Dream deferred

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Showbiz might seem like the natural career choice for the former child star who played Cosette in a 1994 Broadway rendition of “Les Misérables.” But creative writing is Eliza Clark’s ’07 true calling.

A theater studies major who participated in the Yale Playwrights Festival three years in a row and wrote four plays in college, Clark decided to pursue a career in playwriting immediately after graduation. But living in Park Slope, Brooklyn with her boyfriend at the time was far from glamorous. To pay for rent, she became the nanny of a South African family a few blocks from her home; for extra cash, she edited college application essays.

“It was actually a lot nicer than ‘Nanny Diaries,’” Clark said with a chuckle in a recent phone interview. “I wasn’t living with the family and it was really fun hanging out with a 10-year-old.”

Clark joined “Youngblood,” a playwrights group based in New York, for feedback on her works and peer support. Her first taste of success came when her play, “Edgewise,” opened off-Broadway. “Edgewise” — the story of three teens working in a fast food joint as America collapses into a hellish war — was reviewed by several national newspapers and websites, including New York Times, which panned it as “contrived.”

Clark has kept on writing, though for the moment she has moved from the stage to television. She relocated to Los Angeles to work on a pilot for Teen Nick and a couple of screenplays. Every morning, she wakes up and writes for as long as she can sit still — sometimes in a writer’s room at the Nickelodeon Studios, sometimes in a coffee shop.

Procrastination is always part of the game, Clark says.

For now she will continue to call Los Angeles home. She said that, unlike in New York, in California she can make a living writing full-time. Clark wants to further her theatrical work, but currently she is focused on making it as a television and screenwriter in Hollywood.

“I never really doubted this is what I wanted to do,” Clark said about her writing career. “You strive to make it happen because no one is going to give it to you.”

Like many Yale graduates who want to pursue careers in creative writing, Clark has been forced to make a detour from her original ambition by taking on a day job to support herself until the day her big break arrives. As most Yalies in the field assert, the path to becoming a successful writer can turn into an unmapped adventure with many frustrations, restless self-doubt and fear that their work might never be published or produced.

Instead of turning to Undergraduate Career Services — like students interested in pursuing careers in business, medicine, law, non-profit, or education — Yale’s proto-wordsmiths largely rely on other, more informal resources. Although Yale has improved and expanded the writing concentration within the English major, the program does not offer practical preparation for the writing profession. Students depend on unofficial social networks, writing professors and their own determination to succeed in the literary arts.

Why does this written doe bound through these written woods?

For a drink of written water from a spring

whose surface will xerox her soft muzzle?

Why does she lift her head; does she hear something?

Perched on four slim legs borrowed from the truth,

she pricks up her ears beneath my fingertips.

Silence-this word also rustles across the page and parts the boughs

that have sprouted from the word “woods.”

Lying in wait, set to pounce on the blank page,

are letters up to no good,

clutches of clauses so subordinate

they’ll never let her get away.

For most students, the first step towards a career in creative writing is applying to the writing concentration through the English Department. Students apply to the program during the second semester of their junior year and about 20 of them are accepted.

The program is similar to a mini-Master of Fine Arts program, Riley Ford ’11 said, since classes are conducted as writing workshops — students present their pieces to be critiqued by both their peers and professors. Yale’s program is not a two-to-three year commitment, but rather, students are required to take a total of at least four creative writing classes at either an intermediate or advanced level. Still, writing concentrators produce a single substantial piece or a portfolio of shorter works: the first 60 pages of a novel, a collection of short stories, or a series of poems.

But although it resembles an MFA program in many ways, the writing concentration is certainly not pre-professional. The program still remains true to Yale’s liberal arts educational philosophy as writing concentrators are required to take 11 classes within the English major, including “Major English Poets,” in addition to the four writing courses.

While the program has established institutional traditions — like the Concentrators Ball where senior present their final projects in a group reading — it does not award certificates to seniors who have completed the requirements. At other universities, creative writing has become a specialized major (like at Carnegie Mellon, the one of the oldest creative writing program in the U.S.) or a minor (like New York University, one of the top creative writing programs in the country).

