Uncharted directions; Piles of rejection; Reclusive conditions; Quixotic ambitions; Midnight revisions; Caffein-filled creation; The reader's elation;  And frequent flights of imagination. Last panel shows four authors in the night sky over a city, riding pages of drafted work as if they were magic carpets.

Image credit: "Why We Write," by Grant Snider 


Dear Graduating MFA Students,

Pssst. You don't need to go into academia. Has anyone said that to you yet? Because it is so important to receive that message. 

You. Do. Not. Need. To. Go. Into. Academia.

But I love teaching! 

Then teach! 

I understand feeling that teaching is a vocation that you're called to, enjoying the community that it provides, and wanting to incorporate it into your path of professional experience. But you can do those things without making teaching with being your primary source of income and (ahem, America) health care. For decades, every major city in the United States has had at least one if not multiple community-led spaces for workshopping poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic (not that the pandemic is over, nota bene), these organizations had to adapt to moving all their learning opportunities online. Most of these organizations are keeping those channels open, understanding the ways that online learning can increase equity and access--which means that even if you don't end up living in a major city, you can still offer a class through that hub. 

Will you make much money? No. Best case scenario is a 50/50 split of proceeds with the hosting institution. But you'll teach classes on topics in creative writing that you truly care about, versus composition, and you won't be saddled with grading or advising (a responsibility that often falls back on beloved teachers, when those assigned to do it fail to do it). You might meet adult students who choose to take your classes again and again, and become a meaningful part of your audience (your "platform") for when you get books out into the world. 

Just a few of the places that you might pitch regarding workshop proposals:

Note, what you'll want to do first is write a short, polite note to someone on staff, requesting to be added to the email list that calls for pitches. They probably reach out to their existing pool of instructors 1-4 times a year to gauge interest, with set deadlines for submitting ideas. Be prepared to give a brief (one paragraph) introduction to your education and background, including any journal pub credits, and a couple of sample courses (at the very least, indicate the genres you did your thesis in). Do play up any local connections, even if you're hoping to teach remotely. For remote teaching, clarify whether you're drawn to synchronous learning (using meeting platforms such a Zoom) or asynchronous (in which you build the course content entirely in written form, online, and post feedback, versus orchestrating the live workshop experience). Plan a class that can be excused successfully in 4-8 weeks, OR one standalone session (typically informational or generative, perhaps focusing on a single shared text, versus something that is discussion- and feedback-based). 

If you find your initial queries to organizations such as these aren't getting traction, or if you ge the chance to offer a class but it fails to "make" the minimum numbers, don't despair.  You may you need a little more time to develop your record of publication. Sometimes these organizations can create enrollment draw based on the topic alone; other times they are looking for the added value of the instructor's reputation. 

Consider cross-referencing your passion for writing with another cause you feel passionate about--such as working with the LGBTQIA+ community; people who have experienced domestic abuse; outreach to unhoused or incarcerated populations; mission-driven organizing (environmental or social justice); or working with specific age groups, such as middle-grade children or senior citizens. Look for organizations whose work is in those sectors, versus being squarely in the "literary writing and publishing" space, and ask about opportunities to bring a creative workshop component to any existing outreach programs. Be prepared to volunteer your services at first, and keep your time commitment proportionate to that (1-6 sessions, max), but trust that it is legitimate and useful experience to build a CV. 

Since these organizations tend to have a firmer and specific geographic radius of reach, I can't offer a general guide. But here are a handful of exemplar DC-area organizations that I know to have utilized volunteer service to lead creative writing or storytelling workshops in the past:

Don't forget to consider querying local museums, libraries, and (if a comfortable fit) churches or centers for faith-based gathering as well.


Okay, okay. So maybe I don't have to go into academia to satisfy my love of teaching. What do I do instead to pay the bills?

If you think you don't have options beyond academia, please understand, that's not evidence of a limited capacity or skill-set on your part. That's an institutional failure to think outside the models at hand; meaning, most of your mentors are they themselves in academia, and have been for at least 5-10 years, if not their entire professional lives. Remember, you came to an MFA program because you wanted to write and publish books, right? Choose the job that sustains that goal. 

Here are three ways that non-academic jobs may actually be better suited to nourishing your writing-career aspirations:

-The job has clearly defined hours from which you can can clock out, versus the constant "I should be prepping..." The emotional stakes are typically lower; yes, you may stress to meet a proofing deadline or make a big presentation, but you won't have the well-being of students on your mind. At-office jobs may provide infrastructure resources (e.g., printing, internet) that you can occasionally divert towards your own projects. Academia loves to talk about funding attendance to conferences, but it's rarely enough to offset the full cost of a trip, whereas if you travel for business outside academia they will take responsibility for the full docket of expenses (and you still get to do a little sightseeing on the side). 

