The Stars and the Moon
By Ross Howell
This is the second in a series of posts leading up to the 2013 AWP Conference in Boston at which Eric Olsen will moderate a panel on “What We Wish We’d Known” as young writers just starting our careers. Join us March 9, 1:30-2:45 pm, in room 206 of the Hynes Convention Center. Ross Howell is an alum of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a regular contributor to this blog.
What do I wish I’d known?
When I was a student at the Workshop, a star system ruled. Visiting teachers and guest readers were for the most part successful authors who drew their livelihoods from the written word. Scarce graduate teaching fellowship money was reserved for the remarkably talented among us.
The sine qua non was to emerge from Iowa on the road to becoming a best-selling novelist. The ancillary path led to the teaching of writing at a college or university.
That star system was just as it should’ve been. I treasure memories of hearing John Cheever, John Updike, and Kurt Vonnegut read from their works. I remember scanning classmates’ worksheets, thinking, Man, please don’t let my piece be the next one up. This stuff is great!
So, what was to become of the rest of us, those whose names were probably never destined to appear on The New York Times Bestseller List?
That’s what I wish I’d known. In my career I didn’t wind up at the center of the writing endeavor, but I found a reasonably comfortable spot along the edges. When I was a Workshop student, meeting and talking about options with someone who had not necessarily been a leading literary light would have been…encouraging.
In 1980 I published a story in The Virginia Quarterly Review. My Workshop MFA was two years old.
I was bursting with pride when the VQR check for $150 arrived in the mail. It was the first time I’d ever been paid for a piece of fiction. Even then, it seemed like a modest amount—actually, it seemed like a pittance.
I sat on the stoop of my rented cottage, fondling the check, admiring the envelope’s return address, “One West Range.” I missed my Iowa City friends. We were scattered to the four winds. If only I could call somebody, go out to Dave’s Foxhead and celebrate.
It had taken eight weeks of nights and weekends to complete the first draft of that story. I had a full-time fund-raising job with the College of Arts & Sciences at UVA and was teaching one course a semester in the English Department. I had a handsome office in Mr. Jefferson’s Rotunda. I had a five-figure annual salary that became a four-figure salary as soon as payroll taxes were deducted. My ten-year-old MGB-GT was falling to pieces, bolt by fuse by wire.
I can’t do this anymore, I thought.
And I didn’t.
I cashed the VQR check and threw myself into a “real” career. I landed a fund-raising job that tripled my salary. Later, I was offered part-ownership to join a small public relations agency. They wanted to move into book publishing, and liked my background. After a management dispute, I started my own business. “Small publisher” only begins to describe how small the firm was. We produced coffee table books; nothing literary. I ran it for 20 years, until we went out of business.
Starting over, I found a job in internet marketing. After a while, I transferred to the print advertising department. I wrote fiction evenings. I wrote fiction on my days off. Now I teach freshman writing at Elon University, and I’m still writing fiction.
A few months ago, I published a story in The Sewanee Review. I recently had a story accepted at The Gettysburg Review. Thirty years away from the hunt, the old hound is baying, baby!
What could this ancient history have to do with Eric’s AWP panel?
When I gave up fiction writing, I didn’t give up writing. I wrote fund-raising pitches and planned-giving brochures. I generated media kits for sports programs and wrote speeches and opinion pieces for somebody else’s byline.
I edited magazines and books. I wrote jacket copy and press releases. I wrote business plans and media kits for prospective investors.
I learned that Washington, DC, could be a better place for a writer than New York, because there are associations for every endeavor imaginable—there’s even an association for associations—and each one publishes a newsletter and often a slick magazine, too.
So, to the star system at the Workshop of my time, I would’ve recommended adding a moon system.
My Workshop moon system could never supplant the star system, and shouldn’t. The Workshop is a place for big dreams. It’s where bright literary lights share drinks and conversation with aspirants and acolytes. It’s where writers should be sequestered from the real world to pursue the purity of their craft, if only for a fleeting moment.
But the Workshop moon system would enable students to meet and network with alumni whose careers were off the successful author’s cum writing teacher’s path. Luminaries here might not be nearly so bright as the stars. But they’ve survived, and have something useful to share.