But for aspiring writers at Yale, most of their practice takes place outside the classroom. Undergraduates at Yale have always had many outlets for creative writing — from the Yale Scientific Magazine to the Yale Record — but in the last 10 years, desktop publishing has led to an exponential proliferation of magazines, journals and websites. Today, there are more than two dozen print and online undergraduate publications at Yale that focus on everything from fiction to food to feminism.

If the Yale Literary Magazine, founded in 1836, is an “Old Lady,” then the writing concentration program is but a child. The University began to formalize the teaching of fiction, poetry and creative non-fiction inside the classroom only a decade ago.

For nearly all of its over-100-year history, the Yale English Department has placed more emphasis on literary analysis than on composition. While many universities established MFA programs in creative writing during the 1970s, Yale had been reluctant until the ’90s, J. D. McClatchy GRD ’74, chair of the writing concentration and editor of The Yale Review, said.

“If a student wanted to be a writer and asked a professor about his ambitious, the professor would scowl and point a finger towards the library and say, ‘Go read Dickenson and Melville and T.S. Eliot,’” McClatchy said.

During the 1960s, when he was studying at Yale, McClatchy showed some poems he had written to Robert Penn Warren, who was then teaching playwriting, for criticism. McClatchy explained that because there were no courses in composition, students would get feedback from their professors “under the table.”

Since McClatchy’s days as a student, but before the writing concentration was introduced, Yale’s course offerings had grown to include a handful of poetry composition classes and college seminars in fiction writing. Now, the formal program consists of 14 professors who are established poets, playwrights, journalists and fiction writers. Introductory courses, such as English 120, “Reading and Writing the Modern Essay,” or “Daily Themes,” have become a regular part of Yale’s course jargon.

Even still, the writing concentration has retained its “under the table” feel, and students interested in pursuing a career in the field must rely on personal relationships with their professors for professional advice. Seven creative writing professors interviewed said they often talk to students who come to them with questions.

Lecturer Emily Barton takes a more pre-emptive approach. She maintains a section on her personal website called “Advice for My Students,” in which she dispenses wisdom on when to enter a MFA program, how to get works published, and how to find a literary agent. Professor Caryl Phillips, on the other hand, said he gives bespoke advice to students because he believes there is no standardized path to becoming a successful writer.

Current writing concentrators agree that their professors have been very helpful in giving them professional advise. For instance, Jordan Jacks ’09 said he is working toward an MFA from Washington University at St. Louis at suggestion of his poetry professor Louise Glück; Adriane Quinlan’s ’07 former professors wrote her letters of recommendation when she applied to University of Minnesota’s MFA program.

Professors dispense advice and write letters of recommendations but most of the work post-Yale — whether it’s finding an agent or getting published — is shouldered by students themselves. Many of the writing concentrators interviewed said creative writing is too unstable to be their only source of income, so many seek other flexible jobs that allow them time to write.

Cooper Wilhelm ‘11 said that while the knowledge and skills he learned in English and writing classes are interesting, he doubts they are what employers are looking for.

“So you’re an English major,” he said. “That means you’re qualified to do nothing and everything.”

Each drop of ink contains a fair supply

of hunters, equipped with squinting eyes behind their sights,

prepared to swarm the sloping pen at any moment,

surround the doe, and slowly aim their guns.

They forget that what’s here isn’t life.

Other laws, black on white, obtain.

The twinkling of an eye win take as long as I say,

and will, if I wish, divide into tiny eternities,

full of bullets stopped in mid-flight.

Not a thing will ever happen unless I say so.

Without my blessing, not a leaf will fall,

not a blade of grass wig bend beneath that little hoof’s full stop.

For most young Yale graduates, creative writing takes the back seat when they enter the real world; others, like Jacks, are awarded the Frederick Mortimer Clapp Fellowship for poetry, valued at $40,000.

The senior fellowship allowed Jacks to move to the woods of Montana and engage in full-time writing like a latter-day Thoreau. Later that year, he moved to the ninth arrondissement in Paris, where he lived with Alex Schwartz ’09 and three (French) roommates.

During the year he spent on the Clapp Fellowship, Jacks wrote a book-length, still-unpublished collection of poems. He added that living in France at first frustrated his writing efforts but eventually helped him reexamine the English language.

