Criteria for judgment

We largely spent Part 1 of this three-part series traversing how it was that I arrived at Grand Valley State University (GVSU), and how it was that I came to switch majors once there, from Film & Video Production to Creative Writing.

And here we are, in Part 2, where we’ll roll up our sleeves and start discussing how the degree I earned from GVSU has fallen short in the ten years since graduation. Before we do, let’s establish a few things first:

In case you haven’t read Part 1, I think it’s important to note that I’m of the belief that a four-year university in the United States should be treated as a financial investment, in that you are putting X amount of dollars into something with the expectation that on the other side of it you will at some point receive more than X amount of dollars back in return.

You may feel differently. And that’s okay. If you do, I sincerely feel there will still be something valuable to extract from this series.

We’ll certainly dig into how finances have come into play since graduation, but as you’ll find while reading, I also think it’s important to shed light on the program itself—the structure, the offerings, the environment. I think it paints a clearer picture, at least in how my Creative Writing degree may stack up to someone else’s Creative Writing degree and/or how my Creative Writing degree may stack up to someone else’s degree, well, in anything else.

So while I’ll further define the criteria in their respective sections, here’s a brief map of the three areas we’ll be zooming in—the three areas where I feel my creative writing degree has fallen short:

  • Hands-on opportunities
  • Securing employment
  • Preparation for the future of the industry (which will be explored in Part 3)

Let’s jump right in.

Hands-on opportunities

First, what does this mean—“hands-on opportunities”? Well, I tend to equate it to what I expect, say, biology students to have encountered while studying. How much time do they get to spend in the lab? Are there any research opportunities offered? Trips? What internships can be applied to? Where do those internships take place?

In terms of creative writing, “the lab” can translate to a book publisher, or a bookstore. Research opportunities can translate to literally doing research for a practicing author who also happens to be a professor. Maybe there’s a study abroad program offered. Or a prolific literary magazine where you can intern as a reader. Etc.

That said, though I don’t think I was aware of it at the time, my experience fell a little short in this area. As a quick refresher: I grew up in a place where nothing was offered to someone interested in creative writing. So when something was offered in this new environment, anything at all, it was easy for me to become excited

And, with the whole falling short bit here, not all of that was the fault of the university.

GVSU’s writing department was, I believe, pretty young at that time, and it likely still is considered to be so. I look at the program’s faculty page today and see several faces and names that I recognize, which I think hints at the idea that while I was there a transplantation may have been taking place. If there were roots there at all, they weren’t very deep.

More literally, perhaps it was the first or second year of teaching for professors that have now been there for ten years. Perhaps back then they weren’t so quick to get a green light for a new initiative as they would be now, or a new event, etc.

So what hands-on opportunities were offered? And, likely the more important question you’re asking: did I participate in any of them?

Here’s what I remember:

  • there was a student-led literary journal called fishladder, which published annually.
  • There was a student reading series that had at least one event each semester.
  • There was a campus-wide essay writing contest (that was actually put on by the English department, not the writing department).
  • And yes, there were internships offered (required for graduation, actually), but they weren’t really what you’d think of in terms of the book publishing world (more on that in a second).

And here’s what I participated in: I was twice a reader for fishladder; I read at at least one student reading series event (as well as at an event for the fishladder release); I once submitted to and placed in the campus-wide essay writing contest; and I completed an internship at Revue Magazine, an entertainment guide in the nearby city of Grand Rapids–though I have a lot of great memories from this internship, it was definitely better suited for aspiring journalists, not novelists.

So, relatively speaking, it wasn’t like I wasn’t involved. But that’s the key phrase here: relatively speaking. Because today, having spent seven years in the very literary city of Seattle, I can say with certainty that GVSU was at a severe disadvantage due to its location. The writing department is based in Allendale, Michigan, a farming community about fifteen miles west of Grand Rapids, Michigan, a midsize city that, though they do occasionally celebrate art on a grand scale (see: ArtPrize), don’t, er, seem to think of literature as an art.

“In other words, hands-on opportunities through creative writing programs, in many ways, are only as rich as the surrounding environment allows. And, I suspect, only helped along by history.”

