Careers In Writing: An Interview with Catherine Dmuchovsky
Written by: Katya Cummins

Photo by:  André Freitas

I am very pleased to continue our new profile series, Careers in Writing, with advice from Catherine Dmuchovsky.

Catherine Dmuchovsky is the director of marketing services for a U.S.-based global company. She is the author of a number of notes scattered around her house, and she is working on turning them into a work of fiction. She graduated from McNeese State University with an M.A. in English and an M.F.A. in creative writing.

NICHE: How did you get started on your particular career path?  In effect, can you tell us a little bit about the years after the MFA? A lot of graduates have told me that they  feel uprooted from the literary community. Was that the case with you, and did this feeling in any way influence your choices?

CATHERINE DMUCHOVSKY: I did not lay nice wide, flat paving stones for my career path. It’s more like I picked up random rocks (some of them very pointy) and quickly kicked some dirt around them so I could put one foot in front of the other.

After the MFA, I did temp work for a couple months before getting a job as a writer/editor at a magazine for insurance agents. This was not a path that I had envisioned for myself. I had no dreams of learning about the federal flood insurance program as I wrote my thesis at McNeese. However, I needed a job and this was a good one, and I learned about how to produce a monthly magazine., how to meet deadlines, how to separate my own style from what the publication needed. I later worked at another magazine owned by the same publisher, but was laid off after a while there. That was when I got a job at a university, first as an advisor in its graduate school and later in the communications department of its law school. I’ve been back in the corporate world since leaving the university, now in a marketing role at a global company. My goal has always been to earn my living writing, if possible.

After my teaching experience at McNeese, I knew I didn’t want to continue with it. I enjoyed it a lot, but I didn’t love it in the way that great teachers do (and I suspect I was barely mediocre), and I respect and value the profession too much to half-ass it. That decision is probably the most significant in separating me from the literary community. It’s not one’s day-to-day life anymore. So yes, I felt–and still feel–uprooted from the literary community. A kind of self-imposed but necessary exile. At first I didn’t notice it as much because I was focused on supporting myself and wondering how the fuck I was going to do that, and building my life, but the feeling is always there. It takes more effort now to connect in a meaningful way to the writing world, both the one inside of myself and the one outside.

NICHE: How does editing in academe differ from corporate editing? (That is, what kind of corporate and academic editing have you had experience with?)

CATHERINE DMUCHOVSKY: In my mind there is no difference. Good writing is good writing, and good editing is good editing–always and everywhere. What can change are the purpose of a piece and its audience. Those factors influence the kind of choices you make while you’re working on something and how “creative” you can be. And depending on the industry, in corporate writing there can be compliance issues you have to be aware of, some things you legally can’t say.

In my own experience, I’ve written and/or edited long and short articles, brochures, video scripts, web copy, proposals, newsletters, and even people’s emails. And on and on. Grammar and style decisions are mostly driven by Associated Press guidelines in corporate communications (with some variations, of course), and I use CMS and Strunk and White as reinforcements as well.

NICHE: What are some of the particular pleasures or challenges associated with your job?

CATHERINE DMUCHOVSKY: I like collaborating with other creative people, and I like the international component of my job–it’s something new in my career. It’s cool knowing that ads I wrote are now being used in South Africa, or working on a high-pressure project with people in our Australia office. I also enjoy writing scripts, which is not often, but seeing the CEO (once or twice) and other people speak my words–and having the audience respond how I intended–is gratifying.

So many challenges, so many…. One of the biggest is time. There’s never enough of it to complete a project the way I’d like because the workload is pretty unrelenting. And I’m not a fan of the stress this causes (nor of the repeated, tiny comma-sized blows to my perfectionism). My mind starts to turn in tighter and tighter circles and won’t stretch like it should.

Managing people is another challenge–or, more specifically, doing it well is a challenge. As with teaching, the decisions I make can have a direct impact on another person’s life.

NICHE: Have you noticed any new style and grammar trends in the last five years? 

CATHERINE DMUCHOVSKY: I’ve noticed that now people use “around” when they should use “about”–as in, “there’s been a lot of conversation around strategy.” Stupid. Just stupid. I always picture a bunch of people standing around in a circle, hands in their pockets, staring at a lump of of something with the word “strategy” on it, or whatever it is they’re talking about. “Yup, that’s strategy. See it, Bob? That’s strategy right there.”

NICHE: What were some of the trials that you’ve experienced? A friend of mine, who is in the early stages of an editing job now, is actually interested in how the quintessentially “dreamy” writers have gone through disillusionment about careers in writing [publishing] and come through the other side to build strong careers for themselves. How does one managed to balance the dream with the reality?

CATHERINE DMUCHOVSKY: Embrace the disillusionment! It’s fun. Seriously, though, what are you really losing? Just an idea, a fiction of what you thought an experience would be like, one with no more value than what you choose to give it. If you’re paying attention, you gain knowledge and judgment in return (whether you use that knowledge to make different choices for yourself is another topic). And as writers, we of all people should be prepared for this–we should not be surprised. The passage from innocence to experience is a popular theme in the canon, after all. We’ve devoted years of study to the human experience, and yet it’s a total shock when it happens to us.

I don’t believe anymore in the false dichotomy between the “dreamy” artist/writer and other people. It’s cliché and it strikes me as ego-driven. Everybody has to learn about their own profession, and get better at it, through trial and error. You can’t avoid that process or go around it. Your dream may take a beating or go dormant for a while, but that is OK.

NICHE: What do would graduates, who want to pursue your line of work, need to be aware of?

CATHERINE DMUCHOVSKY: As a good communicator, you have skills that are becoming increasingly hard to find (believe me–I’ve seen the shitty résumés), so you have more options than you think. Also, you won’t always be the smartest person in the room, so read, read, read and keep learning.

NICHE: Have marketing strategies evolved due to social media, and if so how? How have companies had to accommodate? It might seem like an obvious statement, but there seems to be more variables involved than people think. Otherwise, all advertisements would catch on, authors and companies wouldn’t have to hire their own publicists,and every single video on youtube would go viral, right? It is also well accepted that someone could have written the best book in the world but if the book is not marketed properly then the book will likely never be known or receive the attention it deserves. What advice do you have for those seeking to market themselves or their work?

CATHERINE DMUCHOVSKY: Yes, marketing has changed since social media has become more popular and widely used. Companies have to communicate their message in more and different formats than before; they have to reach consumers where they live, which is of course on their phones, on all of the various channels (facebook, twitter, instagram, blah blah). The air of making-it-up-as-you-go-along is thicker in the social media sphere because companies are really just following a nanosecond behind what consumers are doing–it’s like watching a school of fish flash in the water. (Although clever marketers have designed the desire to have the devices that foster this connectivity to everything, all the time.) The process of marketing hasn’t really changed, though. New ideas and messages are simply produced in greater quantities and failing and/or disappearing faster than was possible in traditional formats.

As to the second part of that question, about marketing oneself, I don’t know that I can offer much advice here, certainly nothing you couldn’t find in Poets & Writers. I’ve been out of the game for a while. But I think the scenario you describe will always exist–any number of authors will write great books and never get recognized, and that’s not something that marketing can solve. It’s tempting to chase after the experience of someone who got a book contract because of her blog, which she started while working on her novel (you get the idea). But that’s luck, not a realistic plan. (And if you constantly humble-brag on your social media outlets, people will start to hate you.) It’s also worth considering what kind of recognition you’re after. If it were me, I would still leave the marketing to the publisher.

Advice for managing others: The qualities that make someone a decent human being also make that person a good manager–honesty, kindness, integrity. Follow through on what you say you’re going to do, ask your employees how you can help them, and never, ever micromanage. Seriously. Never. Managing people can be an odd mix of the intimate and the corporate. You learn things about your employees’ personal lives that you probably wouldn’t if you were just their coworker, so of course you must also be discreet. And don’t feel you have to put on a different “boss” personality in order to be effective, which can happen if you’re insecure about leading someone else or if you’re new to managing people. Just be honest and admit you’re learning as you go. But you also have to learn how to have difficult conversations, and in those instances it’s better to be direct without being harsh, and to be specific about the problem. And be prepared for it to feel uncomfortable. Because it does.

NICHE: Is there anything else you want our readership to know?

CATHERINE DMUCHOVSKY: Your readers probably know more than I do.

Guest Blog Post: “When Writers Paint” by Jean Kim
Written by: Niche Lit Magazine

When Writers Paint by Jean Kim

The intersection between visual and written forms of artistic expression is a fascinating space to explore. It is particularly interesting when writers become painters or vice versa. Painting and visual art has an immediacy of impact on the viewer, is in some ways more brazen and controlling of the viewer’s imagination than writing, which relies heavily on a collaboration with the reader’s internal musings. Not to say that writing cannot be striking and driven in its own right; an author’s point of view is never in question, just the mental filter through which it comes alive in the reader, so writing feels slightly more oblique and indirect than visual art. Both writing and painting can leave the viewer/reader befuddled and feeling left outside instead of embraced, especially in this era of abstraction and conceptual art. But when the viewer/reader tries to look at both modalities proffered by one person, the author’s intentions might come into better focus.

For the writer who paints, their visual expression can be an intriguing foray into what they are trying to achieve with their words. It isn’t as surprising perhaps to see poets who paint, given that poetry relies more on abstraction and aesthetic mood. The British Romantic artist, William Blake, made the most of both worlds with his illustrated mystical poetry. His images are blazing, grandiose, hyper-spiritual, with sharp contrasts of dark and light and a mixture of religious and fantasy figures. His poems are also musical, expressive, and can also reach a similar fever pitch of feeling as with “A War Song to Englishmen”:

Prepare, prepare the iron helm of war, Bring forth the lots, cast in the spacious orb; Th’ Angel of Fate turns them with mighty hands, And casts them out upon the darken’d earth! Prepare, prepare!

He was one of the few artists who maximized his commitment to both genres, and in doing so achieved a precursor of cinematic dynamism in his work, by having language dance alongside vibrant illustrations. He understood the power of synesthesia, of multiple senses being engaged simultaneously for different reverberations of meaning and effect. Fiery words allied with fiery visions pushed Romantic art to another level.

However, most famous writers who paint have kept it as a quiet side pursuit or switched gears from one craft to another. At age 20, Sylvia Plath almost decided upon an art career but went into writing instead. A set of her early drawings was released by her daughter and exhibited in London in 2011. The drawings are remarkably benign in subject matter, cutesy even, like a pair of heels, farm animals, or a citronnade stand in the park. Yet I see something of her future self in the precision of the lines, the crisp characterization of figures with an economy of purpose. She continued to paint throughout her life (Ted Hughes reportedly encouraged her because the activity seemed to calm her). Some of her later art shows a jazziness, like Mad Men fashion ads meet Picasso, with bright chaotic colors and geometric, neo-cubist lines. They are a bit unsettling, because of their fragmented, kaleidoscopic, acid nature, but also reassuring in their calculated freedom, their cataloguing different patterns, colors into an expressionist crazy quilt. She still seemed to be at play, as opposed to her poetry, where her dark muse was in full wrathful force.

Mark Strand, a poet who also initially began with a painting career (getting a Bachelor of Fine Arts at Yale), had returned to his first love of late. In a September 2013 New Yorker post by Rachel Arons, he is interviewed about an exhibit of new collages on display at a Chelsea gallery. They are described as “playful” as well; again a freedom or escape from the pressures of “trying to make verbal sense” in writing. “It is as if I were in kindergarten again.” The collages are highly abstract, filmy patches of colored paper crudely pasted against each other, and indeed, somewhat childlike in execution. The colors vary from those of bright tropical fruits to placid pastels to muted grays; the stone-like roughness of the shapes let the colors converse with each other on their own terms. The mood is all. He says visual art for him is an active “escape from making meaning…language does not intrude” and he is on “vacation”. This return to primal expression is fascinating, given the poised precision of his poetry. His writing has in common the emphasis on mood, the careful placement of seemingly plain words in artful alliance, not unlike the movements of an interior designer, where the overall composition and harmony matter as much if not more than the individual pieces on display. For example, this short 2002 poem, “The Coming of Light”:

Even this late it happens: the coming of love, the coming of light. You wake and the candles are lit as if by themselves, Stars gather, dreams pour into your pillows, Sending up warm bouquets of air. Even this late the bones of the body shine And tomorrow’s dust flares into breath.

But with Strand’s collages, the mood is more bluntly achieved, through color and shape alone, on an innocent, pre-verbal level. Perhaps at this late stage of life, he feels that the essence is enough. The striving for linguistic precision obfuscates his pure love of expressio.

Annie Dillard, another master “word painter” who mainly worked in prose (albeit beautifully styled), has also taken up painting, after declaring herself retired from writing in 2007, and exhibited and sold some of her works in small galleries. (The proceeds go to charity.) Her works are reportedly all small-scale (less than 16 inch canvases) and mainly portraits and landscapes (given her obsession with nature), with simple subjects like roads, flowers, fences, hillsides. Like her language, there is a charismatic poise to her choice of colors and figures, but also a certain lightness and softness that isn’t as evident in her diamond-hard prose. Take this excerpt from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:

“The air bites my nose like pepper…The rutted clay is frozen tonight in shards; its scarps loom in the slanting light like pressure ridges in ice under aurora. The light from the moon is awesome…not the luster of noonday it gives, but the luster of elf-light, utterly lambent and utterly dreamed.”