“Writing full-time was a complete luxury post-Yale,” Jacks said. “I don’t expect it will happen again like that for quite a while.”

But if anything, Jacks’s story is the exception, not the norm. Only one or two students are awarded the Clapp Fellowship every year. Furthermore, English writing prizes have significantly decreased in value when Yale administration placed a $1,000 cap them last spring.

Quinlan, though, followed a more typical path. She held a succession of journalism jobs — including stints as a Time intern in Hong Kong and as an MTV pop-culture blogger — before deciding to devote herself to fiction full-time. At the time of her application to MFA programs, she felt frustrated with her career in writing: her editor at MTV failed to give her constructive criticism and to challenge Quinlan as writer. Of course, the money was also a problem; it was time for her to write a novel. She enrolled in the University of Minnesota to fulfill the latter goal.

Quinlan applied to a dozen MFA programs around the country but chose the University of Minnesota because it paid her a stipend for teaching multicultural literature and creative writing.

“Don’t go to a school that won’t pay you,” she said matter-of-factly. “You don’t want to graduate with debt because it doesn’t help you get a job.”

Although the MFA program has provided her the time and financial stability she needed to write, Quinlan advises new graduates to work for a few years before applying to one “to get some life experience” and for creative inspiration. An MFA is not a path for a career but a way to buy time, she said.

More time is something most people in the field wished they had.

Another recent graduate with a vocation for creative writing (who spoke on the condition of anonymity) finds himself working at a popular news aggregate. At Yale, he wrote four full-length plays as a writing concentrator in the English Department. But as a journalist based in New York City, his mind is consumed by his day-job. It is the steady income that seals the deal for him.

“Writers at Yale have an awesome time and so many opportunities to practice their craft,” he said. “Once you get out into the real world, it’s a different story.”

With a decade of work experience under his belt, Jack Halpern ’97 has learned to balance his job as a reporter and his fiction writing. But his first job out of Yale was disenchanting: he worked an eight-hour-a-day cubicle job at Lawyers Weekly writing dry case summaries.

His job grew so tiresome that he took over and decorated an empty cubicle as his “summer office,” Halpern said. Then he called it quits and went to teach English at an international school in Israel.

“Yale never told me this and my parents never told me this, but if you don’t think carefully, you can end up with a job that’s like being in jail,” Halpern added.

Vowing never to go back to an office job, Halpern turned his attention to writing when he returned to the U.S. He stayed at his mother’s house for six months churning out a book proposal about people living in inhospitable locations.

He was elated to receive a six-figure advance on his book, “Braving Home,” after years of not having more than $200 in his bank account, Halpern said. The years after the publication of his first book had their rough patches, Halpern said — little pay, no leads and few assignments. He added that only in the past two years he felt he finally achieved success; now he free-lances for magazines and public radio, teaches writing classes at Yale, and writes children’s fantasy novels.

“I still have to answer to editors, but now I have tremendous freedom to pursue projects that interests me,” he added.

Halpern said his success is 80 percent perseverance with a dash of talent and luck all thrown in a blender. Although he is happy to see Yale expand its writing courses, he believes the university is not doing enough to help launch successful careers in the industry. He added that writing professors put too much emphasis on improving students’ writing and not enough on preparing them for the writing profession.

Is there then a world

where I rule absolutely on fate?

A time I bind with chains of signs?

An existence become endless at my bidding?

The joy of writing.

The power of preserving.

Revenge of a mortal hand.

— “The Joy of Writing,” Wislawa Szymborska

Yale Undergraduate Career Services offers counseling in three tracks: law school, health professions, and graduate schools in other fields. It also provides a recruiting center for jobs in finance and consulting, a website listing of internships and jobs, and one-on-one career counseling. Creative writing does not fall under any of these categories.

Being a poet or a fiction writer is often a secondary job, 20 students and alumni interviewed said. The University’s Office of Institutional Research tracks the number of graduates going into well-defined fields like law, medicine, business and education, but it does not — and probably cannot — track the number of Yalies in creative writing.

One alumnus said he felt disappointed with the services UCS offered. Instead, he found work writing an online publication through an e-mail a friend forwarded him.