By that I mean, well… let’s put it this way: when I was in college, Allendale had two bookstores: the on-campus bookstore, and Brian’s Books, which sold new and used textbooks to incoming and returning students. And Grand Rapids, I believe, had two: Schuler Books (which had two locations, one of which closed down in 2013) and Barnes & Noble. In terms of book publishers, at the time all I remember is a company called Zondervan, which is a publisher of Christian texts. And I mean Christian texts. Googling now, though, nets two more hits that I don’t recall: another Christian publisher and a children’s book publisher. (A note to those unfamiliar with the area: Grand Rapids, and West Michigan as a whole, is very, very Christian).

There was one Grand Rapids coffee shop I remember having what seemed to be a sharp literary influence, called The Sparrows. I believe they held regularly poetry readings there. They also sold literary magazines. But I don’t recall any other establishment doing the same, no coffee shop, no bar, no gallery.

As someone who isn’t Christan, and someone who doesn’t write much poetry (I wrote zero of it back then), well… pickings were slim, and entirely dependent upon GVSU.

In other words, hands-on opportunities through creative writing programs, in many ways, are only as rich as the surrounding environment allows. And, I suspect, only helped along by history. For example, GVSU was founded in 1960. Compare that to Harvard, which was founded in 1636. That’s a 300+ year head start in building relationships locally, regionally, and abroad.

Now comes a crucial question: how important are these hands-on opportunities for writers, really? After all, how much more hands-on can it get than actually writing?


But, I can say with certainty that, had I had more hands-on opportunities then, I would’ve been a better writer by now. Or, a more successful writer. Why? Because perhaps at twenty-two, via an internship with some press, I would’ve discovered what I only learned at age thirty, after I’d burnt out from running a micro press and literary journal almost singlehandedly: that I didn’t want to be the runner of a publishing house.

Did I have the same brain then that I have now, the same lens through which I was viewing everything? No. Of course not. But just as hands-on opportunities can show you what you do like, they also can show you what you don’t like.

As someone who struggles with wanting to try each hat on at least once, they can be invaluable.

Securing employment

Here it is, the primary reason why I spent so much time in Part 1 defining the lens through which I was viewing college: not as a place to find myself, but as the place to turn me into what it was I wanted to be. College was an investment, of time and money. And at the end of it, I believed you should have everything you needed to secure employment. Your dream job? That’d be lovely, but no, to land your dream job right out of the gate seems—and seemed then—lofty. But, an entry level position? Yes, absolutely, a secure place from which to launch.


Degree in hand and situated atop of my résumé, it took me over two years of actively applying to secure a position that paid me anything at all for skills that had been strengthened by my time at GVSU—a full-time entry level content writer role at what was essentially a content farm. Full-time work. $26,000 per year.

Not so ironically, the office for this place was right across the road from the main GVSU campus, in Allendale, Michigan—the company was headquartered on the west coast (Seattle, which as you’ll see shortly was actually quite ironic) and had acquired a warehouse for their products, which happened to have an office attached to it as well.

Enter: cheap labor for other areas of the business, from relatively untapped resources (GVSU is one of nine universities in the Grand Rapids area, which is kind of crazy, considering that the city has a population of ~199,000, and the area just north of one million).

And let me be absolutely clear: when I say “actively applying,” I mean it. From the time I graduated, in April 2012 to the time I was hired to that role, in August 2014, I submitted over 250 job applications, to employers across West Michigan and to employers throughout the Seattle, Washington area (it’s a blog post for a later date, but I lived in Seattle for six months in 2013 before returning to Hart, broke). At most, I think those 250+ applications led to three interviews.

And that job I did end up getting, for that company intent on hiring cheap labor? They didn’t really want me in the first place. They even told me so. I was initially turned down after my interview. I’d of course been bummed but had tried to chalk it up as “good experience.” You know, the things you tell yourself when things aren’t going so well. The fumes.

Two weeks later, to my surprise, I was called by their HR rep and offered the job. Later, as my four years there were coming to a close, I was told that I’d been their third choice (of four interviewees), and that I’d nabbed the second slot only because their initial choice rescinded the offer for a better one elsewhere.

So, college degree in hand: two years. 250+ applications. And luck. That’s what it took for me to secure full-time employment.

Something seems broken in the system, yeah? Something failed? Someone failed? Who? And how?

