With the end of the spring semester, there is a new batch of freshly minted graduates of the University of Missouri. Which means there is a new batch of anxiety about what to do after graduation. Around our offices, the bulk of our graduating students have majored in English, and have aspirations of working in publishing, or being writers, or teaching (often abroad, or anywhere that isn’t Missouri), or some other nebulous concept that revolves around the printed word. All the excitement of finally graduating college and, for the first time since kindergarten, not having to go to school of gives way to the existential question of “Okay, now what?”
Weirdly, the anxiety isn’t all that different from graduates of MFA programs. These graduate students are inherently older, some by a few years, some by many years. And being a bit older, there are often other more complicated factors: careers put on hold or new careers started; family to consider, whether its your own parents or being a parent; envy of your friends that might have gone to the “real world” and are already having children and paying off home mortgages; life as an adjunct—even if a temporary one—staring you in the face.
A few months ago, I wrote about the “off-year” from undergraduate to graduate school, which for me became three years not one. All that still holds. But that just got me from one degree to the next. What about after that? One of my friends who works as an editor at one of the Big Six publishing firms told me that no one every grows up wanting to be an editor (I wonder if that’s true, actually, but another time on that topic …). I’ve had a few conversations with students who have wondered how I got this position with The Missouri Review, maybe out of politeness, maybe out of genuine curiosity. How, exactly, did I end up here?
My first experience with literary magazines was in graduate school. Natural Bridge, out of the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is primarily student run. There is a rotating “guest editor” made up of the faculty on the MFA program, a managing editor who is a graduate student, and then a class (“Literary Journal Editing” is what I think it’s called) made up of graduate students who read all the manuscripts. I took the class because my friends were also taking the class and I got to read a bunch of stories. That was it!
Anyway, post-literary editing class, I thought reading manuscripts was fun, and wanted to keep doing it. Sophiscitated thought process, right? I applied for a job at River Styx, a magazine out of St. Louis that was looking for a managing editor. It was a part time job, three days per week, twelve hours only … and I didn’t get the job. So, instead, I volunteered to read fiction manuscripts. Six months later, the managing editor quit, and Richard Newman, the magazine’s long-time editor, offered me the job, which I did for five years.
River Styx isn’t a big shop: it’s the editor, the managing editor, and a bunch of volunteers. And it was awesome. We were on the twelfth floor of a building that was a hodgepodge of city services. Arts organizations like River Styx shared a large open area on the twelfth floor: we were up there with the Bach Society, Springboard for Learning, Dance St. Louis, and a few organizations that had signs on the door but never seemed to have anyone there. The windows rattled on windy days. Once, the toilet overflowed (“geysered” seems like a better word), flooding our floor and the elevator shafts. We had used furniture. There was a smell.
Magazine editors do more than read manuscripts, a fact that now seems really obvious to me, but at the time I started with River Styx, I didn’t really know. There is the editing of the manuscript: most don’t come to any magazine perfect, and they all need copy edits, line edits, sometimes even developmental edits. Interns and volunteers need work to do: they need to be assigned tasks, and the person assigning those tasks (read: me) better know how to evaluate if the work is done right. Lots of mail: manuscripts, bills, taxes, query letters, withdrawals, requests for donations. I wrote grants, and discovered how that world works. Board meetings. Printer issues. The postal service. Distribution. Manuscripts got read when they could, but there was so much more that goes into running a magazine and keeping it relevant, keeping the world interested in you, then I realized. And I’m leaving a ton of stuff out.
All this while trying to write stories and my novel and teaching three classes per semester between Missouri-St. Louis and Washington University. Which is, to state the obvious, not nearly as hard as many other people have it.
Five years later, River Styx was in new digs at the Centene Center, and both dealing with the exact same issues and stronger than ever. My girlfriend and I made the move to the University of Missouri, one hundred miles west, for her to enter graduate school. My plan? To continue my adjunct teaching in St. Louis during the week, then drive back to Columbia on the weekend, and keep this up until I found something full time in my new town.
From my years in St. Louis, I knew quite a few poets and asked them who they knew in Columbia, who I could look up and say hi to. Oh, yeah, they said: look up my friend Katy Didden. Oh, yeah, look up my friend Darcy Holtgrave. Which I did, getting over my anxiety about emailing a total stranger out of the blue and asking if we could get a cup of coffee. Five minutes into that conversation, explaining who I was and what I was about, I was told that the managing editor at the Missouri Review had just left.
This might have been the easiest job letter to write ever. Dear TMR: I live in your town! I just moved here! Your people told me about the job! I love your magazine! I have experience! Lots! You should hire me, like, today!
And come January of 2010, I was TMR’s new managing editor.
This is a blog post, and a brief one (for me, at least), and there are about a hundred other things that happened over the course of those six years that got me here. But one of the things that I want to stress, that I’ve stressed to my students that have asked “How did you get here?” is that I had no plan. Really. It really came down to liking to read stories. Stories were found in manuscripts; manuscripts were mailed to journals; journals need staff. I didn’t want to write grants, manage a staff, think about circulation, fund raising, stuff like that. I just wanted to read. Discovering that all that other stuff is actually pretty interesting to (despite any groaning and moaning I might make on any given Tuesday morning) was accidental.
There’s not a road map. As a neat, organized person, I’m not always comfortable with this idea but it’s what I’ve found to be true over the last few years. Follow your passion, and things work out. Probably some Zen Buddhist stuff in there, but, well, you know.
I’m not sure where many of our current editors and interns who are leaving us will end up. They probably don’t know either. What I stress to them is to keep in touch—I can’t emphasis this enough—and to get involved in the literary community wherever they are. Maybe there’s a job. Maybe there’s an open mic, a reading series, a good bookstore. Whatever it is, come to it with enthusiasm, generosity, and true interest. You never know where it will lead.
Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye