I met James Crews at the University of Nebraska where he worked as a mentor for my first-year teaching class while finishing his poetry PhD. We kept in touch, and when we both found ourselves in the northeast I drove out to southern Vermont to the farmhouse he shares with his partner in Shaftsbury (which, coincidentally, is just up the road from Bennington College, where I did my undergrad).
The house was a new, meticulously crafted structure filled with ornate hardwood countertops and moldings, and the two of us sat in the living room overlooking the farm to talk shop, grad school, and the difficulties of making it as a writer.
But I Also Have a Day Job: So before I turned the recorder on you were talking about this idea of not putting all your eggs in one basket as a writer hoping to work in academia.
James Crews: Right, yeah. I think it’s the idea of counting on a teaching job, but I know people who go so far as to even count on finding a teaching job in one place, and that’s the other thing that not everybody is aware of—if you do find a teaching job, you’re probably going to have to be extremely flexible about where you live. Like, I know people who have gotten jobs in West Virginia, and Alabama, and these are not places they imagined themselves living, but they’ve made lives there, and because they were flexible, it worked.
BIAHADJ: How important do you think place is in terms of making a happy life for yourself?
JC: For me personally, I think place is very important, and although I would love to have a full-time teaching job, and I have applied for jobs just for the heck of it in places like . . . Utah [laughs] and have had offers for an interview, but I’ve ultimately said, you know, I think I’m committing to Vermont and this place, because as a gay man it’s important for me to live in a place where I feel more accepted, and that’s really important for me and for my partner.
For a while, place was not as important, and it was a compromise and a sacrifice to live in Nebraska, although I think I was able to uncover some things that worked for me and to get invaluable experience with editing and writing and meeting with Ted Kooser.
BIAHADJ: Did you anticipate that when you applied to Nebraska?
JC: The idea that it would be a sacrifice?
JC: I think I knew just having to gauge other people’s reactions…people were really surprised that I was choosing Nebraska, especially coming from Oregon. I had won the Prairie Schooner book prize the year prior to entering the PhD program, and there was this perception or this mythology among some of the other students there that if you had a book or if you had maybe some publications and some teaching experience that, you know, your path was set—and I knew from being out on the market as we say, that a book and other publishing didn’t necessarily buy you a teaching job, and I think that’s true. Old professors even now tell me that you have to have at least 2 to 3 books [laughs] to get a teaching job—if you’re going by formula, which is very daunting.
So I did go into it knowing that it wasn’t always going to meet my expectations in terms of a place to live, but that I would do my best to find the good and hold on to that, but also stay very in touch with reality and not just drink the Kool-Aid that it’s the best place in the world, or that it’s a springboard for this or that.
BIAHADJ: I think that flexibility is important because a lot of people go into academia knowing it’s going to be hard, but fewer people go into it knowing how flexible they’ll have to be in terms of what they do there.
JC: I’ve always had to live really organically, and just try and take it step by step and not plan too far ahead, and so keeping a large degree of flexibility in my life initially was about place, but now I think it’s more. I’m willing to do just about anything based on the skills that I’ve gained at this point, and that’s anything from writing a review to teaching ESL to our local Vermont News Guide. [picks up paper from coffee table] I’ve been invited to do a column for them every month—for no money [chuckles] but it’s fine, because this is a publication that lots of people in our community read, and I would love to do something with it, and it’s exposure, and it’s keeping up the practice—so that’s really important to me.
And so I think it is about a flexibility in what you’re willing to do, but I think it’s also a flexibility in what you’re willing to learn.
BIAHADJ: From your tone I take it that wasn’t always the case?
JC: I think so—originally, I really sought safety and comfort more than I do now—safety in terms of a regular job, with health care and retirement. I sort of bought into that idea of “This is what I need as a person.” But I think the reality check for me has been that a highly structured job and my writing practice can’t very easily coexist—not to say that they can’t at all, but it’s been my experience just from working in a series of office settings that it’s not an ideal situation for me to write poetry in.
BIAHADJ: What about it made it not ideal?
JC: I think the lack of freedom, the idea that you’re tethered to your desk. When I worked in an office in Portland, it was a great organization with really great people, but I often got in trouble because I wasn’t at my desk [laughs], I was wandering outside. I would get my work done very quickly and be very productive, and then I wouldn’t just sit there and want to surf online or be on Facebook as most other people were doing.
BIAHADJ: It’s interesting because I’ve walked through countless offices where people were goofing off, but they’re goofing off on their computers where they can easily click to another tab and hide it. Unfortunately, if you want to use that same time to walk outside and admire the clear blue sky, you can’t disguise that as good office productivity.
JC: But I think it is, actually.
BIAHADJ: I think it is too.