I think the obvious answer is that there were a combination of things at play here, and that of course includes me. Even today, I’m really not that good at selling myself, in the form of a résumé or otherwise. Nor do I think I’m particularly good at interviews. Well, let me rephrase: interviews then, in 2014, especially weren’t set up for someone like me to succeed. They still aren’t, really, in my experience. But they’re better.

Here’s what I mean: I’m quiet. Enter a room of strangers with me and you’ll see me hang back until I have a decent handle on the personalities ahead and how they’re preferring to interact with their environment. I wear very little on my sleeve. I pride myself on remaining humble. I don’t always see things I’ve done as achievements. But even the things that I do see as achievements, because I don’t talk about them often—with anyone—giving breath to them in an interview setting, I suspect, comes across as clearly forced.

So, yeah, even if someone were to give me a pass for what had been a sparse résumé, I suspect that I left a lot to be desired in those interviews.

Before I get into another side of who’s responsible for the failure to secure employment (GVSU), I want to touch quickly upon a key factor out of my control, as well as out of GVSU’s control. And that is: though 2012 (the year that I graduated from GVSU and started looking for jobs) won’t ever be included in what was known as “the Great Recession” (2008, 2009), the impact of said recession could certainly still be felt in West Michigan.

Whether it was due to their bottom line still being in limbo, or to a new commitment to “staying lean”, companies weren’t hiring. They especially were not on the prowl for someone fresh out of college who could maybe spruce up the copy of ads they no longer had the budget, or the will, to run.

The recession: not GVSU’s fault. The fact that West Michigan businesses at that time weren’t looking for entry level employees: not GVSU’s fault. The fact that those businesses, even in good times, don’t value something like creative writing in the same way a New York City business or a Chicago business might (the value of media is just higher): not GVSU’s fault.

Here’s where I do think GVSU fell short, though: they did not adopt, develop or implement practices in order to best support students and recent graduates of that unique point in time.

I remember that as part of the curriculum for the creative writing major you had to take professional writing classes. Think: document design, product documentation, etc. Two of them, I believe. And one was an intro class and in it you had a very brief section on résumés. And by, “very brief,” I mean that I spent maybe a week or two creating mine in class and getting feedback on it from the professor. And, well, that was all. Feedback from one person and you’re good to go, right?

Job market, here I come.

“Here’s where I do think GVSU fell short, though: they did not adopt, develop or implement practices in order to best support students and recent graduates of that unique point in time.”

There were zero courses, or sections, however, on how to successfully interview for jobs. How to carry one’s self. How to sell one’s self, how to network. Not that I think that other colleges feature this across all of their programs or anything, but… wouldn’t you think that’s pretty important for people to know—especially writers? We’re famously introverted, after all, many preferring communication via the written word to that of speaking.

But, there was nothing.

It’s possible there were institution-led seminars and workshops offered on securing employment. It’s possible signs for those events were thrust in my face and that I completely ignored them. It’s possible, but I doubt it. Why? Simple: there was one job I had as a sixteen-year-old at a go-kart track, where my manager constantly referred to me as Eeyore (the depressed-sounding donkey from Winnie the Pooh), due to the depth and cadence of my voice. I hated that nickname, but it isn’t like I was unaware of the fact that “gregarious” was the last adjective someone would use to describe me (but precisely the way of being that makes your interview sticky).

That’s to say: if signs for such events were thrust in my face, being quite conscious of how I could be socially perceived, I believe I would’ve jumped at the opportunity.

I do know that there wasn’t a single professor that stood in front of the class and told it how it was.

“Look,” I wish they would have said, “you’re going to need to be pretty fucking savvy to get a job in this market with zero contacts, and with your degree.”

And I do know that following graduation I heard very little from GVSU, aside from an annual phone call asking me to submit a donation. No check-ins. No, “Hey, how’s your job search going?” No, “Hey, in case it’s helpful, here are some resources for your job search, as well as some people you can talk to at GVSU should you need it.”

Naa. Not that I remember anyway.

At this point, I suspect that some of you might be thinking. “But is that the university’s role—to prepare you in the actual job search?”

Or, maybe it’s more along the lines of, “Why not look elsewhere then? Why try to tap a dry well? Why not go to a New York City or a Chicago?”