-Vacation weeks can be taken year-round in non-academic jobs whereas, in academia, your "time off" is attached to very particular and inflexible seasonal windows. Those are the same seasonal windows that every other academic applying to artist colonies and residencies are requesting, which makes those periods hyper-competitive. If you get an opportunity whose duration exceeds your available vacation days, and you've been working at the company for more than a year, consider presenting your notification of acceptance with a thoughtful request for additional days as unpaid leave; this may be a viable option, especially if you're willing to be available for emergency contact if needed. 

-You're organically doing "research" outside the realm of literature, which can provide the grist of settings and subjects for your manuscripts. Building a creative landscape on the pedagogy of learning is challenging to do in interesting ways; drawing on the lives of your students, when building characters, poses deep ethical concerns. In contrast, there's a bold tradition of situating stories in non-academic labor landscapes and, even if your office setting isn't dynamic, you'll benefit from the variety of life experience you pick up on in conversation with work colleagues. Any job that expands your vocabulary--whether by introducing the dictions of science, tech, medicine, law, even economics--is a net gain.

If you're reading this as a graduate student local to DC, I'd like to amplify: please consider staying! This area is unusually deep and varied in terms of these kinds of non-academic opportunities for employment in writing and editing. For example: federal and city government and funded-initiative offices (i.e., Golden Triangle or SWBid),  advocacy non-profits, science and tech organizations with national membership and DC headquarters, plus straightforward media organizations such as The Washington Post, NPR, National Geographic Society, and The Atlantic.

How do I find these jobs in writing and editing?

As a starting place, try Indeed and Idealist, searching using key terms such as "writer" and "editor." If a job asks for 1-2 years of professional experience and you didn't work during your MFA years, don't be afraid to apply anyway. Those kinds of stipulations are just meant to ward off completely unqualified candidates; if you're a match in other ways, and you have a good interview, they'll trust that your learning curve will be sufficient for you to catch up. (If they're requesting 3-5 years, don't apply unless you have legitimate professional experience you can cite, though you can be liberal in teasing out "writing and editing" from a previous job that was not explicitly labeled as such, such as grant development or paralegal work.)

What do I need to be prepared to apply for these jobs?

-A resume of one page that leads with professional experience, then education history, then other skills such as languages and office software proficiencies. You can add characterizing language under the professional experience, typically 2-3 bullet points of descriptive language. Emphasize strong and active verbs, yet drop the "I" whenever possible; may read as a fragment, but that's okay. Play up any significant scales in terms of budget or populations served. (That said, keep your multi-page CV up to date! They are so, so hard to create later if you do come back to academia, especially in terms of tracking real-time readings and journal publications. Trust me, this was my hard-earned lesson.)

-Be familiar with the likely format of any "tryout." In terms of writing tests, they probably don't want to see that ten-page essay with MLA citations that you wrote. They probably want to see a 500-1200 word sample press release or blog post that reflects the vocabulary of the organization, with straightforward syntax and language that is musical but not self-indulgent. Hold off on the metaphors and similes for now. If you receive a proofing test, anticipate a letter to shareholders, a white paper (a particular type of in-depth report associated with non-profits), or a case study. Here's a couple of round-ups of exemplar case studies:

...You'll be expected to provide both objective corrections, fixing typos and grammar, as well as subjective style considerations around syntax, formatting, and diction.

-References (but not letters, thankfully). If your references are former professors, give them a heads-up so they know to praise the appropriate qualities. If you did something outside the classroom that is relevant--such as working with the school-hosted literary journal--make sure they know your scope of experience so that they don't default to discussing "scholarship" and "creative talent." Those great qualities may be be counter-productive to emphasize here; you don't want the employer to be scared off by wondering if you'll stay.

Wait. Back to that editing test; I don't have the chops! What am I going to do?

Well, you gotta learn if you want to make money as a professional writer and editor. There's no way around that. I'm not saying that your creative work needs to hew to the rules of Western colonialist culture; there's all kinds of good arguments contrary to that kind of absolutism. But there are few downsides to having a broad array of tools at your disposal, so think of this as a tool you're taking the time to acquire. (Also, this was going to come up if you stayed on the American academic track, anyway.) Fortunately, there are a couple of reasonably priced resources for online learning of professional writing, field-specific copywriting, and editing. Approach these classes the same way you'd take a chance on a Duolingo course:

If you want a litmus test of copyediting skills, the New York Times did a series of fun, fast, and free "Copy Edit This!" quizzes spanning 2016-2019, seventeen of them in all.*

(*Now that you know the title convention, you can search out the ones in-between.)

