Dispatches | December 23, 2009

“My mother kept telling me nobody wanted a plain English major. But an English major who knew shorthand was something else again. Everybody would want her,” says Esther in The Bell Jar.

I was reminded of Esther’s self-questioning a few evenings ago when I got together with several of our interns and poetry editor to review Editors’ Prize contest submissions.

One of the poetry interns was graduating in December to return home to an uncertain future. He wanted to go to law school but didn’t have the money. He thought he might enlist in the military. The other two had sent out graduate school applications and were waiting to hear if they were admitted for fall.

All three had what you might call “buyer’s remorse.” They openly wondered where an English degree from a state university would get them. The figured, at worst Mom and Dad’s basement and a counter-culture career, at best more school and, if they were lucky, a teaching job.
One regretted not going to J-school. Another thought he should’ve gotten a teaching certificate. All of them knew how to write decent papers for class, but wondered what explicating a text had to do with the “real world.”

I told them if they knew how to write they were already ahead of the competition on the job market. I said, “Writing and editing is a valuable commodity. Employers are desperate for workers who can put together a sentence.”

One of them admitted that he wasn’t even sure he was such a great writer.

We passed the bottle of wine and refilled our glasses.

Twenty years earlier, I was one of five who graduated from my small liberal arts college with a BA in English. Most of my classmates had BS’s in business management and computer science and were going onto jobs as soon as they turned in their caps and gowns. My career trajectory was slow and roundabout, but somehow I had ended up with the work that I wanted: writing, teaching and editing. Looking back, I made my way by accepting little bits of work that became increasingly steady and higher paying. Rather than talent, I’ve always had a simple willingness to work.

I know our three poetry interns will be fine. It will simply take them awhile to find their ways. In the meantime, I know where you can find three bright, funny, and energetic English majors for hire. Will work cheap.

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