An academic, a journalist, and a copywriter met on a sidewalk…

by David Alm on April 12, 2011

Just about every time I have a conversation with anyone about his or her career, I get an earful of doubts, misgivings, annoyances, and, oftentimes, a nagging sense of futility about the entire enterprise. (And bear with me, the photo to your right will make sense soon enough.)

Case in point: yesterday I ran into a friend who was having coffee at an outdoor patio in my neighborhood. She introduced me to the two friends she was with: an academic working on his dissertation and a copywriter attempting to think of interesting things to say about Band-Aids (or something like that). Meanwhile, I was there to grade papers.

Before long, the copywriter was disparaging her work as “as far as it gets” from the academic’s, no doubt wistfully remembering when she, too, was a student of the humanities; the academic was openly questioning whether a PhD from a state school would ever compete with one from an Ivy, so really, what was the point; and I was describing students who take my class in an attempt to establish a fall-back plan in case their academic careers don’t pan out, yet I can no longer survive solely by writing myself.

In short, it was a real bitch fest. And I’d just met these people.

Meanwhile, another friend of mine — a corporate lawyer whom I met nearly a decade ago in the Master of Arts Program in the Humanities at the University of Chicago — frequently likes to point out that we’re all becoming more and more like characters in a Woody Allen movie. This one’s working on a cookbook, that one’s teaching courses at NYU, and that one’s just moved to Paris to get married and open a music school. We’re not all rich, but damn if we’re not productive. Seems pretty idyllic, right?

Then again, Woody Allen characters are also riddled with angst, despite their accomplishments, wit, and impeccable knack for pairing corduroys and plaids. They’re always — and I mean always — complaining about something. And I love them, I do, but I have to ask: while we may resemble his creations on paper, do we really sound like them too?

 

Brandon April 12, 2011 at 5:51 pm

The sample group you just described sounds as interesting as Woody Allen’s characters but without the same level of neurosis… Which is a good thing.

Despite the downsides, cobbling together a career the way so many of us (have to?) do these days is, to my mind, more engaging than just being a “company man.” New media and the free-agent lifestyle allow us to be writers, editors, academics, AND corporate whores–all at the same time. There’s plenty to bitch about, but it’s anything but boring!

David Alm April 12, 2011 at 7:25 pm

Hey Brandon – You’re absolutely right, that it’s not boring. But there is still plenty to bitch about. And then feel guilty about bitching the second we read the newspaper and realize how incredibly fortunate we all are…

Brandon April 13, 2011 at 8:35 pm

It’s true that we are fortunate to have jobs. But we only have jobs because we have, like, four or five of them.

(BTW, my brain is a bit slow this week. Only just now realized who the corporate lawyer and cookbook writer are. :P)

Amanda April 13, 2011 at 2:13 am

David! This made me laugh so much. Thanks for writing. One thing I noticed while living in East Africa is that Americans are an uber-talky bunch. We love love love to comment (and critique) everything — our jobs, our sex lives, our purpose in life, to anyone who will listen. I kind of like that quality in us, but while living here, I’ve been told that I “complain” about everything. Me? Complain?! No, I’m just telling you how I feel! What I think! Yeah, it’s a cultural thing. I’ve learned to tone it down, choose my words more carefully, I suppose, or consider the timing better. But, I don’t know, I think our collective neurosis is sort of charming, no?

David Alm April 14, 2011 at 3:58 pm

I have a friend from Ivory Coast who hasn’t been home in 20 years, ever since he moved here to escape the civil war there. He was planning to move home, finally, last fall, but then the proverbial you-know-what hit the fan again. Now he says he can’t go home until the new president is out of office… And he NEVER complains. Says something, doesn’t it?

Jason April 13, 2011 at 9:18 am

I’m happy to be a “company man” if I own the company.

It’s amazing how productivity and income have come to exist on different planes.

And thanks, Woody, for deluding my teenage self into thinking that you could be seemingly unemployed but still play tennis at the club, hit an art film matinee and return to your pad on Central Park. It’s not my NYC, but I love it anyway.

David Alm April 14, 2011 at 4:00 pm

Yeah, but you’re one of the most Woody Allen-esque characters I know — hence your privileged position in the list of people I describe above!

