Saturday, March 19, 2005

The Interview Game, Part 1: I Have a Master's Degree... in SCIENCE!

I signed up for the Interview Game at Suzanne's and requested five questions to answer. The ones she gave me were so great I'm going to give each answer its own post. I'll post the rules to the Interview Game when I've answered the last question, so you can sign up for questions of your own. I'm not sure I'll be able to come up with questions as good as hers, though.

Here are my five assigned questions:

1. How did you decide you wanted to become a librarian?
2. When did you realize you were a lesbian?
3. I there was one thing you could guarantee in life for your daughter, what would it be and why?
4. Ever been skinny dipping?
5. How big a role does music play in your life?

And here's the answer to Question #1:

The sad truth is, despite a lifelong text-addiction and an early desire to catalog my Cricket magazines, I didn't want to be a librarian; I wanted to Be a Writer. I was too unfocused and disorganized and too much of a snobby purist (in a very vague way) to come up with any kind of game plan for doing this, however. My first year out of college I did have a writing-related job, churning out articles for a science marketing weekly, which I could have worked into something better if I'd had more savvy or gumption or had my wits about me.

But I had none of those things, so when my college friend Nora (also known as the co-conspirator in the infamous Rosie Bonner Hoax) asked if I wanted to ditch my job and go to Alaska with her to work in a salmon cannery for the summer, I jumped at the chance. My friend Hallie, who I'd known since junior high, was spending the summer in Seattle, following a college friend of hers, who was in turn following her girlfriend, who had gotten into graduate school at the UW. So Nora and I drove cross-country to Seattle and crashed with Hallie for three or four days while figuring out how we were going to get up to Alaska, since it turned out the ferry only ran once a week and we'd just missed it.

It was a tense time. Nora and I were barely speaking to each other after our eventful, automobile-breakdown-plagued trip, and both of us were desperate for other people to talk to. I ended up having some nice conversations with Hallie's apartment-mate, who was only a few years older than the rest of us but seemed much more together. She was a freelance indexer and had just finished a gig indexing a book for a local feminist press on the history of women in rock & roll. She also worked part-time, from home, for a software contracting company, indexing manuals and documentation. She explained that while she'd gotten her job through happenstance and knowing people, her official qualification was a Master's in Library and Information Science. Hmm, I thought. Interesting. I didn't know you could parlay a library degree into such a cool life.

So the first seed was planted. When I got back to New York that winter, wiped out after a summer canning fish and an autumn spending my cannery money on a drama-filled trip to Europe and Israel, I sent off for a couple of library-school catalogs and pored over them. I'd decided I wanted to move to Seattle permanently, and needed to figure out how to support myself right away when I got there, so I didn't do much more about graduate school. I did, however, take the GREs that autumn, in Seattle.

By then I'd gotten a job as a childcare teacher, earming about $6 an hour and living very cheap. I wrote journal entries and short stories on a manual typewriter (disturbing my neighbors on the other side of my studio apartment), joined a small writer's group, and eventually took a year-long University Extension evening course in fiction writing. I sent some of my work out, got the predictable pile of rejections, but did have a couple of stories published in small-- very, very small-- magazines.

After three years of this life, I was heading into my late twenties and living so low on the food chain was starting to wear me down. I was also, finally, thinking about writing in a less romantic, more practical way. There was more and more that I wanted to write, but full-time childcare was hard work, and tiring, and if I cut my hours so I could write more I wouldn't have enough money to live on. Every writer I knew, including my multiply-published writing teacher, had a day job. I realized that if I really wanted to commit to writing in the long term, I would have to get a better job, one that was more lucrative, less draining, or both. Something I wouldn't hate so much I'd get depressed and stop writing. But what? Hmm...

Just about the time I was trying to work this out, my boss made a startling announcement: the day care center would be closing for good in August. I would be able to go on unemployment! And write! It was a dream come true. And, now that I thought of it, the GREs that I'd taken that first fall in Seattle were about to expire; if I wanted my (pretty good) scores to count, and didn't want to take the darned things again, I'd better apply to graduate school while I was at it.

I wrote much less that year than I'd thought I would; having no structure at all, it turned out, was in some ways worse for me than having too much to do. I was pretty sucky at structuring a writing life for myself, and was also having a bad psoriasis flareup and spending a lot of time on treatments. But I did apply to four graduate schools: three MFA programs and the UW L1brary School. Embarrassingly for a future librarian, I did very little research on any of the programs: basically, I just picked programs I'd heard of, or that were in places I liked.