JC: That’s the problem with so many office environments, that this idea is not as valued. I’ve never been good at pretending to be working really hard when I’m not for that 15 or 20 minutes or whatever. It just doesn’t work for me, and I think it’s a noisier environment, it’s a sterile environment.
BIAHADJ: What do you mean by sterile?
JC: I guess I just had a vision of the last cubicle that I worked in, with these gray walls and the fluorescent lights above, the dingy carpet, and because it was in Portland, the gray, rainy sky outside, the few plants in the office struggling to survive—it was not an ideal situation to be inspired in. But I did still write, I just didn’t write as much.
Over time you figure out what environments are right for you and right for your work, and then the trick is to try to create those conditions for yourself, as much as possible, while—and this is the trickiest part—not being attached to having that environment or that situation regularly so that you’re OK with it changing and evolving over time.
BIAHADJ: So what about this environment is conducive to your work?
JC: I would say being surrounded more by the natural world, the quiet . . . just feeling that I’m living at a pace that’s more true to my own internal pace. I move slowly, I learn slowly, I don’t do anything very quickly, so the pace of life here definitely matches that, and the pace of the natural world matches that as well.
BIAHADJ: How long did you last in the Oregon office?
JC: It was most of 2009 to 2010. This was a couple years after I had finished my MFA, and I’d wanted to do something different. I wanted to give back, I wanted to try living in Portland, again, because I’d lived there a year previous, and I was trying to figure out what was best for me in terms of place. And it was during that time that I found out about my book winning the prize, so even though that didn’t necessarily buy me a job, I would say it still opened doors. People took me more seriously as a writer.
BIAHADJ: Like what kind of people?
JC: Former colleagues, editors that I had met publishing in literary magazines. I got a few invitations to read for my undergrad alma mater, and then back in Oregon where I taught as a fill-in for a year. So that happened, and I think it definitely, probably, when I applied to Nebraska, made them notice my application—like, they gave me this book prize. [grins]
BIAHADJ: Was winning the book prize the spark to go back for the PhD?
JC: It sort of reinforced the spark, but I think the spark had always been there. Neither of my parents even finished high school, so they acknowledged that I would have to figure out college, grad school, and everything on my own. My father would always say, “Just keep going as far as you can,” and I suppose this mantra was in my head, and I knew that it was probably one of the best ways to keep supporting what I wanted to do.
I also think that winning the book prize while I was working this office job that I didn’t take to very much really gave me the spark to say, “Maybe I can avoid working in an office,” or maybe avoid working in an office full-time, because that doesn’t work for me. It sort of . . . gave legitimacy to my own intuition. So that’s what led me to apply to a PhD, and then apply to different artist’s and writer’s residencies as well.
BIAHADJ: How were the writer’s residencies?
JC: They’re really helpful, but they’re hard to get. I’ve applied for probably more than I can count that haven’t worked out, but a handful have, and I’ve made lasting connections through those residencies. I met the woman who did the cover art for my first book through a residency, I got a freelance job—this is almost eight years ago now—from a guy that I met at a residency. He had a connection at the Times Literary Supplement in London and they were looking for somebody to write these little features for an online thing, and I’ve been doing that off and on for years. And it’s not super-lucrative by any stretch of the imagination [chuckles] but it’s getting paid for writing, which still feels like a miracle.
BIAHADJ: Did you go right from undergrad to MFA, or was there a gap?
JC: I took a year off, and worked in the advising office of my undergrad alma mater. And I mean, that’s experience that’s led to other experience as well, so I don’t regret it. I didn’t do much writing during that time because it was an office job, and then I went to my MFA. I was trained by my wise professors during undergrad not to look at an MFA as an end-all be-all experience, which allowed me to go into it with a lot of reality, but I also felt extremely intimidated during it. There were writing fellows there who were publishing their first books and the faculty were very into publishing, very knowledgeable about this world that was just totally foreign to me at the time, which is probably a good thing . . . .
BIAHADJ: [laughs] What does that mean?
JC: Well…just, I think again that attachment to outcome and focus on outcome while you’re writing can poison your writing. If you think [flighty voice] “Oh, this’ll be perfect, and they’ll just love this at So-and-So Review!” then it can keep you from the genuine aspect of writing sometimes.
But I was also trained during my MFA not to expect to publish my first book very easily, so I knew that it would take some time, and a lot of revision, and it did. So I applied for teaching jobs, I applied for more office jobs, and in the end, I ended up getting a job—again in the advising office—at Humboldt State out in California. It was a very well-paying job, and the people there were great, and they were . . . let’s say “amused” by the fact that I was a poet, but they didn’t hide that.