Michael Washburn April 13, 2011 at 10:51 am

most importantly: our apartments are never as nice as Woody’s characters. i think the entire world has been hoodwinked into thinking his real estate porn is a legitimate reflection of the NYC real estate market, something that we all also complain about.

thought of this post, David, last night as i was having drinks with a couple of friends. one’s a grad student the other a tenured prof in your dept at Hunter. although the conversation wasn’t specifically about careers, during the catching up portion of the evening there was a strange two step to the conversation. first, a kind of polemic condescension toward non-academic writers and their middlebrow publications, followed in the next sentence – or paragraph – with these folks talking up the few times that *they’ve* published something in a magazine or newspaper. this only speak obliquely to what you’re discussing, but it popped to mind.

Amanda April 13, 2011 at 11:33 am

“polemic condescension toward non-academic writers and their middlebrow publications, followed in the next sentence – or paragraph – with these folks talking up the few times that *they’ve* published something in a magazine or newspaper.” — bless their little hearts. kidding, kidding. but seriously! this makes for pure comedy, otherwise, everyone in academia and without would all be crying at this foolish game we play with ourselves to make us feel important. as someone who straddles both (many) worlds — ivy league shimvy league — i have ever-growing appreciate for anyone, at any echelon, to just. be. real. is that pretentious of me to even want that? for some reason, this whole blog and replies is hitting some weird spot. maybe because i live in a world where my ivy league education has NO cache, no one cares, and no ones judges me on anything but whether or not i’ve had the decency to greet them on the street.

xo amanda

Amanda April 13, 2011 at 11:35 am

typos, sorry. meant to say, “ever growing appreciation” —

Michael Washburn April 13, 2011 at 11:59 am

hey there Amanda,
i think i agree with you. it is ultimately foolish, but i don’t think anyone involved in my little tale was being insincere or unreal. rather, mayhaps a bit blinded by their sincerity?

Amanda April 13, 2011 at 12:09 pm

Good point — I guess I don’t mean that they’re not real — I feel that I’ve been *that friend, too, so I can definitely relate. Maybe it’s just about being encased in a set of expectations that are so — well, limiting — that you can’t see in the moment that your achievements are only as good and meaningful as the meaning and love you yourself ascribe / assign to them. Your tale struck a nerve b/c I can relate to the struggle I think we all go through as writers/academics/creatives to be noticed, appreciated — important. For me, it’s been humbling to realize that everything I previously used to gauge my success meant next to nothing here (in this little nook in Africa). My words were not meant in malice, more in wonky comraderie with the nagging dilemma of who/what gets to determine our worth. Your friends are awesome for even BEING and writing, that’s what I guess I’m saying. Wish they’d (I’d) always let myself see that. –Amanda

Amanda April 13, 2011 at 12:11 pm

oops, last sentence, weird structure — you get what I’m saying, I hope?

Michael Washburn April 13, 2011 at 12:13 pm

oh, i didn’t detect any malice at all, i just wasn’t positive i got your meaning. i agree entirely about the limitations of value. it’s so very rampant in a place like NYC, and i’m sure that your experience in Africa minces, quite forcefully, the kind of lazy, indulgent self-doubt or judgement that often goes on here.

Jennifer April 13, 2011 at 7:37 pm

As an attorney, I get to complain for a living. Winning

More on point– an alternative view of Woody Allen’s world is not so much one of people miserable despite success– but people grappling with the human condition. Allen used the UMC NYC professional as a vehicle for portraying this struggle because he wanted it to be immediate to his target audience of UMC NYC Professionals. Not having to chew on the utter unfamiliarity of the characters’ superficial circumstances, allows the audience to consume the plot’s existential dilemmas as they unfold.

Jeff McMahon April 13, 2011 at 7:51 pm

I’ve tried to solve this problem by being all of the above: an academic and a journalist and not quite a copywriter but an editor. But I think Woody Allen had the better idea: be a filmmaker.

Brandon April 13, 2011 at 8:37 pm

You should add filmmaker to your list of jobs, Jeff. After all, you’re great at the other three.

Jeff McMahon April 13, 2011 at 8:40 pm

Brandon, you sweetheart. I’ll do it! I’ve got a Flip camera.

Jennifer April 13, 2011 at 8:41 pm

You mean auteur, Jeff, auteur.

Christopher April 14, 2011 at 2:18 pm

Funny, I just meant that we spend most of our free time pretending to talk about books and movies while trying to sleep with our friends’ friends.

But it’s nice to be relevant to humanities types again for a moment!

Your friendly neighborhood “corporate lawyer”,
Christopher

Jennifer April 14, 2011 at 3:40 pm

Wait, I thought being like a Woody Allen character meant having a therapist and being followed by a jazz soundtrack.

David Alm April 14, 2011 at 3:55 pm

Analyst!

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