Reconstructing Narrative

My previous post was about a book called Story Engineering. This one is about a more immediate kind of story-crafting, the one that retrieves what I want to keep from the narrative wreckage of my aborted academic career and combines it with my current ambitions to make something compelling. I’m the main audience for that story, but it’s also something that will be useful every time I explain to others (including potential employers) why I took my PhD out the tower’s door.

The seeds for this post came from PastProf’s post “Out of the Wreckage, A New Narrative,” which was in turn inspired by Chris Humphrey’s post about storytelling your way through a transition. Both draw on storyteller Geoff Mead’s concept of “narrative wreckage:” the “point in our lives when we realize that the familiar stories we tell about ourselves don’t make sense anymore.” It is an incredibly apt description of what becoming a post-ac has meant for me. I decided as an undergrad to be a professor. I went to school to become a professor. I worked (with marginal success) to fit myself into the mold of a professor. And then…I turned out not to be a professor. That was mind-numbingly hard.

The part of my new narrative about leaving is pretty well-established. It’s even well-rehearsed at this point. I left because I could not stomach the thought of either being separated from my family or moving them around every year or three chasing visiting assistant positions. I left because the pay was horrible, the workload maddening, and the authority minimal (it is really no fun spending hours developing sample syllabi and then taking an adjunct job and being handed the parent institution’s syllabus two days before you start). If I’m only going to be making $20,000/year, I’d rather do it at 40 hours/week than 75. We relocated to be closer to my partner’s family. Now I’m substitute teaching while working towards something more stable and hopefully more lucrative. I’m out.

It’s the next part that’s hard. What, really, comes next? I’m a writer, but I’ve sort of always been a writer. I had naive expectations that my writing skills would get me a job relatively easily. It turns out that most job openings for writers are aimed at recent college grads or people with at least three years of experience in the specialized field (technical, copy, web, etc.). I remember half-jokingly telling my mom, back when I was settling on doing graduate school in music rather than English, that I’d always have writing to fall back on. Is that my story? That I’m falling back on writing? Aren’t fall-back options supposed to be dependable?

Is the next step teaching? It was something I looked into immediately after the move. Texas has a fairly streamlined alternative certification process that would have had me certified and teaching somewhere within about a year and a half for very little out of pocket. I could not, at the time, stomach the idea of going back to school. It didn’t matter that it would only be some on-line work, a few weekends, and one or two week-long intensives followed by a paid probationary internship. It was more school, and I had had enough of that. My denial is wearing thin these days, though. Even as a sub, I like being in the classroom…at least when I get to teach rather than hand out worksheets or just keep the students “under control.” The problems are in the rest of it: I know how hard teachers work. I know how rules and standards become indiscriminate administrative bludgeons. I know this because I have these conversations with friends who are teachers.

What about my other skills? I’ve done a lot of miscellaneous jobs involving design, document production, and websites. Code doesn’t freak me out. Do I turn myself into a technologist of some sort to take advantage of Austin’s burgeoning tech industry? Could I cobble together a worthy collection of third-party certifications to get my foot in the door at potential employers? Probably. After a year of unemployment, the notion of a stable corporate 40+ has more appeal than it ever has. Monotony might look good on me. At least for a few years while I build an employment history whose last seven years are not occupied completely by teaching assistantships and adjunct positions.

Any of those paths forward require more than just the work. They all require me to tell different stories about myself. More importantly, they all require me to buy into those stories enough that I can make them compelling to others. Boil it down, and there is this: I have to choose. As many stark and depressing moments as the last year has had, this is still a moment of privilege: I get to choose. When I started subbing back in September, that wasn’t a choice. My partner hadn’t found a job yet and we needed income. Period. Now, we can at least keep our rent paid and food in the refrigerator. If we want more than that, though, I can’t keep hanging out in the wreckage of my academic narrative. I have to rebuild.

Inertia and insecurity make that much tougher to do than to say. The household isn’t hemorrhaging savings anymore. There’s no acute crisis to goad me. There’s also the small fact that the last time I set a major goal and chased it, I ended up…here, in the wreckage. Impostor syndrome doesn’t really go away when you get out. It compounds with actual failures (regardless of one’s own culpability in those failures) to make you more skittish. “I wasn’t good enough to get a job at the thing I spent years training for. How am I going to just wing it?” For now, I’m going to have to fake it until I make it, just like I did in my first days in front of classes. Just as it did then, the process will certainly involve making the occasional cringe-worthy mistake.

Some wisdom by analogy from one of my favorite storytellers, Neil Gaiman: “This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until it is done. It’s that easy, and that hard.” Building a postac narrative has to work the same way: one decision at a time, one after another, until you’ve reconstructed a story you can live in. Without that next decision, you’re (I’m) stuck in the wreckage.

Bones?

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7 comments

  1. Thanks for your excellent and honest post! So much of this sounds so similar to my own emotional/physical/existential experience as well. Solidarity.

    1. Thanks! The posts that inspired this one were helpful for me in providing language both to describe what I’ve been going through, but also to consider ways of moving forward. That’s the tricky bit, naja?

  2. Absolutely gorgeous essay. And spot-on.

    The thought of going back to school or spending one more penny on any training is absolutely out of the question. My stomach churns and I completely shut down at the mere thought of it. Good grief.

    1. A late reply, but…I felt the same way six months ago. I was quite certain that I was good at the things I needed to be good at and that somebody would eventually recognize that. I’ve come to realize that I, personally, don’t have quite the right “soft skills” to market myself the way my skills deserve.

      Because I relocated, I don’t have a strong network to get me the chance to self-promote outside my resume. I feel that I probably need some concrete qualifications/certifications/whatever on that resume to get me the chance to explain my other skills. I don’t believe it’s a necessity for everybody, but it’s increasingly seeming inevitable for me.

  3. This is a wonderful post. I really empathize with the need to make a new coherent story out of postgraduate transition. (And like you, I am finding that writer jobs require specialization and experience, not just education.)

    Keep the faith! Your posts show insight and intelligence. Bad as the market is, those qualities will be rewarded at some point.

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