A search on UCS’s “Experience” website, selecting “writing” from the drop-down menu, produced 52 results on Tuesday, Feb. 1. But not all of these hits were for jobs directly related to writing (such as “Teach English in South Korea”) and some were only part-time. In contrast, a search for “finance” yielded 157 results; “consulting,” 124 results.

Wilhelm said the common perception among students is that UCS is only helpful to those who want to be investment bankers. The service lays out a straightforward career path for the students, bringing in recruiters and helping students apply to summer internships at major banks.

UCS deputy director Elayne Mazzarella said that students pursuing creative writing are welcome to talk to counselors one-on-one and that the UCS website offers advice on both journalism and the publishing industry. In addition, Mazzarella said that as of this month, UCS will be hosting events that will bring in editors, writers and literary agents.

While internships are independent of coursework in the writing concentration at Yale, New York University offers creative writing credit for internships in book publishing, magazines, literary journals and literary agencies. Professor Anne Fadiman thinks there are good arguments for NYU’s involvement in student internships, but she said Yale students do not need help or incentives from the university to take on internships.

“Yalies have such an amazing capacity for work, and they’re so energetic,” Fadiman said. “They seem to be able to juggle a lot in addition to their courses rather than needing to replace a course.”

Students who have established connections through summer internships have gone to work at the country’s top publications, such as the New York Times, the New Republic and the New Yorker, she added.

Senior lecture Michael Cunningham echoed Fadiman, saying in an e-mail that he thinks giving undergraduate students career advice seems premature.

“I feel their most immediate concern should be to become the best, strongest, most innovative writers they possibly can, and to worry about their careers later,” Cunningham said.

The Yale English Department may not aid students with internships or job searches, but it does offer students interested in academia some guidance. Every year, the department hosts information sessions about applying to masters or Ph.D. programs, undergraduate registrar Erica Sayers said.

Wilhelm said he is considering Ph.D. programs in English literature, explaining that it is not uncommon for aspiring writers to rely on a job in academia for financial security. Most English majors, however, choose employment over graduate school shortly after graduation. In 2008, only two English majors entered MFA programs and two entered graduate programs in the humanities, according to Yale’s Office of Institutional Research.

All in all, students do not seem to mind the lack of guidance. The predominant view among the writing concentrators is that there is only so much the department and professors can do to launch their careers. Riley Ford, though, wants to see Yale be more proactive in helping students in getting their work published. For example, he said it would be helpful if writing professors at Yale brought literary agents to the Concentrators Ball to help establish connections between students and agents.

Lecturer Halpern agreed with Ford, adding that if Yale invites finance and consulting recruiters to campus, it should also invite literary agents to scout writing students.

“Yale owes it to its students who want to do creative work to say, ‘we’re going to pave the way so you could be successful in the field,’” Halpern said.

But six professors who teach in the writing concentration program do not see the need for this type of professional assistance.

McClatchy said most graduating seniors do not need agents because they have not yet produced enough published works. Instead, he advocates that students be patient with their writing because success might take 10 to 15 years.

“It’s not a life undertaken by whim or with, ‘how much fun this is going to be,’” he said. “It’s a very strenuous life, a difficult one, with small rewards. But it is a great passion for those who undertake it.”

The publishing world does not operate like other professions — agents and editors do not care about your college or university, but only on the quality of your writing,” Cooper Lewis ’11 said. At the same time, he said it is sometimes frustrating and unfair when companies visit Yale to recruit his business-minded peers.

He recalled one instance when he was sitting in his fraternity house with eight of his friends, all of whom were in business suits having just returned from interviews with banks. Suddenly, he felt full of doubt about his future.

“It was like temptation in the wilderness,” Lewis said. “I was wondering, ‘should I put on a suit and go interview?’”

Lewis, however, decided that pursuing his writing career is more important than a salary in the six figures. He plans to attend film school next fall and eventually work as a screenwriter/director.

Similarly Wilhelm does not plan to put on a suit just yet — he will give UCS a try. Hoping to find a job before he applies to graduate school in English next year, he has set up an appointment for counseling later this month.

“I’m hoping they would tell me ‘why don’t you try this or that?’” Wilhelm said. “Though maybe I’ll end up teaching English as a second language.”

Comments

  • maxice

    One needs to go to a school which pays so one can learn to write by word count for big NYC publications.

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