BIAHADJ: So, “amused” in a belittling way, or “amused” in a “let’s all have fun with it together” kind of way? See, it’s interesting you use that word—
BIAHADJ: —because in my experience with the office environment, it seems like everybody there has certain kinds of traditional goals, whether they’re for retirement, stability, raising a family, living in a nice house in the suburbs, or whatever—and meanwhile I’m over here wanting to be a writer. For me, that lack of connection has always been a social barrier.
JC: [laughs] I would say “belittling” might be too strong a word, but maybe it did feel like that at times—especially for poetry, where you can’t make very much money in publishing. It’s just what I’ve always wanted to do, really since, like, third grade, and I fought against it, and tried other things, and tried to convince myself that I was a fiction writer—because that would make more sense, right? [laughs] You can still make quote-unquote “money,” although we know that’s sort of a pipe dream too.
But with my poetry, I think that people often treated it as a hobby. You know, like “Oh, there’s your poem, you got a poem published.” It was nice of people to ask about it, and to sort of bring it up in conversation, but for them it was a hobby, and for me it felt like a calling. And that was always the source of conflict.
BIAHADJ: Social conflicts aside, how were the conditions there?
JC: Because I was working at a California State University, I was starting at the bottom and still making, I don’t know, 45 or 50 thousand dollars [laughs] and I would look at all these fringe benefits that came with my job: vacation, retirement—I have retirement from the six to nine months that I worked there that’s still gathering interest. If I had stayed there, I would have had a lot of money saved up, but in the end, it was too great a sacrifice.
BIAHADJ: Do you ever feel like you’re tempted by the money again? When you said that 45 or 50 grand you said it with almost a longing…
JC: I suppose I’m tempted by the idea, but then when I remember the reality I’m very swiftly brought back down to Earth. I think it is tempting—the idea of having health care for both me and my partner, that is tempting. If artists didn’t have to worry about health care—if we as a country didn’t have to worry about health care—I feel like so much more would be possible.
I think that keeps a lot of people tethered to jobs that they don’t necessarily want . . . having to pay for student loans that they were conned into getting keeps people working those kinds of jobs. There are all these elements that could easily seduce one right back into that world. I don’t mean to denigrate office work at all, because so much has to be done in that setting, but so much more could be done at home, or the environment could be set up in a much more flexible and actually productive way. It could be a support mechanism for more creative people, if managers saw it that way, and if we asked them to see it that way. Maybe creative people working in those settings have to be more vocal and outspoken and not treat their calling as a hobby, or something they just do “on the side.”
BIAHADJ: [laughs] I love your disparaging tone.
JC: [seriously] It’s the main dish.
BIAHADJ: Have you had bosses who were willing to give you more freedom in your day job work?
JC: I can’t say that I have. Part of that’s my own fault because I haven’t actually asked for it. In the office job out in California I did ask to come in later and stay later, because I really prize the mornings as work time, and having to get there as early as I did meant having to take the 6:30 bus from where I was living, and it cut down on what I like to call “dream time” that I have in the morning after waking up. And I was turned down because most people do want to come in later and stay later just so they can sleep more.
BIAHADJ: I think that kind of flexibility is beneficial for creative people who want to work at their own pace, but also for people with families or who have a sick parent to take care of or any number of other things—there’s this idea that we can make work more conducive to the other parts of our lives that are more important than work, instead of having to plan our entire lives around this 8-to-5 job or this 6:30 bus.
JC: Yeah, and I’m glad that’s starting to happen for a lot of people. I think the work at home thing has gained more momentum over the years. And for those of us who want to go into teaching, there are a lot of online possibilities, and that can work. I’m still on the fence about people getting the fullest experience possible when taking an online class, especially a writing class [laughs] or a class where you’re sharing work. It can work on a certain level, but it doesn’t work at its highest level, perhaps.
BIAHADJ: What do you think is missing?
JC: Just being in the same room with a bunch of different people coming from different places and having to face one another. We don’t do that enough in our lives—it’s only in our lived, tangible experience that we can truly see others, and see and understand where they’re coming from. I think in some ways the online forum is comfortable for a lot of people.
BIAHADJ: I think moving between the teaching world and the office world, or making any kind of life change is tremendously important for your self-confidence because it shows courage in the face of uncertain economic conditions. I think everyone at some point should have to quit a job and turn down a job—I think those are two of the most empowering things you can possibly do. I know people who have never quit a job—they’ve either had the same job or they’ve been laid off, or whatever—it’s a more passive choice.
JC: It is a more passive choice. I love that idea of having to quit a job or turn down a job because it’s good practice and discipline, and maybe even in some ways disciplining parts of yourself that crave the comfort and safety of a regular job with insurance and all these things. But to have a thriving creative practice, I think you have to be OK with a lot of disappointment yourself—in your own work, in publication, or NOT publication, and you have to disappoint people because you have to say no.