The good news is, you probably have all kinds of intuitive skills that you regularly apply--and take for granted. They just need a little sharpening. 

MFA students, I am rooting for you. I believe that a 2- or 3-year program, whether residential or low-res, can provide a real and specific good of sowing the seeds of a creative writing pursuit. Anyone who says the MFA is a dying degree, due to the ascent of the PhD in creative writing, is myopically focused on the belief that graduate degrees in creative writing should lead to a full-time teaching job. There are other paths! Paths that are open and waiting and (dare I say it) may even be a lot more humane and nourishing to you as a writer. 

Go get 'em. 


In other news: I'm here, waving from DC, as I do from time to time. Won a prize! (Yay, seriously yay.) Was a finalist for another prize. Working on a proposal for the next book. Wrote a thing for American Poets on T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land. The paperback edition of Made to Explode will be out in December. Come March 2023, I'm going to be part of an AWP panel in Seattle that is getting the support of livestream, captioning, and ASL interpretation, which makes me very happy. I am both teaching at American University, and not-teaching (e.g., freelancing) with a pretty great company called the Maestro Group, a company that has ties to my high school, and which invites me to write funky blog posts for them such as this series:

In closing, I'll give you a snapshot of Sal the Wonder Cat, just because. 

A black-and-white cat is fully stretched out on a green carpet, besides a partially visible blue couch.

Sal is also rooting for you, always, especially if you have kibble to share.

August 20, 2022

Buckle Up

When opening the Blogger interface, I am struck by how much things have changed. Hello, hello out there. Is this thing on? I think, as well, about my footprint of "SBeasley" and "SandraBeasley" across the web. If the internet is around in a hundred years (assuming civilization as we recognize it is around in a hundred years), generations that come after us may consider it wildly shortsighted that we were allowed to claim whole internet domains and social media spaces simply by way of being the first person, with a particular name, to think of seeking 

Or maybe the point is that there will always be newer platforms that create space for the next generation to stake their unique claim. 

I try to be reasonably tidy in terms of my internet presence in terms of website, Facebook, and Twitter. The two outliers are Instagram--newest platform for me, and I'm not sure how I want to use it--and this blog, oldest platform for me, and I'm not sure how I want to use it. (In this respect, Janet Fitch is a kindred spirit.) Today, I'm just bulletin-boarding my 2022. 

In order to explain 2022, I have to rewind and explain the years prior, specifically the academic years. The simple version of the story is that I got to serve as American University's Visiting Writer in Residence for AY 2020-2021, and 2021-2022. What I loved about my time was leading the graduate workshops in creative nonfiction, advising MFA students on their thesis work, teaching a LIT 215 undergraduate course called "Writers in Print and Person" (a class I've had an adjunct relationship with going back to 2014), and learning to teach LIT 107, the "Intro to Creative Writing" class that spans all genres. 

I have never had the security of a multi-year contract in teaching, much less a tenure-track job, which makes it harder to measure pedagogical growth. But I used this sustained appointment to adopt a contract grading policy for undergraduate teaching, with an emphasis on equity; to re-invent my workshop technique with graduate students, abolishing any "cone of silence" tradition; and to conceptualize a 300-level literature class, "The Ethics of Writing Creatively," which was ultimately approved to fulfill AU CORE's Ethical Reasoning requirement. 

Wait; I came here for a chick who digs poetry, not a chick who digs teaching. 

Teaching fuels the poetry, I promise. But it's also true that publishing a book of poetry during a pandemic is really hard! I haven't gotten to do many readings for Made to Explode since it was published in February 2021. The paperback edition of Made to Explode will be out in December of this year, and I hope that gives the collection a second chance to make it into reader's hands, and maybe even people's classrooms. In the meantime, my spirits were considerably lifted by learning that the Library of Virginia has named the book one of three finalists for the 25th Annual Literary Awards, in the poetry category. Alongside books by Tina Parker and Rita Dove (mentor & hero, no pressure). 

The pandemic has made it difficult to think expansively over these past few years. Our emphasis has been on hunkering down and surviving. But I came into the summer with something like Big Hope, in part because a next nonfiction book (a collection of essays in unconventional forms) has been coming into focus. After the brief spring "tests" of driving first to AWP in Philadelphia back in March, then a literary festival at Clemson University, I lined up substantive summer travel in the form of two residencies--first ten days at A.I.R. Studio in Paducah, Kentucky, and then all of June at the Storyknife Writers Retreat in Homer, Alaska. Both offered responsible options for quarantining (if needed) and staying safe, while also furnishing the community I've craved.

Those residencies were amazing. Full stop. Storyknife, in particular--we were on the Ring of Fire, with volcanos on the horizon! in the solstice season, meaning, 20 hours of light a day! six women writers, gathering around a dinner table!--took my breath away. 

