October 22, 2010

English Matters

What I’m Reading Today: Looking forward to reading a couple of friends’ manuscripts over the weekend!

I was on a panel at the English Matters Symposium last night in the U of Wyoming English department. It was a hoot!

I arrived a little early and sat in on a panel the reported the results of an undergraduate committee’s recommendations on improving the English major. They did a skit condensed from hours and hours of committee meetings. It was hilarious. Caliban was in attendance. And, of course, the committee had lots of smart things to say: make the mission/purpose guidelines more explicit, don’t wait to explicitly introduce theory until the senior year, etc.

My panel was after that. It was advice to English majors about becoming a professional writer or editor. Also on the panel were Alison Harkin, a freelance editor and writer and novelist who also teaches in the women’s studies department, and David Ludwin (David ~ you have no online presence.  Chop chop! :-) ), a technical editor and writer at the engineering firm where my husband works and a fiction writer. The moderator/hostess with the mostess was Meg Van Baalen-Wood, a technical writer and teacher in the English department, as well as a creative nonfiction writer. I’ve known them all for years.

First Meg introduced us and then each of us talked about our backgrounds. Alison is originally from Canada and moved to Wyoming with her husband who is a professor. She was lucky ~ she hasn’t had to advertise her freelance services much, and she was rapidly able to build a good steady clientele, mostly in health-related writing. I know she has a novel manuscript too, and by all reports it’s really good. David came to UW from Washington state to get his MFA and also became interested in our environment and natural resources department. While in grad school, he interned at the engineering firm and then they hired him full time, which was a number of years ago. He said he just got back to his fiction writing again (which I applauded).

Alison talked about how people idolize being a freelancer ~ stay home in your pajamas all day, etc. She said that’s really not true. It’s hard to separate your work life and your personal life as a freelancer, especially for her because she has a hard time setting boundaries. Also, as a freelancer, you don’t have a retirement or health insurance or paid vacation or sick time. And it’s feast or famine: you have a lot of work at once and then periods of drought.

David is the only technical editor/writer in his huge engineering firm, so he ~ like the rest of us ~ is totally swamped. Mostly he edits but he’ll likely be doing more writing in the future. A lot of the engineers and scientists he works with have had maybe one writing class in their lives, so he’s been setting up mini-classes to teach them writing and also mentoring their writing.

I talked about how it took me a long time to end up in English because, coming from a ranch, I felt I needed something “practical.” Well, you spend so much time at your job, if you hate it you hate your life, which isn’t practical. I mentioned that close reading is one of the best skills an English major can acquire (thanks, Caroline!).  I also talked about how I write in all different forms: professional and technical, marketing and promotion, journalism, academic, fiction, and poetry. Alison and I both said writing is writing and all forms contribute to each other.

Meg asked what we got out of our technical writing/editing jobs. We said, first, of course, a paycheck. But we also said it’s fun and challenging and rewarding and creative, and we’re proud of what we do. David and Alison both teach in different ways (and I have in the past), which they find very rewarding.

And we said a lot more really smart things! We had a decent crowd, not huge. Among them were Peter Parolin (head of the department and my friend) and Caroline McCracken-Flesher (my mentor and friend).  At the end I asked them whether all the other English majors had already figured out how they were going to make a living with an English degree. Hehe.

Questions of the Day: Did you get an English Degree? What did you think you were going to do with it?


Rick said...

Hi Tamara!
I was in attendance that night, too, and really enjoyed hearing you each talk about the connections you see between technical writing/editing and creative writing. Very cool!

Tamara said...

Cool! Where were you sitting? I tried to tell from your pic but couldn't.

So, you're a creative writer too, in addition to being a teacher? What do you teach? What do you write? I checked out your blog. Very neat. I skimmed, but I can't wait to read more.

(It's called "It's Better in Wyoming" and it's located here: http://singledropofrain.blogspot.com/. Check it out.)

Do you find connections between your different types of writing?