January’s Writer of the Month was J.G. McClure, who read his poem “The Cat” to the crowd at the Colony Club in Washington, D.C.
Passenger – What do you do for a living?
J.G. McClure – I work for a small consulting firm, helping businesses manage, design, edit, format, and publish large, multi-author technical and sales documents. In other words, a very officey office job.
P – How do you balance your professional life with your creative life?
JGM – If I ever figure that one out, I’ll let you know. My writing process has always been sporadic—a few weeks of furious writing, followed by many weeks of nothing. That’s only gotten worse since completing my MFA program a couple years back—without that constant accountability, it’s hard to hold yourself to writing at all. That said, I’m not sure how much to attribute to the change in environment, and how much to attribute to having completed my first book. (Shameless plug: The Fire Lit & Nearing, coming late 2017 – early 2018 from Indolent Books). Now that the project is done, there’s a difficulty in knowing where to start with a new one.
P – How does your professional life influence or inform your writing?
JGM – Businesspeople love to talk about deliverables, the concrete results you will produce through your work. Lately I’ve been trying to apply that to writing. To borrow a bit more jargon, “Be a World Renowned Poet of Devastating Insight and Dazzling Genius” isn’t exactly actionable. So I’m trying to set clearly defined projects for myself. Right now I’m working on translating a book of Spanish-language poems by an old friend/professor of mine. I also started the world’s first literary magazine curated by my cat (The Z-Cat Review) but alas, no submissions so far.
P – How did your MFA program prepare you for the realities of being a writer and a professional? If your program did not provide any guidance, what do you wish your program had done to better prepare you?
JGM – The thing is, nobody decides to get an MFA in order to be more marketable to businesses. If that’s what you’re after, you’d be much better served by an MBA program, or a law degree, or pretty much any other degree you can think of. The unique value of the MFA is that it allows time to focus on reading and writing literature—not on selling it, not on “developing core competencies” or “leveraging differentiators”—but on the perfectly useless (insofar as capitalism is concerned) pursuit of making better art.
There is, however, a dark side to that indifference to the “real world.” Anyone who’s spent time in higher education—especially in the Humanities—knows the unspoken understanding: to take any job besides a tenure-track professorship is to fail, the only exception being “paying your dues” through adjuncting—“temporarily,” of course. Universities depend on this: if it weren’t for the legions of MFAs and PhDs willing to work ultra-demanding, zero-security adjunct jobs for a pittance, the whole enterprise would collapse for lack of cheap labor. We go along with it because of the hazy promise of future rewards: never mind the statistics, never mind the collapse of funding for the Humanities or the increasing corporatization of higher ed—I’m smarter, more special; I’ll be the one who makes it. To paraphrase Steinbeck: there’s no such thing as permanent adjuncts—only temporarily embarrassed Department Chairs.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying that although I wish the culture of academia were such that alternative careers were seen as a respectable option, I don’t feel that my MFA program failed to prepare me for my professional career—that simply wasn’t the program’s job. (Nonetheless, as an incidental bonus, I’ve found that the degree and the skills I picked up while acquiring it have in fact helped me professionally.)
What I would have liked to see, though, would be at least an intro to the publishing landscape. While I understand—and for the most part, defend— the desire to focus solely on the writing itself, publishing just is a huge part of a writer’s career, and one that’s seldom addressed. If your MFA program isn’t going to help you figure it out, who is? I’m not at all advocating a change in focus for MFA programs; I’m thinking more along the lines of a one-credit-hour crash course in best practices.
J.G. McClure holds an MFA from the University of California – Irvine. His poems and prose appear in Best New Poets 2015, Gettysburg Review, and Green Mountains Review, among others. His first collection, The Fire Lit & Nearing, is forthcoming from Indolent Books.