Wooden rail in foreground, as part of back patio view; Alaska landscape with waterline and pine trees, bright sun mid-sky.
8 PM Sky in Homer, Alaska (July)

Office view, showing a small desk pulled to a window--vase with flowers on the sill. Window view shows Alaskan landscape at mid-day, water and pines. Office decor includes roller chair, lamps, and purple comfy chair..
Evangeline Cabin Studio Desk

View of a back patio to main cabin, with six green adirondack chairs and empty planter boxes. Two green cabins with white trim and brown roofs in mid-background. Landscape of pines in distant background.
Residents' Deck of the Main Cabin

Dining table, modern, with six chairs. Flowers on the table, persian rug beneath. Windows behind chairs show view of Alaska landscape, with pines, at mid-day.
Communal Meal Table in the Main Cabin

Evening sky, sunset colors ranging from pinks to blues, Alaskan landscape with pines and mowed grass in foreground.
8 PM Sky in Homer, Alaska (July)

I used my time at these two residencies to read, write, and refresh. So there's no easy way to segue to what came next: on my last full day in Alaska, I got the call that my husband was in the hospital back in our home of Washington, D.C. He spent most of July in the ICU. Now we're wrapping our heads around what comes next. I had to resign my Visiting Writer-in-Residence position at American University for Fall 2022. I had to defer a plan to join the faculty of the University of Nebraska's low-res MFA. I have no choice but to slow down, to be present in the moment, and to be grateful for the company I'm keeping. (And, in a brief nod to the fickle cruelties of the American medical system: to remember, money isn't real.) 

That's the thing about life--it keeps changing, right out from under us. 

January 11, 2022

January Jump

When I opened my laptop at the end of December, determined to post to this blog once more before the close of the year--well, that's how I found out Betty White had died. I thought, Nope, see you in 2022. I closed the laptop's cover. If you've struggled with social media for this past year, I get it. I've needed to go silent for long periods. That's particularly painful when the pandemic hasn't given us a chance to connect in other ways, because it can feel like damned-if-you-do, erased-if-you-don't. But I'm grateful because when I look back at the second half of 2021, I spot bright glimmers of living, of pleasures taken, seized in a time that felt dark. 

I went to Nationals games, mostly with my dad, and we cheered when the team was good and hung on even when they were terrible, having traded away almost all our star power. The cactus in our bedroom bloomed a half-dozen times. Sal the Wonder Cat kept us amused, though for a stretch we had to refocus on his critical care--a crisis he came through thanks to Marshall Veterinary Clinic and VCA SouthPaws. 

We took advantage of the post-vaccine, pre-variant lull to visit friends in Maine; one of them, Maureen Thorson (pictured distantly on the shore), has a great poetry collection coming out next month called Share the Wealth. We went sailing and ate many oysters. Their house backs up against a stunning Audobon preserve. 

The day before fall classes started at American University, my husband and I day-tripped down to the Annmarie Sculpture Garden & Arts Center--the planned part--and added on a dusk hike to Calvert Cliffs--the unplanned part. My semester was good but busy. I instituted contract grading, which is a larger conversation I'd like to have; not sure if this blog is the place to do it. I had very few chances to gather in-person with writers, which is usually a big part of why I teach, but we did have a lovely reading at GoodWood on U Street. That doubled as a chance to say goodbye to longtime local fiction writer Leslie Pietrzyk, who moved down to North Carolina. Fortunately I think she'll be back to visit because her new story collection, Admit This to No One, is all about DC.

My one bit of book-travel was for Lit Youngstown, and poet Teri Ellen Cross Davis was a much-needed passenger for the long drive to Ohio. I got to give a lecture on the golden shovel as a form, and introduce Jan Beatty for the closing night reading. The unexpected gift was a painting by Kelly Bancroft inspired by my prose poem, "Cherry Tree Rebellion."

Our neighborhood is right by the water, and I've tried to take advantage of that--there's no quicker lift to my spirits than a walk along Hains Point, and for many months a free jitney ran back and forth across the Potomac Channel for the sake of the neighborhood. The Wharf restaurants are too expensive to visit regularly, but one quiet afternoon I treated myself a a Vesper and worked on an essay collection. 

I'm very ready for the new year. Let's be honest, that exactly what I said at the end of 2020. 2021 did right by me in many ways. I put out my fourth collection of poems, Made to Explode, and had work appear in three anthologies. My family got to celebrate my sister's wedding in October at Glen Echo, and we managed to safely host my husband's family for Thanksgiving; these are immeasurable gifts. And yet I'm ready, I'm ready, and daring to be optimistic. I hope you are too.