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“Creative Writing Careers: Life After Graduation” Alumni Panel

by Sonia Barkat

Life after graduation isn’t always linear, but according to four creative writing alumni, before you begin is a bit early to lose hope. They say a future is out there, even if it takes some boredom, a move to China, or nine application denials from Penguin Random House to get there.

Caitlin Waggoner (upper left,) Stacy Skolnik (upper right,) Trisha Murphy (lower left,) and Emily Jacobson (lower right.) Photos courtesy of Purchase College.

Emily Jacobson (correctional services supervising librarian at the New York Public Library,) Trisha Murphy (editorial assistant at The Princeton Review,) Stacy Skolnik (co-curator for Montez Press Radio and PEN America prison writing mentor) and Caitlin (C.M.) Waggoner (author of “Unnatural Magic,” released in early November) met up on Nov. 25 for a panel on life after graduation.

One student who came to listen, creative writing junior Grace Mahony, attended the event in hopes of hearing some good advice, since graduation has been on her mind recently.

“I’ve been thinking, it’s coming up, what do I do? How can I prepare for it," said Mahony. "Especially as a writer, it’s not going to be stable unless you’re lucky.”

According to Skolnik, you can have an unlucky start but still find success in the long run.

“I was arrested on campus [for smoking weed] the year I graduated,” said Skolnik. “It felt like a big mistake and like I’d messed up all post-graduation opportunities, but life goes on.”

Skolnik went home to Long Island, where she lined up a job with Simon & Schuster that she worked at for two and a half years before quitting, because she found it uninteresting.

“I felt like I was forgetting how to write,” said Skolnik, which led her to attend an MFA program at Brooklyn College. “Don’t do a poetry MFA for the job prospects, do it for the craft and to find people with a similar interest.”

Jacobson’s first step after graduation was to move to the city, where she worked odd jobs and later became a journalist for Time Out New York, though she did not enjoy it. Out of boredom, she found herself organizing books for fun, which clued her in that she may want to change paths and go to grad school. She did an MLS (Masters in Library Science) and volunteered with the New York Public Library doing services in jail, which she said spoke to her the most, and led her to her current job.

Waggoner had no idea what she wanted to do after school, and decided to spend all her money to move to China, since she had a minor in the language. After moving there she taught English, did writing for a dog camera company, and then turned freelance for a job with the Shanghai Chamber of Commerce, all while struggling with the stress of “working hard and being broke,” and living off a frugal menu of cabbage and buns.

She realized there wasn’t time for her to write while being so busy, so she took time off to work on her book. She said she never wanted to go to graduate school, because as a fiction writer she didn’t view it as a necessary step.

“I write fantasy novels and you can be completely uneducated to do that,” said Waggoner. “And there’s no wizarding MFA!”

One thing she did want was an agent, though she found the process of getting one to be difficult.

“There’s the real process of getting an agent [sending out pitches and following the instructions] and there’s what I did,” said Waggoner. “I had a secret Tumblr where I posted jokes about historical figures and talked about Marvel.”

She eventually posted something humorous about how hard it was to find an agent, and received a DM as a result from someone in the business, "They were like, ‘I’m an agent, send me something!’”

During school, Murphy worked with Purchase publications such as Italics Mine and Gutter Magazine. After graduating, she applied to every publishing house she could think of.

“I was denied by Penguin Random House about nine times,” she said. Eventually, Murphy made it to the Princeton Review, where she works on e-books that are published through Penguin Random House’s children’s division.

Skolnik said she was disappointed that getting a job had less to do with self and more to do with connections, and stated heavily that writers should try to get their foot in the door wherever they can (and prove themselves as hard workers) while also embedding themselves in the community they wish to be a part of. But patience, she mentioned, is also necessary.

Skolnik explained that if she were to talk to her younger self, she would say “you are going to have a really cool job—in ten years. Life is what you want it to be, and you didn’t sacrifice happiness for money.”

She also said that although everyone tells new writers to submit their work wherever possible, she would have advised herself to be more careful.

“I have some lousy stuff on the internet from twelve years ago that can’t be taken down and isn’t timestamped… only submit to places where the standard of publication is one you like, and where you respect their editorial eye and taste.”

Murphy added to the conversation, saying she would have told her younger self to be excited for her classmates, but not compare herself to them when they were getting good jobs and she was moving back in with her parents.

“And that feeling never goes away,” mentioned Skolnik, “comparing yourself to other people.”

Even after hard times, boring jobs, and in some cases years of searching, the alumni said they are pleased with where they are now, and encouraged students to take their time. After a “horrible experience” at Penguin and a dull time at Simon & Schuster, Skolnik said it feels like her career in radio is a beginning. “I have never cared about a job so much.”



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