To Sell My Soul


Everything after the Masters of Arts was supposed to be better. Student debt? Pushaw! I’d make those regular payments and not be stuck in deferment limbo. Five semesters adjuncting later, paid below minimum wage that took me all of that student debt to be able to do, and when I went to the eye doctor for my annual free glasses, the optician asked what I did for a living.

“I teach college!”

“What are you doing on welfare?” And he acted like I was scamming the system somehow.

When I applied for my New Hampshire community college adjunct position, sitting in the cold Wyoming spring, I was unaware Great Bay Community College eliminated 15% of its full-time staff, and a year prior eliminated 12 staff positions. Cuts were made across the Community College System of New Hampshire. Never mind admin salaries more than doubled: $50k to $146k and $70k to $244k. Similar stories play out across the nation, of course, although New Hampshire boasts the lowest funding.

And I’m a scab! A position I never thought I would be in.

Many adjuncts hit the road: hopping from college to college, cobbling together as much of a living as they can. But the market is flooded with PhDs, searching for very few jobs—I applied for over twenty part-time, contract-based positions, and with only the MA, was beat out by the PhD crowd, never mind some of them personally complained to me about getting those teaching gigs, because now all they do is drive around the tristate area for below minimum wage.

I picked up a weekend position at t-shirt factory, and then was abruptly let go for reasons never explained to me. Which was okay. The job ruined my already arthritic ankle, did something weird to my right knee that I have yet to get checked out by the doctor. The whole reason I got into higher education was so I could have a white collar job where I wouldn’t be in immense amounts of pain. Well, there were/are other reasons: I want to teach, I love literature, books, writing. And the t-shirt factory had a single-minded purpose—raise the funds to apply to PhD programs.

I applied for PhD programs twice, each time turned down. Both times, I moped around the house. Drank some alcohol. Lamented I wasn’t good enough, that I wasn’t loved. Couple of days there I refused to get out of my pajamas. All the kinds of unhealthy things you do when facing rejection.

Before this past application season rolled around I thought about what I was doing besides adjuncting. I had been working hard on a novel. Struggling with it, really. Tearing my hair out. Crying over my prose, mournful that it wasn’t good enough, and having a blast. Which was totally weird. I mean, I have always written stories, but the PhD was all about research, about Derrida and Marx and structuralism and writing these huge complicated critical essays on literature, and I wasn’t doing any of that.

I watched my wife move through an MFA program for the past two years, and realized I was insanely jealous. So this past application season, I applied for an MFA in creative writing. I told my wife, this is the last go-around. Giving up if I don’t get in. Goodbye academe. I’ll figure something else out.

My wife took a screenwriting course through the University of New Hampshire MFA program this past fall semester and she and her cohort were forced to watch movie after movie, so the house was full of hopeful writers. One knew I taught freshman composition at Great Bay Community College, and we were standing out on the front stoop sucking on cigarettes and he asked me if I had any plans on attending a PhD.

“Nope. Applying for an MFA.” That was the first time I voiced my desire in public, and deep in my gut I thought this was a goddamn pipedream; it’ll never happen.

“Well, good luck,” like he didn’t believe I’d get in.

Flippantly, I tossed the tail end of the cigarette out into the driveway, laughed, and said, “I don’t need luck. I’m just that good.” My bravado, I hope, hid my doubts. The PhD applications had already crushed my soul, adjuncting, though rewarding, ground my bones.

There are 67 full-residency MFA programs in the United States, and over 60% of those applying are told no.  You have better chances getting in at Harvard Law School. The fact my wife got in with a desperate, half-assed, rushed application to the only program she applied to (yeah, she’s that good of a writer and will turn the dystopian genre on its head—her stories are dark and melancholic, somber and beautiful narratives).

Pretty freaking amazing.

A few months later, day old snow crusting over into ice and dirt in the streets, because academic rumor mills run on overtime and right before bed, my wife comments off-handedly, dismissively, “Um, I didn’t want to say anything, didn’t want to make your head any bigger than it already is. They want you.”

I couldn’t sleep that night. The fact I start the same program this fall, those are astronomical odds, how do you do that math? and I am so damn jacked!

And nervous.

The idea here was to get the MFA to get more teaching creds, to escape the adjunct gig-like mentality. To have a job that had health insurance.

But now, I’m not so sure. I thought I’d run the political gamut during the MFA—write all my stories during the summer so I had time to build lines on my CV. But, I attended the prospective student day at UNH, talked to the director about funding mainly, how I was broke, how I needed a stipend or a TA or something—throw me a bone to replace what had been ground up by the New Hampshire State legislature before I even left the wiles of Wyoming.

The director stared me down, called my bluff: “It’s about more than money. It’s about nurturing your writing.”

What the hell? Damn, she pissed me off. I got to keep my daughter in ballet classes, put food on the table, make sure my son has tennis shoes, this is all about a job and nothing else and the director was way more right than I was. Because if she wasn’t right, I wouldn’t still be adjuncting. I’d sell my soul.

But then, maybe I already have sold my soul—to students struggling to find their writerly voice, to the art of writing, to academe and….and here, I have an opportunity to be okay with being a scab, to being okay with who I am, with being a writer.

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