In an effort to lighten up my blog (and to lighten up generally), I’ve chosen the relatively innocuous topic of my career. I think work histories are interesting. I hope mine is to you, but if you’re bored, just stop reading. That should be a rule for anything you read.
Tell me the story of your work. I would be interested to hear how my readers ended up in the careers they are in – or if you are out of work – what kind of job or career would you like to find yourself in when this economy provides you with more opportunity?
Although I like to consider myself a writer, I don’t write for a living. I work in business and have been doing so for more than 20 years. Here I present to you the twisty-turn-y journey of my career.*
I sat in the conference room the other day, listening to my coworkers as they discussed “COUNT,” and “MASTER” and “UMPH” and “OWL,” and how to apply automated security level reporting around these applications. Don’t know what I’m talking about? Well, as a member of this particular review team, I barely knew what I was talking about, so don’t feel too badly.
The conference room smelled moldy. When the building was constructed 10 years ago, it was built flawed. Moisture snuck in between the carpets and the floorboards and mold grew. The carpeting had to be ripped out of each floor, the floors sanded, and new industrial carpeting squares laid down. I don’t know whether the third floor didn’t receive this treatment or whether the moldy smell on this floor is a different problem. I’m surprised nobody calls OSHAto complain.
As the meeting droned on I began to feel disoriented. Half of my brain listened and responded to the highly specific and nearly indecipherable acronyms of my colleagues. The other half of my brain was startled: HOW DID I GET HERE, sitting in a moldy smelling conference room talking in a language we all invented amongst ourselves? Could I be further from what I initially envisioned for my career when I was a young woman – teaching and writing?
I held my very first job at Roxies Supermarket in Stoughton. The branch is now defunct, but during the 1970s it employed many of my fellow high school classmates. The first paycheck was for approximately $49, and I have never since received a pay check that made me feel so rich. In 1978 terms, $49 could still buy a lot, and at age 16 living at home, I had few expenses. I wish I could remember what I spend that money on: Doritos? Cigarettes at 67 cents a pack? Vinyl record albums: Santana, Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin? (I was so effing cool back then.)
Roxies did a lot for my educational aspirations. I was a cashier and worked up to 25 hours a week. It was my Roxie’s experience that made me decide to go to college. I decided to attend college based on one overriding career requirement: I wanted a job where I didn’t have to work on Saturdays. Well, two criteria: I also did not want to stand on my feet all day. I imagined college was my only road to such a lofty aspirations.
I completed a bachelor’s degree easily. Academics had always come easily, where other things came hard, nearly impossibly – like personal relationships, especially romantic ones. Academics were so simple by comparison. If I could just read and write about people and not have to kiss them and get into bed with them, I did just fine. (Sadly, this is still true of me to some extent. I like theoretical sex much more than real sex. All secrets revealed on Cindy’s blog tonight.)
I didn’t receive the greatest advice as an undergrad, however, when faculty advisors told me to major in “journalism” and not English because journalism had practical applications. I listened to them. This was the early 1980s. As an undergraduate, I did not take one creative writing course, always being told it was impractical so “take expository writing.” So, I did. I learned how to write argumentative essays, not even personal ones. I’m an argumentative soul so this was pretty easy for me but not very exciting.
I fell into a public relations writing position in higher education soon after I graduated from college. My first “professional” job was at Wheaton College. It was a great experience for me, more meaningful than my actual undergraduate education had been. I learned to write for publications, even if those publications were local newspapers, wire services, and alumna magazines and not exactly literary ones. At the time, Wheaton was still an all-women’s college, and my budding sexuality, although yet to be named, found a home there, where women were primary.
The job at Wheaton was only supposed to last a year, and still on that “practical” path I’d been led to as an undergraduate, I applied for and was accepted to BU’s Graduate School of Communication with a full assistantship and tuition reimbursement. This was a Ph.D. program. I was 23. If there were ever a time for me to embrace the practical and set myself up for a career teaching at the college level, this was it. But I didn’t go.
I could tell you I didn’t go to BU because I couldn’t walk up to the third floor of the Communications building on Commonwealth Ave. I couldn’t. I had an appointment to meet with my faculty advisor prior to attending in the fall. My panic attacks disallowed my body from climbing three sets of stairs. That is a different post about agoraphobia, but it is one reason I didn’t attend, so it is relevant here. I think, however, that other forces were at work. I didn’t want a Ph.D. in public relations or communications, or whatever the program was. Such study didn’t have emotional teeth for me; the kind of writing I did in this field didn’t move my soul.
Instead, I continued in a career as a writer in public relations at Wheaton, then at Clark University and finally at Boston College. I became bored. The economy was good in the mid-1980s. I job hopped. I received offers from Brandeis and Clark at the same time, with Brandeis offering me more money to come write pr crap for them. I was a young woman and the world waited for me. I feel badly for today’s college graduates who end up with debt in the tens or hundreds of thousands and no solid job prospects. For a little while, back then in the mid-80s, things were different. I wish I had chosen Brandeis, because I think it would have changed my career path; I think I might still be there and perhaps have become a teacher. There is something about Brandeis. But I chose Clark, also a great school, but not the best fit. I left after six months. I was 24.
At Boston College, I worked in major gifts “development writing,” which meant I wrote to millionaires and asked them to fund this or that – a scholarship, a wing of a building, stands in a football field, etc. After pounding out the initial templates, I had nothing left to do except to fill in the names and make slight alterations. I had my own office in those days. I had an ashtray in my office. I filled it daily with my butts. All that luxury, huh? But it wasn’t enough.
I decided that I would finally major in English and in a BIG WAY. I applied for a master’s program (an M.A.) in creative writing. Ohhhh, how rebellious of me! I applied to three programs and I only got into one at the University of New Hampshire. They accepted me as a fiction writing student. Their mistake, hahaha…. At the time (1988), as far as I know, the “creative nonfiction genre” had yet to be named as such, or had not caught on. I thought my only choices to study writing were fiction, poetry, or drama. I was a prose writer so fiction was the closest to what I was doing.
UNH was a difficult experience for me on many levels and I have written about it in one or two essays. In terms of career, however, let me just say it’s hard to fit a nonfiction writer into a fiction workshop. The problem is, even I didn’t realize that I was writing in a different genre (yet to be defined). People have written essays and memoirs forever, but naming the creative nonfiction genre took a long time. Instead, I listened to all kinds of criticism of my work, which mainly went like this: That’s NOT fiction…duh. I wasn’t even invited to the student readings. Those of you who attended the Solstice MFA program or are currently attending can see how different a graduate writing program can be. But I would have to wait another 20 years (until 2008) before I found the writing program that I was meant to be in and the genre of creative nonfiction.
I graduated with an M.A. in English from UNH in 1990 but those amazing career days of the 1980s had ended. I had four years of experience as a writer in higher education, I had 100+ articles published from my local freelance journalism days, and now I had an M.A. With all that behind me, I could not even buy a job making beds in higher education. At first I tried for teaching jobs and was told college-level writing used to be the entry level for an M.A. English graduate, but no more. “We have Ph.D.s from Harvard applying for those part-time jobs,” my own alma mater told me. 1990 featured recession, similar to the one we’ve been experiencing in the 21st century.
I couldn’t even get hired again doing PR writing. I applied for “director of pr” at a local college and had an interview with the president. I remember her saying to me, “Cindy, I really like you and you have good qualifications, but I have people with 20 years of experience who want this job because they are out of work.”
So, I didn’t get the job.
At age 28, I had bills to pay and I wanted to live independently from my mother. (Yeah, effing joke for those of you who know my current living arrangement.) I applied for anything and everything that I could find in the newspapers. I accepted a job for $9 an hour with benefits from a local company (now defunct) known then as Evernet Systems, which I now affectionately refer to as “Ever-Sweat Systems.” They were one of the many networking companies of the early 1990s who went into business and set up LANS (Local Area Networks) with ethernet wire , before Wifi was the rage, even before WINDOWS was used as an operating system. I remember the day they installed windows in our PCs at work and we all thought it looked like a cartoon. A mouse? What’s that? I am freaking old.
With all of my background in English and writing, Evernet systems hired me to work in this environment as an administrative assistant.
“I will only be there for 3 months,” I said to myself. I ended up there for two years and ran the office toward the end of my tenure. It was fun. Truly. I was good at it. There were about 25 employees. That led to jobs at banks and then at financial services companies. I am not in investments, so don’t think I’m one of “them.” I work in a back office, meaning, we are doing the work of keeping records for your accounts. Currently, my title is Process Improvement Analyst, although I’m not sure I improve anything – yet they keep me around. It must be my good looks.
It turned out I was very good at working in a business environment (Dad’s genetics?) and over the next 22 years, I became more entrenched in this “career” that has absolutely nothing to do with reading or writing or teaching. Still, I am grateful for the career, for allowing me to earn a living and freeing up my mind to write. And for bringing me some very nice friends and coworkers.
I would love to hear the story of your career or job or work or lack therof. Please write.
*I have made some insignificant changes to the details of my current work environment so as not to reveal the company name.