Name: Sara Erdmann
College & major: Hamilton College ’05, Creative Writing major, French minor
Graduate school & concentration: University of New Hampshire, MFA in Writing
Binghamton University, PhD in Literature and Creative Writing
Past jobs: Swim instructor, lifeguard, camp counselor, nanny, teaching assistant, adjunct professor
Current occupation: English teacher at The Ethel Walker School in Simsbury, CT
How did you become involved in literature/creative writing? I’ve always written stories. I wrote my first novel in high school– it was hundreds and hundreds of pages and horribly dramatic. I didn’t start to take any of it seriously, really, until my junior year of high school when I attended the Middlebury Young Writers Conference on the recommendation of my then English teacher, Kristin Sousa. That was when it occurred to me that this was something I could study rather than just do on my own.
What was your college experience like, and how did it prepare you for your career? College was an interesting environment for writing. I learned a lot about myself at Hamilton, particularly relating to politics and civil rights, so I think my education added a new pressure to my writing. Suddenly I didn’t just want to tell stories, I wanted to tell stories that reflected the world as it was, in all its glaring imperfection. I’ve always loved painfully realistic fiction, which Alice Munro’s critics call “domestic fiction,” and this is term I’ve embraced. I’m interested in what happens in people’s homes, and I’m not sure I even would have allowed myself to write fiction so character-focused if it wasn’t for what I read in college. I had no idea I would be a teacher until my master’s program, so I can confidently say any effects Hamilton had on my teaching career are simply a result of having great teachers rather than seeking out their perspective on the world of education.
Pursuing a PhD in creative writing seems like something so many dream of and few pursue. What inspired you to follow your dream, and did you have doubts ever? I had many, many doubts about getting a “luxury PhD,” as doctorates in arts/humanities are so often called. Going into it, I was well aware that it wouldn’t necessarily set me up for a job, and thanks to professor Tina Hall’s advice, I knew that, no matter what, I should only do it if I got funding. I figured that, with funding, the worst that would come of it was time to read and write, and that’s exactly what I got. It also helped that my parents never doubted the validity of a degree in creative writing. I think about what they spent on my undergraduate degree in creative writing and I’m astounded that they never challenged that desire, but they were behind me all the way.
What do you love most about your field of work? I love a lot of things about teaching, but mostly that it’s never the same. My days aren’t repetitive, they aren’t boring, they aren’t predictable. As someone who loves order, it’s a great challenge for me to never quite know that a day will bring. You think all is well and then someone starts crying reading an essay about her father and then the whole class takes a turn.
Do you feel that women are stigmatized in the literary/creative writing world? What obstacles have you noticed or experienced? Women are stigmatized in every field (and, for that matter, so are men). We can never underestimate the power of prejudice to shape people’s impressions of us and what we’re capable of. Luckily, people who love books are, by nature, some of the most open-minded, compassionate people out there, so if you’re in the world of books (writing, reading, or teaching them), you’re already at an advantage. I try to keep my eyes open for sexism and homophobia so I can call them out when I see them, but I would say I probably see less of that than many do, if only because I happen to be passionate about something that society considers fitting for a woman. That said, I am a stickler about syllabi: if you aren’t teaching about women, or people of color, or queer people, you’re telling your students that those voices are less valuable, and that’s a very dangerous thing.
What advice would you give to girls considering a career path in writing? I want to say do it, but I say that as someone who had her parents’ financial support as an undergraduate. I got myself through my masters and PhD, but I recognize that being able to spend as much time studying writing as I have has been a luxury, and not one I earned. I would love for art and humanities to be as valuable as STEM fields, but they aren’t, and for that reason, I think every girl has to consider what she’s willing to sacrifice to do what she loves.
What would you wear to a job interview? Academia is kind of its own animal when it comes to dress, but usually dress pants, a nice t-shirt, a blazer and a scarf are safe bets for any academic job. With women in particular, it’s important to dress older than the students. You have to work a bit harder to be taken seriously, especially if you’re looking to teach high school when you’re straight out of college.
Any favorite websites particular to your field (or ones you just love for fun)? In terms of culture, politics, and lifestyle, I love feministing.com, racialicious.com, and blavity.com. I also spend a good amount of time on The New York Times, The New Yorker, and The Atlanticwebsites. I find most of my information via Twitter, but, in terms of creative writing, I often read interviews with my favorite writers to see what writers they list as influences, which sends me down a lovely little rabbit hole of good books.
Looking back, what general life advice would you give to your former high-school self? I would tell her not to worry so much, and remind her that, while it doesn’t necessarily get easier, she gets stronger.
Any other relevant info or words of wisdom? Read Alice Munro. She’s a lifesaver.
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