What do you do for a living?
I’m an English professor, writer, and poetry editor. To me, these are all connected, so I see them all as what I “do for a living” even though being an English professor is what “pays the bills.”
How would you describe what you do?
As an English professor, I teach people how to write. As a writer, I create my own work, and as an editor, I decide which work that others send to me is going to be published in Contrary Magazine (http://contrarymagazine.com) . I also do some freelance editing on manuscripts for writers before they send their books out to publishers and some other “odd jobs” like judging writing competitions and guest teaching workshops.
What does your work entail?
The fun part of teaching college English is reading all of the material that you love and seeing others find an appreciation for it, too. There are great class discussions and really insightful students. The worst part is the grading. My life is a never-ending pile of grading. During Finals Week, I’ve been known to pull all-nighters to get grades turned in on time.
Here is where everything starts to meld together. Most writers of mainstream literary fiction and poetry have to do something else to make a living. A lot of them teach college English because you get to immerse yourself in the culture of reading and writing. Of course, most English professors wish they had more time to read and write, but it is a career where you’re encouraged (and paid) to go to things like writers’ conferences or where you can sit at your desk and read during office hours and no one wonders what you’re doing or accuses you of “wasting time.”
Then, once you’ve reach a certain level of prominence or confidence as a writer, you usually end up editing. You’re then in a place to choose what work is going to be published or what in it needs to be fixed before it can be published.
What’s a typical work week like?
I have a heavy teaching load at my college. We’re on the quarter system, so I teach four four-credit courses per quarter, three quarters of the year. There’s a statistic that you spend about four hours outside of the classroom grading and prepping for each hour of teaching time in the classroom. So this means I grade or prep forty-eight hours a week plus teaching sixteen hours a week, which equals a sixty-four hour work week. Luckily, a lot of it can be done from home or from anywhere with an internet connection.
Contrary Magazine is a quarterly magazine, which means that it comes out four times a year, so there’s really only crunch time four times a year. I could spread it all out over the year, but, like a lot of writer/artist type people, I’m a procrastinator. So the week before all of the decisions need to be made, I read all of the poems that have been submitted and put them into YES and NO piles. (Everything is online now, so these are “virtual” piles.) I used to do this all by myself, but now I have an amazing assistant editor who reads all of the poems and sends me what he thinks are YES’s, and then I narrow down from those. So, he really does about 90% of the work for me now.
As far as writing, I try to write whenever I can. I especially make sure to write in class if my students are writing. When we do a poetry prompt in class, I write poetry; when we do a fiction prompt, I write fiction.
What do you like about what you do?
I like that I get to spend time introducing students to works of literature that I fell in love with and seeing them fall in love with them. I like helping students become published writers. As far as publishing other writers, I love discovering a new writer or a poem that has that magical something that takes your breath away, and I love nominating poets for writing awards. It’s really exciting to tell someone that you have just nominated them for Best New Poets or Best of the Web or something like that.
Even though I work like crazy during the school year, even if I teach summer classes, I still get six weeks off in the summer and all of the regular school holidays. This summer, I didn’t teach summer classes, so I get something like twelve or thirteen weeks off. During time off, I try to do challenges like “write a poem a day” or something to get my own work jumpstarted.
What do you dislike?
There is so much grading during the school year that it’s hard to stay sane. I have come up with grading policies that if a paper has a certain number of mistakes, I’ll just stop grading it, and the student can either rewrite it or take an F.
As far as being an editor, now that I have an Assistant Editor, I have no complaints. The work load is really manageable.
One thing that is difficult is that although professors make decent money, it’s a heavy work-load, and you’ll be paying off student loans forever. I had to get two graduate degrees to get my job, so I’m on a student loan payment plan until I’m 55 years old.
How do you make money/or how are you compensated?
My current teaching contract for this year, I make a little over $60,000. I’ve been teaching college for thirteen years, and I’m near the top of the pay scale, so I won’t be making much more other than a few small raises and cost-of-living increases. As far as editing clients, I try to edit for money ($300 for a fifty-page manuscript), but sometimes someone will send me a painting or homemade hot sauce (Yes, I will work for hot sauce), or we’ll edit each other’s books.
How much money do Poetry Editors make?
Poetry Editors don’t make money. You do it as a labor of love. That’s generally why poetry editors are actually professors at colleges and universities and do poetry editing as part of their other “job-related duties.” There are a few full-time poetry editors, but I don’t think it’s a career you can really set out for. You should probably become an English professor, and then, if one of those rare editor opportunities that pays opens up, you’ll be prepared for it.
As a professor, I started out making in the mid-$30,000s, and I think the highest the pay scale goes at my school is the mid-$70,000s. Of course, I live in a low cost of living area, so it’s not a bad salary.
