Proverbial Feet, Herculean Feats, and a Brilliant New Blog: An Interview with Leah Falk of MFADayJob.com

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frost-marathonLeah Falk and I once ran from Detroit to Canada.

If that feat sounds Herculean, well, it only sort of is; in less sensational terms, we ran the Detroit Half Marathon, two miles of which are spent going back and forth across the Ambassador Bridge and through the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel, respectively.

Fun fact about this race: the tunnel mile is typically each runner’s fastest. Yet paradoxically, in my experience, the tunnel is also the easiest mile. The extrinsic motivators—the cramped quarters, the potent mix of competitiveness and camaraderie, the shared desire to get out of the tunnel as fast as possible—all conspire to make speeding up effortless.

Which, doubly paradoxically, kind of makes you wish that the tunnel would last forever.

The tunnel, in other words, is kind of like another adventure I shared with Leah Falk: going through an MFA program in poetry.

Okay, so that metaphor would probably get vetoed in workshop. But since I’ve already graduated from my MFA program, I don’t have to worry about workshop anymore! I’ve just run the fastest, easiest mile of my poetic career, and it was productive and inspiring and exhausting and exhilarating and claustrophobic and occasionally sweaty, and now I’m…in Canada? The tunnel was lovely, dark and deep, but I have blisters on my proverbial feet, and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep…

Which brings me back to Leah Falk, whose latest Herculean feat is the brilliantly conceived, thoughtfully curated, and terrifyingly relevant MFA Day Job, a blog devoted to exploring the question: what comes after the tunnel? The MFA may be a “terminal degree,” but its certainly not a terminal career move; MFA Day Job aims to shed light on the vast and varied post-MFA paths we writers have forged for ourselves, with a particular (and welcome!) emphasis on unorthodox paths that stray from academia.

After the break, I talk to Falk about all things blogs and jobs…

What was the inspiration for MFA Day Job?

The inspiration was twofold: as I mention on the site, one of my professors at U of M organized a panel on “alternate careers” (i.e. non-academic) for MFAs. It struck me that the people on the panel were not examples of where an MFA could lead so much as examples of the personalities and collections of traits of people who were likely to pursue MFAs in the first place: creative, and willing to invent and pursue their own projects.

There’s a misconception that the MFA is like any other graduate degree—that it automatically allows a certain next step in a particular career path. This just isn’t broadly true anymore, if it ever was. I wanted to start a site that focused on those interesting people and what they made possible in their professional lives, not what the degree makes possible on its own.

The other inspiration was the knowledge that I, too, need a day job! Finishing an MFA program, you’re hit very quickly with the reality of the market: how competitive it is to get any kind of academic job, how unlikely tenure-track is, and how many writers there are out there making a go of it some other way.

What’s been the most surprising interview moment/insight? 

All of the interviews have been unique, and I’m amazed by the range of ways people balance their work and writing. But I think I am most surprised by how many of the people I’ve interviewed so far really like their day jobs, even those that fall farthest from writing.

Why did you decide to go for your MFA? 

I had been staunchly anti-MFA for a moment or two in college, when I believed there was such a thing as a monolithic “academic poet” and I didn’t want to be one. I came around for the same reason many people do: there aren’t many other opportunities to write uninterrupted for three years. I had been working in messy environments for several years, and felt ready for the relatively clean life of a student. (I had changed my mind, by then, about “academic” poets—who are just poets that wear jeans and blazers).

Do you think MFA programs should/could incorporate other vocational training, besides teaching? What/how?

This is a great question. I think some MFA programs have been wondering this for a while—hence the prevalence of things like editorial internships, writers-in-the-schools programs, etc. It would be wonderful to see MFA programs that helped students make connections that weren’t strictly literary: internships (or other experience) in development, marketing, arts management, event planning, teaching below the college level… These are all components of jobs that writers who don’t work in academe sometimes get.

What’s the ideal job for you and/or for MFAs? 

Brad Cran, a Canadian poet who’s coming up on the site, has been quoted as saying that the two best jobs for a writer are accountant and insurance agent. This is supposed to be because each takes relatively little extra education, is repetitive and makes good money.

I think the ideal job for me/other MFAs depends on how much we want to keep writing, and what the balance between writing and living looks like. I learned a few years ago that working a super repetitive job dulls my creative brain; other people find that it sets them free to think about their work.

Historically, there seems to be no one ideal job for writers. I’ve started to feature “day and night jobs of famous writers” on the site, and am always surprised by how people like Faulkner and Richard Hugo paid the bills (night watchman and pushing papers for Boeing, respectively).

What are your goals for MFA Day Job? 

I’d like to see the site become a place people go to hear other writers’ reflections: on how certain jobs influence writing or allow writing to stay separate; on how it feels to balance writing and other tasks without the recognition that writers in academia sometimes enjoy. I’m also interested in making it a hub for interesting job listings, calls for submissions, and discussions about the arts and humanities in general. And if anyone wants to offer me a book deal, I won’t say no.