Graduation is supposed to be a time of celebration, but if we’re being honest, it’s usually a time of stress. Especially if you’ve chosen a creative career path, the loaded “What are you doing doing after this?” question is enough to make you want to return to your freshman dorm, crawl under the bed and intone comforting mantras to yourself from now until forever.
Luckily, there’s no need to do that. Mostly because it’s illegal and weird, but also because we reached out to five very different talented and successful creative-types to see what they were doing when they moved their tassel from right to left.
The summer after I graduated from college, I fucked off to Greece and lived in a tent for two months, subsisting off of stolen bread and Nutella.
When I got back to New York with nowhere to live, I crashed at my then girlfriend's apartment for six months and worked for no pay at a tiny, notoriously poorly run black-box theater on Ludlow Street, writing in the mornings and sometimes the afternoons, using and being used and placing my faith — and the uncertain possibility of my survival — in art.
Was this the smartest way to build a career? No. It wasn't even a smart way to be a human being. But it allowed me to engage the future on my own terms, and that was all that really mattered to me.
It took me six years to graduate college. My final year was actually spent as an AmeriCorps teacher, and I took four credits of classes to transfer back to Warren Wilson College. Then I went right into graduate school for teaching at Columbia.
I graduated a quarter early (Northwestern is on a quarter system), so I was done in something like February of 1996. I was really intense when I was younger, so I worked super hard to graduate early and then immediately insisted on getting a job. I wanted to go to Southern California because my boyfriend at the time was in the Navy and stationed there, and I refused to have a long-distance relationship. (See? Intense.) To do this, I sent my clips to every local newspaper in the San Diego, Orange County, Riverside County and Los Angeles areas. I then booked myself a trip there, called them all up (not email times yet) and told them I'd be there so why not interview me.
I got several interviews this way, but two stood out in terms of results: one with an editor at the Daily Pilot in Newport Beach, a beautiful place full of rich people. I dug him, and he seemed to genuinely like me but said to keep in touch because he didn't have any openings at the moment. The other was at the Hemet News, which was waaaaay out in this tiny desert town that, at the time, was known mostly for its meth labs and senior communities. (I visited again recently, and it's built up tremendously since then.) I cried in the car after the interview because they'd actually hired me. I was so determined to go through with my moving plans (despite their offer of $300 per week) that I took it.
The first thing I did when I moved into my adorable, sad little first apartment (in Temecula, California) was to plug my phone in (this was pre-cell, too) to call up Steve Marble at the Daily Pilot and inform him that I was now in California and working for the Hemet News. He was familiar enough with the Hemet News and in fact did like me enough that this was alarming news to him. He called me the next day, told me to sit tight and he'd find me something. Two weeks later, I was working for Steve and giving two weeks’ notice at the Hemet News.
I spent the next two years covering Newport Beach for the Pilot, which was the hardest job I've ever had — four stories a day, competing with the Times and the OC Register, not knowing what the hell I was doing at my job or in life. But I'm so glad now that I did it, because those reporting skills never die.
The year I graduated (with a degree in playwriting, yikes) coincided perfectly with the start of the recession. I had no idea how I was going to make money, so I left New York and moved in with my dad in Los Angeles for a while. I spent five months there, temping and being generally anxious. I also read a LOT of blogs — like, a lot — and decided to start my own based on a fictional character I created. It was so fun, and I put a lot of energy into thinking up post ideas and formats. Silly, but ultimately useful, it's how I learned how to blog.
After a few months of Los Angeles, I decided I really needed to be in New York if I wanted to have a career as a writer. So I moved back and couch surfed and tutored and babysat and sold concessions at Webster Hall and moved into a convent for cheap housing and interned and wrote all the time until I finally got a full-time job writing for the internet.
I didn't know about MFA programs until my second year of college. Until then, I sort of assumed I would apply to PhD programs in English and unhappily find some theory through which to view an ignored Modernist. I applied to a handful of MFA programs the fall of my last year based on nothing other than a long-expired U.S. News ranking — I doubt U.S. News bothers to rank MFA programs anymore, how could you? — and perfunctory look at the existing faculty.
Iowa called me in my dorm, assuming I already knew I'd been admitted, though there was no way I could have known this. For some time, I assumed I'd been pranked, as my landline didn't have Caller ID. At this point, I had no backup plan and was a little worried I wouldn't even graduate from UVA because of a Medieval Latin course I'd idiotically attempted.
I was the youngest person when I got to the IWW and felt that way. My first semester, I was 21 and had a 22-year-old senior in the Interpretation of Literature class I was teaching. On the last day of classes, he thanked me with a VIP pass to the strip club where he was a bouncer. There was probably a story waiting there, but I was playing it safe with my weeks-old teaching career and didn't go.
And there you have it: There is no one way to graduate and have a successful career in a creative field. The most important thing is to stay calm, stay motivated and stay out of your freshman year dorm. Good luck.
About the Book:
Hypnotizing us with the deceptively simple rhythm of the ordinary, We Were Flying to Chicago offers a moment of change: the view over the cliff, the breath before a decision, a sidelong glance of impending news. Award-winning writer Kevin Clouther skillfully slows time to note the visceral, emotional impact of an everyday moment. A man drives to the wrong mountain, a hubcap cleaner moonlights as a karaoke star and a woman trusts a stranger on the bus. Each of the 10 stories in We Were Flying to Chicago is contemporary without being ironic or glib, offering a glimpse of stark vulnerability, faith and shared experience.
About the Author:
Kevin Clouther was born in Boston and grew up on Cape Cod and in South Florida. He holds degrees from the University of Virginia and Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he completed his thesis under Marilynne Robinson and won the Richard Yates Fiction Award for best short story. He has worked at The Iowa Review, Meridian and The Virginia Literary Review, where he served as fiction editor. He teaches creative writing at Stony Brook University, where he coordinates the Program in Writing Reading Series, and at John Hopkins. He has previously taught at Bridgewater College in Virginia, the University of Michigan Dearborn and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He lives in Floral Park, New York with his wife and two children.
KEEP READING: More on Education