To the casual observer, it might be easy to consider the various trends of struggling bookstores, folding magazines, and massive layoffs at the largest newspapers as indicative of an increasingly bleak landscape for people interested in making a career of writing.
The reality is not as dire as the statistics may suggest. In Massachusetts Hall last night, the English Department hosted the first conversation—entitled "A Writer's Life: Four Perspectives"—of its new "Writing for Money" series which is geared toward presenting a more complete picture of the professional writing landscape. Approximately 60 people attended the event.
The panel was made up of four Bowdoin alumni who work in a variety of different areas of writing and editing: Nate Vinton '01 writes for the New York Daily News; Leah Chernikoff '04 is the senior editor and writer for the website Fashionista.com; Caitlin Riley '00 is an associate producer at HBO; and Willing Davidson '99 is a fiction editor for the New Yorker.
"They are all former English majors. We've known them and been proud of them for years," said Peter Coviello, chair of the English department. Coviello expected the event would showcase the range of possibilities open to students interested in writing, despite the upward trend of students across the country opting for areas of study tied to well-defined career paths such as economics and business.
"It is incredibly impressive that these four young people have found viable careers in writing," said Coviello. "That said, it's not impossible."
The panelists each spoke about the widely varied courses they took to get to their current jobs. Vinton moved to Utah after graduation to coach his old ski racing team, and began working for Ski Racing Magazine. He then traveled around the country and in Europe covering sports for the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune. Vinton finally ended up at the Daily News, where he has been working in the sports section with a team of investigative reporters that was instrumental in breaking stories about the various doping scandals that have rocked Major League Baseball in recent years. The reporting of Vinton and his colleagues led to the publication of their book on Roger Clemens, titled "American Icon."
Riley worked various jobs after Bowdoin before getting an internship at the Atlantic Monthly. She then worked in a publishing house reading manuscripts, and ended up working at HBO doing advertising and promotions for various different programs on the network.
Chernikoff ended up at Fashionista after freelancing in New York and a tedious internship at the SALT writing program in Portland. She began working at the Daily News around the same time as Vinton, and after working as an editorial assistant eventually became a features reporter, covering everything from celebrities to Obama's inauguration. She ultimately decided to leave the Daily News to gain experience in the rapidly expanding online media sector. Chernikoff then took up her current position at Fashionista, where she covers a wide variety of topics related to style and fashion.
Davidson went to work at Sun Valley Ski resort in Idaho following graduation. He then returned to New York City and got a job in the mailroom of the New Yorker. After several years, he moved into the fiction department and has worked as an editor in that department ever since.
After they spoke, the panel took questions from the audience and spoke about the details of their own experiences, the lasting effects and lessons from their education at the College, and offered words of wisdom to aspiring writers. The overarching message was persistence and a willingness to jump in and get actual experience.
"I've never gone into a job and felt, 'Oh yes, Bowdoin really prepared me,'" said Davidson. "It's different you know, what college does is teach you to work hard and read critically, but that is a pretty small part of the working life."
"Why would you come out of college with specific employment skills?" he added. "That would be very boring."
"Don't write for free," said Vinton. "To me, that's a signal that you don't value what you do. Be serious, be professional, know that when you're writing you're representing the publication."
The overall response from students who attended was quite positive as well.
"It's always reassuring to hear from young people who didn't get a good job right away," said Liam Killion '11.
Amanda Minoff '14 agreed, saying that "it was extremely helpful and interesting, especially considering a career in journalism."
"It was great to hear about the different paths they all took to get to where they are," said senior Zac Skipp. "It was comforting to hear that you can get into journalism without having a direct path and that you can land outside Bowdoin and things will work out."