Or maybe even, “Look, maybe you just weren’t a good candidate.”

All valid questions. I’ll start by addressing the last thought.

Me as a candidate: I’m as close to it as one can be, and therefore biased, so I of course cannot be the true judge of that. I’m sure there were better candidates that applied for many of those jobs, and got them, but I will say that I’d earned my college degree, that I’d had a 3.4 GPA while doing so (two Cs in mandatory math classes taken in my freshman year tugged it down from what would’ve otherwise been 3.8 or 3.9), that I’d been an English Honors Student since I was a sophomore, and that I’d excelled at all hands-on opportunities I seized (I was asked to stay on as a part-time staff writer at Revue, for example). Also, though it wasn’t necessarily “relevant” work experience, my résumé showed that I’d been working since I was legally able to do so, since age 14.

So, biased as I may be, I do believe I had plenty of reason to be given a chance.

Bouncing around, to the first question: yes, I absolutely think it’s on the university to prepare you for the job search. I think that if you, the student, are investing all that time and money, education on what it’ll take to actually wade into the waters of your field would be something you’d welcome. And as the university, don’t you want your students to actually succeed? So why not clue them in on critical pieces of the puzzle? Why not make a job application & interview course mandatory prior to graduation?

And to the second question: I did look elsewhere. As I said, I spent six months in Seattle, which meant that I spent plenty of time applying to jobs there. I usually heard nothing back from those applications. But, the consensus from the few friends I had in Seattle at that time, when telling them of where I went to college, was: “What the fuck is Grand Valley?”

In other words, GVSU is small enough that once you get outside of the Midwestern region, it’s likely that the majority of people won’t know what it is—something I still face today.

Bummer, right? Should’ve had that foresight.

Okay, so, went broke in Seattle, moved back to Michigan… what about applying to jobs still in the Midwest but not in West Michigan?

Oh, I did. I applied to a lot of them, in Chicago and in Detroit. Nothing. I even started hiding any mention of my then-location, thinking that my application was being tossed in the desktop trash because I wasn’t within a certain physical range.

Let me repeat that: I was in Hart, Michigan, applying to jobs in Chicago, Illinois and Detroit, Michigan, each just a few hours away by car or train, and I was hiding my location.

Wild, when considering how remote everything has become.

One thing you may be wondering now, or have been wondering for a while, is: “Why was it so important for you to get a j-o-b job?”

I think it was important for me to get a j-o-b job because, well, loans, for one. Between the time that I graduated from college and started that full-time content writer job, I worked as a cashier, a grocery bagger, a leasing agent, and as a Best Buy sales rep, none of which did even an adequate job of paying the bills, let alone start paying back student loans.

But it was also important to me because I felt a need to prove to myself and to my family that it wasn’t for nothing. That yes, the path that I chose can actually provide a life in this country. Even as I come up on my eighth year spent in the “professional world” I carry that chip on my shoulder, the need to prove something.

I feel that as a professional, and I feel that as an author too. I don’t know if it’ll ever go away.

But, let’s return to that question for a moment, so that we can start to transition to the final way in which I feel my college degree has fallen short: “Why was it so important for you to get a j-o-b job?”

Let’s return to it because the truth is that my goal—or dream, if you will—wasn’t to climb the corporate ladder and unseat some CEO. No, if you may recall, I’d started out wanting to be a screenwriter, a vision that largely held intact, though a couple new paths sprouted from it as I switched majors; screenwriter was definitely a part of that vision, but so too was author—of fiction and creative nonfiction.

Screenwriter. Novelist. Essayist. None of those are nine-to-fives. None of those are cubicle jobs.

So if my degree in creative writing didn’t set me up for success in the job market, it had to have set me up for success somewhere, right?

End of article

Read the Rest of the Series

Where My Creative Writing Degree Has Fallen Short, Part 1
Pick a life, any life.
Where My Creative Writing Degree Has Fallen Short, Part 3
Facts are facts.

How My Creative Writing Degree Has Served Me Well
Holding that expensive piece of paper up to a different light.
Why Being a Writer Sucks—an essay
A dash of truth.
Why Being a Writer is Pretty Great—an essay
A dash of optimism.
Would I Send My Daughter to a Creative Writing Program?
“Do you have time for a few questions?”

The link has been copied!