A group of fifty college undergraduates stare me down. These students are attending a national conference for academic scholarship recipients about how to get the most out of college. Always a nervous public speaker, I sweat in my suit jacket. I hope that my too bright red lipstick hasn’t migrated down my face or onto my teeth, but I smile anyway
One asks, “So why didn’t you work in publishing?”
This young alumni panel is about navigating life after undergraduate programs. I landed myself on the panel by being one of exactly three alumni members in the Omaha-Lincoln metropolitan region. “Metropolitan” is used loosely here.
I explain to the students that as publishing moved toward the platform model, where a writer’s Twitter followers sometimes mean more than their journal publications, I became less interested in being an editor. “Who you know” has always been a part of publishing, but the thought of pandering to the popularity of teen fiction and Facebook fans didn’t fill me with joy as I filled out job applications during the summer after graduating from UCF. Neither did the thought of being an adjunct for a decade before finding a tenure-track position.
Instead, I decided to become a writer and teacher of a different sort. Since graduation, I have steadily earned a living as a professional writer—just not the type that MFA students (particularly moi) dream of being as we gaze starry-eyed over the horizon of our laptops, Dead Poets Society playing on loop in the background. Most of the time, I don’t even get credit for my writing.
Currently, I am a web content and social media manager for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln physics department. I have previously served as a scholarships advisor, worked for two different insurance companies, and wrote gossip articles for a news aggregate website.
Few, if any, of these positions offered the byline and flashy New York lifestyle I had dreamed of. Instead I write and edit articles, handbooks, mailers, applications, and press releases on behalf of others, the world of technical writing or content marketing.
Technical writing teaches you a great deal that the MFA workshop does not. I feel that my job experiences complement what I learned at UCF, exercising different writing muscles that the workshop does not—and should not—address.
Here is some of what I have learned:
The brevity of social media is great practice for varying word and sentence order and cutting the excess. Social media also requires that you learn about your audience, including what stories appeal to them and what tone you should use in communicating with them.
Scholarship advising teaches you how to weave emotions and personal narrative into your CV—lessons of blending two simultaneous threads that Jamie Poissant taught me from Ron Carlson’s “Towel Season.” (Fabric puns mostly unintentional.) Additionally, to teach non-writers how to craft voice, you learn grammar you never cared about in high school and how to communicate how grammar works to others.
News articles and blogs teach you how to write on the fly. I ghostwrite one blog each week for a professional speaker, oftentimes receiving the rough draft on a Tuesday evening and polishing it by Thursday at 10 am. Press releases often need to go out the day that you receive the information so that your article and social media posts become the “authoritative” version of the story.
I enjoy getting to pretend that I am someone else, thinking about dialogue and how he would speak. I had to learn to use smaller, plain words and sentence structure to reflect my new Midwest neighbors.
And nothing bothers me more than poorly formatted Word documents.
There are many times I am envious of my fellow MFA graduates who followed the traditional paths. I see their activities on Facebook. They get to talk literary journals every day, they get accepted into doctoral programs, and they have more community support for writing fiction and poetry than I do sitting behind my laptop thinking up Tweets.
However, I get to write about femtosecond laser pulses. I learn about solar panel efficiency, healthcare reform, and Kardashians. I teach award-winning businessmen how to turn their motivational life stories into, well, stories that are actually motivational.
One of my former students recently emailed to say that she got into her dream graduate program. She wrote in her personal essay about the scholarship program which I helped her apply for. Another one of my former students just earned a five-year scholarship, no doubt due to his willingness to write draft after draft (I lost count after seven).
Novels and poetry can change our perspectives on life, and the well-written essay or article can directly impact a person’s livelihood. I may never get credit for ghostwriting, but writing about colonoscopies meant I could change at least one person’s health.
After the panel, one of the undergrads approaches me. She is an English major who wants to attend an MFA program. I offer her my card and tell her not to hesitate to email if she has any questions. Though my life took a turn I did not expect, I will always be a writer and I will always value my two years at UCF. Those years allowed me to think beyond the byline in my career.
Amanda Lager is a web and social media manager in Lincoln, Nebraska. She holds degrees from the University of Central Florida and the University of South Carolina. She enjoys fantasy books and fairy tales and taking care of her two corgi puppies. Follow her @amrlager on Twitter and Instagram.