From MFA to LLC

I sat in the conference room, sweating with my white shirt collar too tight around my neck, the wool suit too warm, my palms leaving fogged traces of my fingers on the black surface of the table. The door opened and I took a deep breath, and the boss walked in—the person who held the title to which I would report, if hired—and without thought I stood, shook her hand, smiled, introduced myself, it’s a pleasure to meet you, and then sat down to discuss whatever pitch she might throw at me.

I was a minor league batter shaking in the box up against a big league pitcher winding up on the mound, a pitcher who can scream a fastball across the black. But she tossed the junk pitches at first, those standard interview questions you always prepare for. Most common: What’s your weakness? Answer: When I get overwhelmed, sometimes I don’t know when to ask for help. But she threw heat, too. Challenged my lack of a background, of a proven record at a desk job for at least a year. She said, well, you haven’t even had a job, right?

I had to explain that teaching three classes on top of going to grad school on top of trying to write the best poems I could was more than a full time job. It took more than forty hours a week. Try sixty, eighty, my entire waking life. It took the discipline to sit there, butt in chair, and get the job done every night—grading papers, drafting lesson plans, doing required reading, required writing, and writing for pleasure, just writing constantly—and I told her I could pump out content fast, words that gleam when arranged the right way, which is complete hubris as a personal statement but I figured, why not go for it?

A home run swing is hubris. And sometimes it connects. And after I said it, I leaned in, adjusted my tie, put my hands on the table and interlocked my fingers, my silver rings and blue-faced watch glinting in the fluorescent light.

I said, I want this job. And I didn’t look away.

***

Waiting tables wasn’t cutting it. We were heading into the slow summer, the season where you’d get cut more often than you work, and when you do work, it’s dead quiet and the only people eating sixty dollar steaks and expensive fried food were hotel people, or those who wanted to impress. The income was inconsistent—a thousand dollar week once a month, or three hundred one week, seventy-five another—and to put together rent and bills every month was a tragic cycle on repeat. Adjunct teaching work wasn’t only sparse, if available, but paid less than serving and required far more hours. Besides, I had a music studio in my office, and I got to write as much as I wanted during the day. In some ways, I had it made, and in others, I was barely scraping by, scratching together the money to live by taking orders and insults every other night.

One night, up late, after a few drinks, I took a look at my resume, my CV, my publication list, my website, my manuscript. I wondered why this didn’t amount to more—and I knew why, because I left grad school uncertain of my future and came home blunted by broken love—but I knew that more awaited me. The next morning, from the comfort of pajamas and the couch, I looked up copywriting jobs. After a bachelor’s in English and a master’s in creative writing, with internships in business proposals and publishing, I knew I had the goods to be a professional writer in any company.

I didn’t necessarily want to enter business, or advertising, or marketing per se, but there’s a big difference between putting on a server’s uniform at night and dressing nicely at dawn for the day. There’s a sense of gratitude in waking early every morning, even if to commute for an hour to and from the job. And there’s dignity in being respected by your coworkers and your clients, using your best skill to make your living. So I applied, and applied, and applied. I did ten in a shot. Then ten more the next day. And on some websites, they’d even tell you how many people applied for the job. One hundred, two hundred, three. I might not stand a chance. There could be a thousand like me. But I also realized I might even be a hot commodity—a writer who can really write, who taught the craft, who publishes, who knows that that the written word and the relationships, the metaphors, the meaning that builds from it is priceless and timeless no matter how it is used.

I wanted to go to work, not carrying a tray, but a notebook and a laptop. I wanted to have a business card. I wanted to have people who read my writing daily and criticized it, showed me how to be better. Because even if I wasn’t teaching poetry and fiction, which I love dearly, I would use my craft. But I didn’t realize how it would better me and force me to address inconsistencies and errors in my written language on a day-to-day basis. I didn’t realize how it would be regimented and intense while also being fluid and dynamic.

During my internships, I learned that there’s an art to the business proposal. It’s not a sales pitch, nor is it a list of services provided, nor is it a narrative of the company’s history. It’s all of those, threaded together by storytelling prose and the small sprinkling of the stuff of literary legends that carries an audience to the point of conviction. And when they reach that point—when a proposal wins—then you’ve forged a relationship and won your audience. And you’ve won the contract.

And, even as a writer, isn’t that the point of making a living?

***

When I leaned in, she didn’t look away, either. She smiled, stood, shook my hand again, thanked me for my time, and told me that the next step would be an interview with the partners. And they challenged me just as hard. One told me that my communications might affect the company in a negative way if I failed at my job. One asked why I didn’t send thank you emails to those who interviewed me. And the same criticism from the first interview—the lack of a “real job”—peeked through the tone of each question, each response, rebuttal, counterpoint.

After I said that I wanted the job, I remembered that this was my first interview, my first at-bat. It was the first time I got interviewed more than once for the same job, taking a full count and then some. And after fouling off questions I could make contact with, I swung hard with a deep home run cut that flashed through the strike zone and connected with the hottest fastball anyone ever threw at me. 

Pitch: What makes you the best candidate? 

Swing: I know how to write.

I swung with hubris, with swagger, with the goods that I knew I had to offer. And with the bat’s crack, I became a professional writer. I found a way to use my trade in a way that satisfies me deeply.

And why is it so satisfying? Well, I got a lucky pitch, as most home run hitters do. My company does good work. We work to help people by making one of the most dangerous places in our country—the highway—safer for everyone. Yes, there’s a bottom line, there’s a budget, revenue, deliverables, efficiencies and processes, but there’s also a sense of purpose in that I can help people with my writing. And a sense of gratitude that my boss, and her bosses, read what I had to say about myself, for myself, and about and for those who I admire and love—the personal poems and academic essays and political articles that made up my writing portfolio that I slipped across the table to my interviewers—and took it seriously enough to bring me into a small, dynamic group of hardworking, gracious, sharp, smart, and empathetic people.

And now I’m in the company, literally speaking, of such fine people, with a steady paycheck, and I get to write for them every day. What more could I ask for?

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