Going Astray from the Straight Road
By Michael Nye
Last week, my class talked with Cheston Knapp, the managing editor of Tin House. One of the only downsides of these Skype conversations is that the room gets incredibly hot. What we do is Skype through my laptop and hook it up to a projector, which puts the image of our out-of-town editor on a large pulldown presentation screen so that my class can see the editor. I crank the volume on the speakers up, and everyone in the room can hear and see the editor just fine. The editor, unfortunately, only gets my American Bulldog in a Tie face on the monitor rather than the entire class (after the first thirty minutes, students sit down in front of the monitor to ask their questions), so it’s not perfect, but it always goes pretty well nonetheless.
Anyway, if you’ve been reading my Internship in Publishing blog this year, you know the drill by now: because I ask the editors to speak candidly about their publishing work, I’m not going to divulge too much of what they say here. But there is one really important thing that Cheston shared that I want to talk about: his career path.
Cheston’s route to Tin House was a bit accidental. He graduated from William & Mary in 2004, stayed in Virginia for a year, then moved to Portland because he had a “oh, why not?” thought, and started interning at Tin House. None of this is a trade secret—a quick Google search will tell you this—but Cheston went into more detail about the How.
My path to TMR was a similar bit of organized confusion, one that I’ve written about in this space before. With it now being April, and the semester coming to a close, and graduation right around the corner for some of my students, this has been on my mind quite a bit. Like me, Cheston had a general idea of, somehow, writing, got more involved in publishing, and stayed with it, not because he’s climbing a career path, but because it seemed like fun, so, hey, why not?
A large part of the Internship in Publishing class is mentorship. Of course, there is is the work: reading manuscripts, walking through the stages of production of the magazine, etc. But an internship is, by definition, supposed to be on-the-job training in your field: what direction do I want my students to go? Writing, editing, and publishing (as much as these three fields can be separated) can be, though not necessarily, very different paths.
Most career advice seems to be “This is what I did, so you should too!” I took three years off between undergraduate and graduate school, so I think my students should, too. I earned an MFA, so a writer should earn an MFA. I didn’t plan on working for a literary magazine, so my students shouldn’t plan too either. Of course, there is the idea that the best advice is to not give any (that’s deep, yo!), but even implicitly, I think that how I got to TMR often seems to be an endorsement of that plan. And, more than once, I wonder if this is terrible advice for my students.
In all things writing related, the last fifteen years has been chaotic. Perhaps it is always this way. The new century has seen a massive shift toward big publishing consolidation, the rise of digital publishing and the alt-lit scene. MFA programs are now a bubble, like technology in 2001 and housing in 2008. And my students are more knowledgeable and sophisticated about these changes than I had been when I was leaving college.
No one does it your way. Not that they shouldn’t or won’t try to. There are probably some general wise moves to make—don’t piss everyone off, write more than once a month, read some books, and so forth—there isn’t one correct way to get wherever it is you’d like to end up. The lack of set rules may be a bit terrifying, especially those first steps in any given direction outside of school. But they’re crucial steps. This really just boils down to accepting risk. The world doesn’t have an outstanding road map for a young writer, but when you’re fully engaged in your own work, you’re always going to be able to make your mark. It’s nothing to fear, especially when taking a few steps off the beaten path is, always, inevitable.
Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye