Author and Creative Writing Professor – Elizabeth Graver

in Jobs in Writing

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Read as Elizabeth Graver gives a great JobShadow about her career as a creative writing professor and author.  You can find Elizabeth on her website at www.elizabethgraver.com and on her Twitter feed in the sidebar of this interview.  

What do you do for a living? Elizabeth Graver-Wf-M.Music-MACD-12-004,#205

I teach literature and creative writing at Boston College.  And I write, mostly short stories and novels but also the occasional essay, book review, and poem.  My fourth novel was published in March 2013.  I’m in the early stages of a new project now.

How would you describe what you do?

I sit around and invent people and places.  I talk to myself in lots of different voices and travel to distant lands (sometimes for real, mostly in my head). And I help young people—my students—learn how to talk in different voices, as well as how to use language as a precise, elegant, powerful tool.  As a child, I spent as much time as I could immersed in elaborate imaginary worlds.  My “work” as an adult (often, happily, it feels more like play) allows me to drop down into rich, lush, peculiar worlds of my own invention.

What does your work entail?

Lots of sitting in front of a screen.  Some standing in front of a group of people.  Many pages turned.  Neck aches.  Pens.  Doubt.  Stubbornness.  Faith.  An unhealthy attachment to my laptop.  Asking questions of strangers.  Taking commas out and putting them back in.  Reading student work.  Reading classics.  Reading contemporary literature.  More sitting in front of a screen.

What’s a typical workweek like?  

During the semester, I usually go to campus (at Boston College, where I’ve taught for 21 years) three days a week.  I teach two courses a semester, serve on committees, contribute to the running of the department, and direct Honors Projects in creative writing.  That portion of my work life is full of people, conversation, deadlines, and a fair amount of structure.   I have a mailbox in the mailroom, my name on an office door, a weekly paycheck, health benefits.  Lively, smart colleagues and students.  It’s a social and intellectually stimulating job.

In an interview in the Paris Review (No. 94), the writer EL Doctorow said that writing is “like driving a car at night: you never see further than your headlights?, but you can make the whole trip that way.” That just about sums it up for me.

On the days that I don’t teach, I inhabit a much quieter world.   Usually on those days, I work at home.  Sometimes I spend my time preparing class for the next day.  Other times, I write, revise or do research for whatever project I’m working on at the time.  I have a study filled with books, with a view of the farm fields. After my daughters get on the school bus, I usually walk around the field with my dog, then come in and make a cup of tea.  In my study, the dog settled near my feet, I sit, mull, write, procrastinate, write some more.  I get up to snack, stretch, put laundry in the dryer.  Write.  Get the mail.  Pull a few weeks from the garden on way back in.  Read.  Check e-mail.  Write.  The kids come home from school, and we gobble down a snack, talk about our days, and venture forth.   In the summer or when I’m on sabbatical, every workday is a home day except for when I’m traveling for research or book tour.  I love to travel to far flung places almost as much as I love to come home and have gone, over the past few years, to India (where I taught a course called “Writing Out of Place” and brought my family along), Scotland (where I went alone to do research on a character) and Nicaragua (where I took a seminar with colleagues from Boston College).   I’m hoping Spain is next.

How did you get started?

I’ve been writing since I was a young child.  I majored in English and French in college, wrote short stories for my senior project, and interned during the summer at a few newspapers.  After college, I worked as a freelance journalist and temporary secretary for a year and then spent a year in France teaching high school.  I then got my MFA in creative writing at Washington University in St. Louis.  After that, I enrolled in a PhD program in literary studies at Cornell. When my first book, a short story collection, got accepted, I dropped out of the PhD program.  A year later, I got my first full-time teaching job, at Boston College. I’ve been there ever since.

What do you like about what you do?

I love how both writing and teaching are about getting under the surface of things, about finding or making meaning and looking closely at the worldI love getting to work with words.  I’m grateful that my work is not tied to a time clock, even as sometimes the tasks seem to have no boundaries–and thus no end. I often work at night or on weekends, but I never work just to fill in hours or because someone else expects me to log time.  As long as I show up to teach and at meetings on campus, my time is my own.  There’s a lot of freedom in what I do.

What do you dislike?

Sometimes I dislike that same never-ending feeling—the sense that I could always be doing more. I feel, at times, as if I need to hoard and protect my time, though I try to resist that feeling.  I sometimes wish my work took me further afield into worlds I knew less about. I’ve tried to remedy this by figuring out ways to travel—teaching in India, for example—and by writing about things I didn’t initially know much about.  Time is sometimes a struggle—balancing writing, teaching, book publicity, raising kids—but as jobs go, I have both a writer-friendly and a family-friendly job, so I really can’t complain.

How do you make money/or how are you compensated? 

I receive a salary for my work as a professor.  When a book is published, I receive an advance from the publisher, though I could not support myself on these advances and have purposefully set up my life so that I don’t depend on them, as I want to give the books the time they need and not be hemmed in by commercial or financial imperatives.  I write for the occasional magazine. Some of them pay reasonably well.  I also make little bits of money giving readings at universities or teaching at summer writers’ conferences.  I have gotten fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and the Guggenheim Foundation.  These have allowed me to take off time from teaching to write.

How much do you make?  

$0-25,000       ____

$25k-$35k       ____

$50k-75K         ____

$75k-100k       ____

$100-$200k    ___X_

$200k-$300k  ____

$300k+         ____

Additional comments:

 

How much money did/do you make starting out?

I started out making just enough to scrape by, teaching part-time, being a freelance journalist, and working temporary secretarial jobs. When I started teaching full time, in 1993, my salary was around 30k, plus benefits.

elizabethgraverWhat education, schooling, or skills are needed to do this?

To teach on the tenure track as a creative writer at most universities, you need a Masters in Fine Arts (MFA) and/or a PhD.   Most full-time, tenure-line jobs teaching creative writing at the college level require you to have an MFA plus a published book.

What is most challenging about what you do?

Committing to a project over the long haul without knowing if it will work or not.  Working in the dark.  Keeping faith in a project over the course of years.  Starting again when you need to. Dismantling.  Letting go of a “finished” book can also be hard for me; the book is never quite like my vision of it.  Being a writer also means dealing with rejection. My first novel got turned down something like twenty times before it was published. You need to develop a thick skin and not spend too much time worrying about the opinions of outside world, even as you remain open to suggestions from the readers and editors you trust.

What is most rewarding?

The dream-state of being inside my own imagination, making things. I also find it rewarding to hear from readers who have really connected to the work.   As a teacher, the rewards are many: Helping students learn about their own creative processes; watching them grow as readers and writers; introducing them to books and authors who will nurture them and shape the way they see the world.

What advice would you offer someone considering this career?

I advise my own students who want to be writers to read, read read, and to develop a writing routine. I also talk to them about find paying work that engages them and feeds them, both literally and as writers.  In general, I don’t think it’s a good idea to go straight from college to graduate school. You need to get out in to the world, see things, travel, move through different worlds.  You also need to see if you’ll continue to write without someone giving you deadlines or a grade—if you have that internal engine, that doggedness, for it’s doggedness more than talent that makes people build their lives around the quite difficult, sometimes lonely practice of making up worlds through words.  I advise young writers to find community wherever they can—through joining a writers’ group, taking adult education classes, exchanging work over e-mail with friends.  I encourage them to take risks in their lives and in their writing.  Writing, like much art, demands a mix of fearless play and deep discipline.  There are lots of ways besides teaching that writers can support themselves, so if you have other interests, stay open to them.  I know writers who are also psychologists, doctors, computer programmers, goat farmers, grant writers. Teaching suits me well, but there are many other paths.

How much time off do you get/take?

My vacations from teaching are the same as my students’, which leaves the summers wide open.  But because I am usually working on a book, summer is when I really dive into writing, so I rarely have pure “time off,” though I do carve out a few weeks to just be with my family and relax. I also am lucky to have the occasional sabbatical or leave from teaching. I use these to write.

What is a common misconception people have about what you do?

People are often surprised by how long it takes to write a book (my last novel, The End of the Point, took me over seven years to write), as well by how little I know about where the story is going when I start out.  People are also sometimes surprised by how much I make up and how much research I do.  If I only wrote about myself and my own experience, I’d have run out of stories long ago.

What are your goals/dreams for the future?

I want to be able to keep doing what I love, to keep taking risks, to dare to write about things that feel hard for me either formally or in terms of subject matter (or both).   So too, in my teaching; I hope to keep inventing new courses, teaching abroad, venturing forth, changing.

What else would you like people to know about your job/career?

In an interview in the Paris Review (No. 94), the writer EL Doctorow said that writing is  “like driving a car at night: you never see further than your headlights?, but you can make the whole trip that way.”   That just about sums it up for me.

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