I got into one MFA program, and the library school, and commenced to agonize. I went so far as to fly back to New York to visit the writing program, and was underwhelmed; with one striking exception (a student who had just gotten accepted to NYU and was about to leave the program) the quality of the writing and critique didn't seem any better than that in the evening course I'd completed. I was also daunted by the difficulties of living as a full-time graduate student in New York; I felt too old (at almost-29!) to live broke all the time any more, was scared of having another flareup with no insurance, and knew from my post-college year how hard that city can be if you don't have friends and substantial inner resources.

Also, I wondered belatedly, what could you do with an MFA? Teach writing? I didn't want to do that. And what about all the student loans I'd have to take out? Would I just end up doing childcare again for minimum wage, two years older and tens of thousands of dollars deeper in debt, with only a completed manuscript to my name? Which might not even get published? Wasn't the whole point to work out a long-term plan, not to dig myself into a hole on a two-year gamble?

I played it safe, stayed in Seattle and went to library school. And while the program itself was uninspiring (though it's since been completely revamped and I hear is much better), I had a few excellent teachers, and discovered that it was in many ways the perfect field for me, with a nice mix of intellectual, social-service-y, and bookworm-y work to do.

So I didn't really decide to become a librarian; I became one in spite of myself. I haven't given up on writing-- this blog is one way I'm trying to get back to it-- but the truth is, I don't have the temperament or the self-discipline to be a full-time writer, freelance or otherwise. And being a librarian is a pretty good deal, just as I thought it might be. Though my original inspiration was someone with an untraditional library career, I've ended up in the most traditional area of librarianship possible: school librarianship. I love just about everything about it. And I get to read kids' books and call it professional reading.

And that original inspiration? My friend Hallie's roommate, the freelance indexer with the cool life?

Reader, I married her.


Blogger Liz said...

That is soooooo romantic!

Now I understand why you know all the kid's books I mention. Do please send me recommendations. I can snarf up 6 lemony snickets in a single cosy evening. You've read my blog, you must have read "House of Thirty Cats"... so... match the orphan books to the person, right?
I'm so jealous! But not jealous enough to have gone to library school, quite.

12:44 AM  
Anonymous badgerbag said...

p.s. Tell us all about the skinny dipping, too.

12:44 AM  
Blogger Mopsie said...

I agree with Liz -- I was actually sighing out loud when I read the last little bit. Great post today -- and I was just one question. I can't wait to read the other answers!

5:59 AM  
Blogger Kate R said...

you ARE a writer, ya goober. your artform, the blog, has only recently been invented.

Yeah, Liz and Mopsie are right and that last line is perfect. (More touching and better impact than Bronte's use of them.)

7:20 AM  
Blogger Jo said...

Ha! It's true, you are a writer, dude. and Ha! "Reader, I married her." So great.

7:26 AM  
Blogger Anna said...

I agree: you ARE a writer; that's why I go here first every day. I wanted (want) to be one too; also one reason I keep the blog, although I did wonder recently what good it was doing in the writing sense.

Anyway, loved reading this answer, from one wanna-be-a-writer
wow-you're-cool-Els person to another.


7:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yay! I kept thinking "that sounds like RW's job." Great ending, now I'm motivated to get out there and write! Sadly, the material for today is a report on how I modified the Maryland Teacher Technology Standard #4 for use in a Data-Driven Curriculum and Instruction class. Yes, it will even include statistics. And no romantic ending. But still I feel launched on my way now.

7:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


7:56 AM  
Blogger Mel said...

Great post. :)

1:51 PM  
Blogger Third Street said...

Oh what a happy ending. I sort of had a hunch - I don't know why. But it was a surprise at the end.

You're hard on yourself about your choices.

To get in a good groove for fiction writing: figure how much time you can realistically commit to writing even if it is only 10 minutes and do 10 minutes of generating every day. No editing. Generating.

Hand write or type. Don't go back - plough forward.

Also do Nanowrimo next November.

Now I need to take my own advice.

4:32 PM  
Blogger WordsRock said...

Els, nice post. Who knew we'd learn so much from such a simple question. :)

Glad you are playing along!


5:39 PM  
Blogger RHD said...

I love the schmoopy last line! *Sniff*

I actually yelled out, "I shoulda known!" when I read that you read Cricket magazine as a kid. I think all my back issues are still at my mom's house waiting for K-zilla. And of course she gets Ladybug now.

7:41 AM  
Blogger PPB said...

I didn't even see it coming. Great ending. Great story.

2:56 PM  
Anonymous Kim said...

Great ending, Els! And great story.

How come you never enter Blogging for Books, girl?


3:07 PM  
Anonymous Ms. Jane said...


-Ms. Jane

9:11 AM  
Blogger Robin said...

Why wouldn't you want to teach writing?

7:27 PM  

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