During my PhD program in Nebraska—as you probably remember—there were always these events, “You can sign up to read here, you can do this,” and you could fill your time to the brim, as many people did, with all these events and all this socializing, and I developed this reputation as someone who was aloof and standoffish, or worse, just because I said no. It wasn’t to be rude of course, but it was total self-preservation. Not only were we teaching twice as much as most people do in an MFA or PhD program, but we were also taking classes, working on a thesis or dissertation, and keeping up our own writing practice while living a life. I’m still not sure how I did all that, but I had to say no a lot, and I had to disappoint people.
BIAHADJ: Some of the best advice I ever got in Nebraska was when you were leading our first new teacher discussion group, and your simple advice for succeeding in grad school was to DO LESS THINGS. [JC laughs] I’ll remember that forever because as soon as you said that it reminded me of my first year and how I’d fucked up and tried to do too much, and I don’t think I’d realized it until that moment.
JC: I’m glad that was useful for you, and it’s sort of been my mantra for a while now, ever since I made the commitment to a regular writing practice. Doing less, I think, is a better way of life. You can err on the side of doing way too little, and then it’s like, “Oh shit, I need more to do—I NEED more stimulation.” It’s a constant balancing act, and there are going to be times where I feel like I made the wrong choice.
BIAHADJ: Maybe Do Less Things is an oversimplification, because if you followed that to the letter you wouldn’t do anything—but there’s this idea that every single day we make a hundred choices about how we’re going to spend our time, and sometimes writing’s a good choice and sometimes it’s a bad choice.
JC: For me, I think, having to make these choices can be very educational and can really show you what’s most important to you, because you do maybe have to struggle after leaving a job to find another, or to make ends meet. I feel like in the same way, having to talk about all of this and say it in a more tangible way helps me remember what I believe, and it helps to reinforce some of the choices I have made, because they have not always been easy, and they probably will not be in the future, either.
But I think in terms of advice for young writers . . . I was talking to you guys early on in the program. So many of us are probably going to gravitate towards these writing programs, and they’re still valid and very viable ways of getting paid a fairly meager salary, but a salary nonetheless, to simply work on your writing, and that’s pretty amazing. The pitfall—the big, big pitfall—is not getting involved in this mentality of the more I do, the more I publish, the more invincible I’ll be, because it takes you away from the joy of doing what you love, which is why we got into this in the first place. I saw so many people who just approached it as a job, or as a task to be completed, or as something else to cross off the list, and I never wanted it to be that, and I still don’t.
BIAHADJ: For me, it’s one thing to set out to do a job—whether it’s building houses or working in an office—primarily for the material benefits, and to be honest about your intentions, but then seeing someone who in their heart wanted to be a writer and then started to produce writing for more superficial reasons—there’s something especially revolting to me about that.
JC: If we want to talk about the soul, I think it means that you’re surrendering this essential part of yourself, that spark that brought you to the art in the first place. If you’re just seeking money, or status . . . you know, there’s still this status that accrues to people if you say that you’re a professor, or if you’re Director of Blah Blah Blah or Editor of Blah Blah Blah. I think that when you seek after that stuff you’re sort of riding the back of your creativity to something that’s starting to get really dicey, because you’re not in it for—I don’t want to say the right reasons—but the intention that brought you there to begin with. So that just seems really dangerous to me.
BIAHADJ: Where do you think the desire to have that status comes from?
JC: [answers immediately] The desire to legitimize your art to other people. I really do. I think it feels good to say you’re Director of Blah Blah Blah or whatever it is, and people say “Oh, wow.” It feels good for a moment, and it allows people to see, “Oh, So-and-So is out there doing things, she’s really made it!” And I do see the attraction in that because publication is such a slow process, and it usually doesn’t work out, so there’s very little tangible proof, if you’re looking for that.
Those urges are still in me, and I still get caught up in them, like last summer, my book was a finalist in a contest, and I was going to find out in a couple of weeks whether I’d won. Well those next couple of weeks were torture—and I say that they were torture for me, but also for my partner, who slowly observed the deterioration of my behavior into checking my phone all the time—which I never do—checking email constantly, and really getting caught up in this idea that publishing this project that has meant a lot to me for a long time would give it legitimacy if it won a contest and finally got published. And finally, in one of the hardest conversations I’ve had with my partner, he was like, “I just want to point out what’s going on here—this is what I see, but it doesn’t seem like you.”
And of course the contest didn’t end up working out, so this idea of putting the eggs all in one basket was presented again as the very, very wrong way of going about things.
BIAHADJ: It’s amazing that you have a supportive partner who’s willing to acknowledge and be open about that.
JC: Yeah, it’s good to have someone who’s willing to be so honest with you about what for a lot of us is a very sensitive thing. So I feel lucky in that way too, and it’s a good reminder for me to just be realistic and honest about my work.