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Where I've Worked (and for how much)
Pulling back the curtain on literary labor.
I have never shared my professional history anywhere. I see few people do this — it’s always better for a career to pretend like things have always been on an upward swing until you get that tenure-track position (increasingly few) or that editorial internship (underpaid, unbenefitted) or that six-figure advance (increasingly few, and also, do we want that?). But one of the consequences of this silence is a complacency with literary workplaces that undervalue us and treat us like shit, and a tendency to not look to our employer for anything more than the most meager of scraps. It’s no surprise that the most recent workplace violations reported in the book industry were by a warehouse worker — and not at the corporate behemoth you’d suspect, but at one of our indie darlings.
One of the silver linings of the covid era has been a resurgence in union politics among the most vulnerable industries. There’s no larger point to me writing this aside from an encouragement to be more open about our struggles in the workplace, to talk to your coworkers about how much you’re getting paid, and to organize.
When I finished my MFA* in 2017, I wanted to continue teaching creative writing, but there were few jobs available. Instead, I got a job at a small indie bookstore in the town where I was an undergraduate. I was paid $13.25/hr, and was consistently scheduled just shy of 40 hours a week to prevent employer-paid benefits from kicking in. (I still miss this job sometimes, despite that.)
But that wasn’t enough to live on, and so I was excited to land a gig as an adjunct English prof at a small liberal arts college in Western Massachusetts at the same time. On Mondays and Wednesday I would work from 10-2 at the bookstore, and then speed to campus in time for my 3pm class, after which I would hold office hours in a lonely building where no one from the English department ever said two words to me. I was paid $7,000 for one class of 9 students — this is unusually high for adjunct rates.
After moving west**, I took another bookstore job as a temporary part-time holiday employee with Powell’s ($14.00/hr). Even though I was assigned to their less busy, more “neighborhood feeling”, location, I was essentially a register jockey, and I don’t think you could call that job “bookselling”. Come December, we were informed they would only be able to keep one of the 10 or so employees on post-New Year. I didn’t bother to apply. I had a hard time going back there as a customer without feeling like I was betraying my former coworkers, who knew I knew how demoralizing it was to work there. Since Covid-19, the location remains closed.
I got another adjunct gig at a community college soon after my stint at Powell’s. I taught many wonderful, smart, and generous students, several of whom were homeless and slept in cars or tents in the parking lot provided by the university for this purpose. I learned that many states have laws stipulating that any adjunct who teaches a full courseload for two or more consecutive terms must be given benefits. Most universities, including this one, circumvent this law by staggering adjuncts to only be appointed classes during alternating semesters. I taught 5 classes over two quarters, for which I was paid about $16,000 (a little more than $3,000 per class), but I was given no classes the following term because doing so would have meant they’d be legally required to give me benefits. (I also had the worst experience of my teaching life there when an administrator barged into my office hours with an undocumented student and announced unplanned construction was starting and we needed to leave. Yes, it was as crazy as it sounds.)
After that horror show, I reevaluated whether I could continue in academia, and decided it was worth at least looking to see what else there was. I took a paid ($12.50/hr), remote full-time 6-month internship with a mid-size publishing house. My first week there no one could tell me when paychecks would arrive. I did business-essential work and had far more responsibilities than I was fairly paid for.
My internship ended in March, and we all know what happened then. I spent most of the summer living off savings, meager freelance income, and help from family members, but our income quickly shrank to zero. My husband, a wonderful musician, made most of his money performing, which disappeared overnight. Oregon has very good free health insurance, but even so, things were very, very tight and scary for a time.
Two months ago I took a 9-5 job in administration for a low-residency creative writing MFA program, for which I am paid $2,800/month after taxes and health insurance deductions. I feel a mixture of guilt for not having stuck with the grind of adjuncting until I landed a more permanent gig, and relief that I was able to replace our car when it finally died two weeks ago. Another report came out yesterday saying in a generation only 10% of faculty positions will be tenure-track, and while I've always thought there's a certain lack of class consciousness in most grievances at the loss of the tenure system, it's clear that working in universities will look much different in the future. I suspect we're already seeing an inversion along the lines of “those who can't teach, write, or bartend, or deliver newspapers”, referring to the many supplementary lines of income necessary to support an adjuncting life. There's a more hopeful line I could end on here about unions and work and what's next, but I'm just not feeling it this morning. I hope at least that my sharing all this will be helpful to a couple of you.
*I left a job barista-ing to get an MFA, and I’m only covering here jobs I’ve worked post-MFA; in between, I was paid about $24,000/yr as a graduate instructor and received pretty good health insurance, all while being represented by one of the stronger graduate student unions in the country. Not everything was rosy there, but the union was a high point.
**Having moved across the country in the middle of this accounting, I’m not including many side gigs. In 2018, I made about $5,000 in freelance income, but I’ve had less time for pitching since then. It’s a grind I immensely respect, but I haven’t got the constitution to do it full-time.
What I’m Reading
The libraries are closed once more. I got to guiltily browse at the lovely Revolutions Bookshop by myself for 15 minutes yesterday (seriously, they locked the door behind us) and picked up How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu, which has made me laugh so far. I can’t wait until I can spend upwards of two hours in a bookstore again.
What I Wish I Was Reading
I really just want more interviews with authors not framed around single books. We all know what they look like, even if The Paris Review paywalls them. Why can't we have more of them? (& if you publish interviews, why don't you make more space for these?) Who is publishing the most interesting, long-form author interviews that you love reading? Please send.
Newfound Emerging Poets Chapbook Series is accepting unsolicited manuscript submissions from poets without a published book until December 31.
The 2021 Center for African American Poetry and Poetics Book Prize winner will be published by Autumn House Press and receive an advance of $3,000. Submissions run from Jan 1 - Feb 15, 2021.
Ghost City Review is open for emailed submissions in most genres on a rolling basis.
My book A Natural History of Transition, is available to preorder through Metonymy Press.
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