As far as a writer, I don’t really make money as a writer. I get a small royalty check each time someone buys my book, but it’s not like I’m a writer whose books have movies made of them, etc.
How much money did/do you make starting out?
My first professorship, I think I made in the mid-$30,000s. That was quite a while back, so things may have changed a little bit. Of course, a lot of your considerations aren’t just about money but time. Some schools pay less, but you might be teaching half as much as I do.
What education, schooling, or skills are needed to do this?
To teach at a community college, you need at least a Master’s degree, but it’s very competitive, so many people now are getting PhD’s. To edit, you don’t necessarily need a certain degree, but you need to have had work published. In order to decide what work should be published, you should have experience writing and getting that work published. I have an MFA in Creative Writing, so that helps a lot, and I have one book which came out in January of 2009 and another which will be out in March of 2013. Both are poetry collections. I also have a publisher waiting for me to finish a fiction collection.
Before you have had work published, you can volunteer to be an assistant editor or a “first reader” for your high school or college literary journal. Basically, this means you’ll be the person who gives a “first read” to the submissions and then puts them in “yes” and “no” piles, and then they go on to a more experienced editor or reader who will make a final decision after you weed out the really bad stuff.
What is most challenging about what you do?
I would have to say time management because it is all self-directed. As a professor, you have to decide what the assignments are and when they are due and figure out when to grade them all. The only deadline set by anyone else would be when Finals Week is and when grades are due (or possibly mid-term week, depending on your school).
As an editor, you have to get all of the work done either for your magazine or for your clients by deadline. If work piles up, you just have to go without sleep or a social (or family) life until it gets done.
Being a writer is, perhaps, the most self-directed. No one is standing over you making you do it; you have to “show up” for work and get the words on the page. I have a book-length manuscript to get to my publisher in December so that my book can come out in March. It’s all my responsibility.
What is most rewarding?
As a professor, I love seeing my students think in new ways, and I love seeing where they go in life. Quite a few of my former students teach college already, and many are published authors. It’s really exciting to have helped them on that path.
One of my former students, who is a very talented writer, had the first essay she ever wrote for college published in The Los Angeles Review. That was really exciting.
As an editor, I love discovering new writers and helping writers find their way. I nominated a poet for Best New Poets, and her work was sort of “discovered” there, and now we have the same publisher. I love helping people make connections like that.
As a writer, having a book come out is very rewarding. The first time you hold a copy of your book in your hands, it’s seriously like holding your new baby. It might be better because you’re not drugged at the time.
What advice would you offer someone considering this career?
Be realistic that you’re not going to make much money (in the grand scheme of things), but know that there are things that are more important than money. You’ll get to meet amazing people who care about literature and ideas and writing. You’ll get a lot of perks that other careers don’t offer, which more than make up for the money.
How much time off do you get/take?
I don’t get “vacation time” off per se since I get the entire summer off and all school holidays.
What is a common misconception people have about what you do?
Some people think that I make a lot more money than I do. Other people think that professors don’t really work hard because they know you only spend (in my case) sixteen hours a week in the classroom. They don’t realize that grading is its own full-time job.
A lot of people also think that I get paid to be a poetry editor. I don’t. I just do it because I believe in poetry. I once did a career day at a junior high and students asked how much money I make from the magazine I founded. I asked them to guess, and they guessed $50,000 a year. I’ve made $34 since 2003.
What are your goals/dreams for the future?
I pretty much want to just keep doing what I’m doing. I want to be the best professor, editor, and writer I can be.
I’m working on my second poetry book. I get that manuscript to my publisher in December, and then my book comes out in March, and then I’ll concentrate on my fiction manuscript. I’m just going to keep trucking along, and hopefully good things will keep happening along the way.
What else would you like people to know about your job/career?
I would want people to know that it’s worth it. You might have to sacrifice a lot and wait to have children until you’re in your mid-thirties or later (because graduate school and securing a job is really demanding), but it’s a great career. You have fun at work every day (well, maybe not when you’re grading all night during Finals Week, but other than that).
Other than the grading, I would do it for free. I get to hang out all day and talk about literature. I can’t imagine a better career.
As far as editing, I read poems and decide which ones go into a magazine, and I get to nominate people for literary awards. What’s not to love about that?
Writing is amazing when it’s going well. You have a brilliant idea, and you’re on fire with it, and you keep going. There are other times when you’re sure you’ve been all wrong, and you’re an idiot, and you’re writing the worst thing ever. You just have to work through those times and have faith in yourself. I once heard a quote, “Writers are the only adults who get to stay home all day in their pajamas and play with their imaginary friends.” Now, most writers have to have another career, so they can’t do that ALL day, but if you can do that any day, it’s not a bad life.