Interview with A. Sandosharaj

Passenger is all about working writers, and not just those who write for a living. We are interested in learning how others balance their professional and creative lives, how they find the time to write, and how their writing is affected by their work. To explore these issues, we have partnered with the Inner Loop. Each month we will interview their Writer of the Month on the topic of work and writing, so check back here for more peeks into the lives of fellow writers.

May’s Writer of the Month was A. Sandosharaj, who read her nonfiction piece, “Natural Born Drivers,” to the crowd at the Colony Club in Washington, D.C.

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Passenger – What do you do for a living?

A. Sandosharaj – I teach writing at Georgetown University and also work for Books@Work, an organization that helps companies bring literature seminars to the workplace.

P – What challenges does your professional life present to your writing?

AS  Fortunately for me both of my jobs contribute to my creative goals, but one real challenge (as every instructor will tell you at length given the chance) is grading student work. I’m a big believer in the magical power of reading to impart style, form, syntax, etc (there’s the old MFA adage about reading ten writers to sound like everyone else vs reading a hundred writers to sound like yourself). Essentially, I believe you are who you read when it comes to being a writer. Considering the volume of pages I read by students who are often not (yet) serious about writing, I worry about inadvertently adopting undesirable patterns, or at least undoing what I’m deliberately trying to absorb. One way I combat this is by periodically interrupting grading with an essay from a good magazine or a page or two (or ten) of whatever book I’m reading.

P – How do you balance your professional life with your creative life?

AS  I’m incredibly lucky my professional life involves either writing or reading on a daily basis. What requires balancing is not my professional and creative life (they nourish each other) but balancing my life’s work with everything else: countless hours walking the dogs, taking unnecessary road trips, obsessing about sports.

P – How does your professional life influence or inform your writing?

AS  I’m not sure if my professional life influences my writing any more than anything else honestly. As a nonfiction writer especially, everything is game. I’ve written about academia and the classroom as well as about cubicles and commuting, and will probably write about Books@Work at some point, but none of that is different from writing about my father or colorism or the Washington Redskins. They’re all just batter for pancakes.

P – How has your writing influenced your professional life?

AS  I’d like to think it’s made me a more sympathetic professor. I know how overwhelming a blank screen can seem, I know the labor required to represent yourself on paper in a way that is recognizable, persuasive and enjoyable.  I also think being a writer has made me more observant overall, which is a useful quality for any occupation.

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A. Sandosharaj’s work has appeared in The Rumpus, The Millions, Southeast Review, Massachusetts Review, River Teeth, Fourth Genre, Subcontinental, American Literary Review, River City, Crab Orchard Review, Alligator Juniper, Addicted to Race, Racialicious, Story District, and Fiction is First. She has an MFA from the Ohio State University and a PhD from the University of Maryland.

Interview with Samuel Nelson

March’s Writer of the Month was Samuel Nelson, who read his essay, “Pissing at the Women’s March,” to the crowd at the Colony Club in Washington, D.C.

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Passenger – What do you do for a living?

Samuel Nelson – I’m a teacher. I teach reading to elementary school kids. I love teaching. It’s active, way more interesting than a desk job. You have to enjoy it to endure it because it will drain you. I’ve been in education for eight years across five different cities, and I think I’m coming up on my third burn-out. I admit I was nervous talking about it because most of my writing isn’t kid-friendly. But I don’t make them read my writing. We stick to Flat Stanley and Roald Dahl kind of stuff.

P – What challenges does your professional life present to your writing?

SM  Many. But all of those challenges are about time and energy. I get up around 5:30 am most days, and I’m reading books with kids while most people are still hitting the snooze alarm. I get home any time between 5 and 7 pm, and I’m tired. There are evenings that I put paper on my desk and write but there is no way for me to make it a routine.

P – How do you balance your professional life with your creative life?

SM  I don’t. Not the way I want to. I’ve tried to balance it for years. One year I quit full-time teaching in New Orleans, so I could spend my mornings freelancing and writing stories. I grew a lot as a writer. But I spent all my savings doing it (and then moved to Mexico). Another year I just gave up and stopped writing, except for some recreational journaling and napkin-scribbling. I find little ways to balance the two lives, filling up notebooks on summer vacations, getting creative in the free margins of my life. I encourage other teacher-writers to do the same. Just write when you can. But I’m not satisfied with that anymore. I don’t want the dichotomy of a professional life and a creative life. I want cohesion. And I want the morning to my selfish self. So I’ve been getting ready for the next big thing: I’m leaving the teacher life. No more Mr. Nelson.

I’m committing myself to the craft for six months after this school year and planning a sort of DIY residency—to drive around the country with a portable desk, and sew together some writing projects. It’s a risk. But I’m not going to get a damn thing done by being safe about my passion. The point is, though, there is little balance in the teacher life. Which sucks because teachers who live balanced lives—not to mention teachers who have time to engage the arts—are better teachers for their students.

P – How does your professional life influence or inform your writing?

SM  The way I approach students and relationships is the way I approach writing. I’m all about process, not product. I try to see a student where they’re at, right now, as opposed to who I think they are going to be or who I want them to be, although I fall trap to that mindset sometimes. I think we all do. The same goes for a story or an essay. You got to meet it where it’s at, and not get consumed by the illusory notion of a polished, publishable piece. Good stories never end up the way you think they will. You can’t control a good story; you guide it. Process.

The other thing is that the classroom is a dynamic place. I tell people I’m an elementary school teacher and they imagine a picture-perfect classroom community where kids finger-paint and share everything and idealism runs its pretty course towards prosperity for everyone. Or I tell someone I work in a public school in the city and they imagine the opposite—they try to paint a broad and racially uncomfortable picture of unruly misfortune, the way Trump paints Chicago. It makes me cringe. It’s neither. It can be beautiful but also raw. It can be full of ambiguity sometimes. It’s radically socialist in concept, and yet we’re preparing kids for a very different adult culture. It’s full of contradictions like that—some healthy, some not. But what’s very real is that we’re 25 dynamic little and big people in a small space together, in a process together. It’s different every time, every year, every day. That’s literature. And I hope to use my experience to put together a fiction book later on, maybe a sort of composite novel exercising the many perspectives in a school. Tamagotchis included. So we’ll see what happens.

P – How has your writing influenced your professional life?

SM  My approach to art and life and work is humanistic, although I’m guilty of a hardened heart some days. Writing and literature remind me to stay open and compassionate in my work. And vice-versa. But at this point in my career, every day I’m teaching I’m not writing. And I’m ready to try to make writing my professional life. If I fail, I’ll have to think again. Maybe I’ll become a Lyft driver. Or a hobo. Or a Lyft-driving hobo teacher. Later, I can say it was all part of the process.

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Samuel Nelson is a teacher and writer in Washington, D.C. ,although his impulsive restlessness has impelled him to live, teach, and write in many cities, more recently Pittsburgh, New Orleans, and Puebla, Mexico. He’s originally from Richmond, Virginia. He has published short-form fiction, non-fiction, and poetry in a smattering of small journals and publications, including Country Roads Magazine, Fiction Southeast, District Lines, and NOLA Defender.

Interview with J.G. McClure

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.

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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.

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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.