Her obsession with gradations of light and imagery are evident in her subject matter and gorgeously precise. With her paintings, there is the same admiration of light and vision and beauty, but, as with Plath, now there is a certain freedom that comes from attempting a new line of expression unburdened by expectation—a feeling of innocent pleasure and peace. It is freedom from the perfectionist genius that sometimes drives writing, especially prose, because on some level language is constrained by rules of grammar, vocabulary, coherence–rules that can arguably bend a lot more with painting and still produce its intended effect (masters of realism notwithstanding).

I encourage readers to look up these curious cross-genre novelties, for what new angles and insights they shine upon the writer’s artistic goals and method of expression. They can stimulate new admiration for what both modalities can accomplish, and how they can inform each other. Perhaps as writers we also need to remind ourselves of that mode of innocent curiosity and exploration that can be discovered when switching “teams” into the nonverbal, visual art zone. We can discover that evocation of our childhood sensibilities, when curiosity for its own sake and playful creation captured something pure and truthful in ourselves and our lives, and that was all we needed to succeed in our mission as artists. Perhaps we ought to put less pressure on ourselves and let our creativity flow without the burden of perfection. It may still be beautiful enough.

About the Author

Jean Kim is a physician and writer who currently works and lives in the DC Metro area. She will be receiving her M.A. in Nonfiction Writing at Johns Hopkins and has also been a nonfiction fellow at the Writers’ Institute at the Graduate Center of CUNY. She is a blogger on Psychology Today and has work published or forthcoming in The Rumpus, The Manifest-Station, The Daily Beast, Bethesda Magazine, Little Patuxent Review, Storyscape Journal, Star 82 Review, and more. Her website is jeankimmd.blogspot.com.

Careers in Writing: An Interview with William Lusk Coppage
Written by: Katya Cummins

ChapFantasiesMen

I’m very pleased to continue our Career Spotlights with William Lusk Coppage.

After serving all over the world as a crew chief with the United States Air Force, William Lusk Coppage completed his Masters of Fine Arts in Poetry from McNeese State University in Lake Charles, LA. His works have appeared in magazines such as Oxford American and The Greensboro Review. His collection of poem, Fantasies of Men, won the 2012 Main Street Rag Chapbook Prize. Coppage moved back to his hometown, Greenville, MS, with his wife, Missy, in 2013. Together, they have three spoiled dogs: Jolene, Townes, and EmmyLou. He works with the City of Greenville as the Executive Assistant to the Mayor. When he has the occasion free time, he enjoys performing music around town, woodworking and collecting vintage shaving accoutrements. You can learn more at www.williamluskcoppage.com

NICHE: Some graduates describe a feeling of being uprooted after graduating from an MFA Program. Was that the case with you? What can you tell us about the year or years directly following graduation?

WILLIAM LUSK COPPAGE: More than uprooted there was a feeling of uncertainty. Not knowing what   you were going to do, where you were going to go. While I sent out applications for teaching and had interviews, I was hoping that I would find something else that was outside the classroom. While I am from Mississippi, I had lived in Wilmington, North Carolina since I left in the Air Force in 2001. I started grad school in 2008. What I am getting at, is that I had hesitations on where I wanted to move back to after school. My wife and I had made temporary plans to move back to MS, where I had the romantic notion to live in our cabin, work on my writing, and just take it easy for half a year or so until we found the jobs we wanted. Both my wife and I had bartending experience, which we knew we could fall back on. However, that year was the year of the 2011 flood. My parents’ home and cabin were destroyed, so that ruled MS out. Therefore, plan B had to go into full motion. I found an adjunct job at Cape Fear Community College back in Wilmington, NC. We moved back and began teaching something like 5 classes of Dev. Comp and Comp 101. I had received my A.A. from CFCC so it was neat being back in there halls and seeing many of the old professors whom had taught me. While I always smiled and made the best of it, like I said above, I just did not enjoy teaching and felt I was going through the motions. After my first year of teaching, CFCC was in the process of cutting classes for part-time faculty, so I that helped me make the leap to leave.

I felt very liberated removing myself from the shackles of academia. So I was unemployed. I got on unemployment for a few months while I interviewed and searched for jobs. I applied for everything from graphic designer and magazine editor to warehouse loader at Bed, Bath, and Beyond. I should note that I have always been involved in music; I had booked numerous weekly gigs. I finally went back to bartending and ended up being bar manager (which is something I would never repeat). At some point I quit bar managing. I then became a personal assistant and also worked at a startup that marketed headphone cases and other electronic accessories. This leads me up to summer of 2013.

My wife got offered a job she couldn’t turn down as Program Director of Gymnastics at the YMCA back in my hometown in MS. We moved in July 2013. I got a call and was offered a job as the city-beat reporter at the award-winning Delta Democrat-Times newspaper. I worked there till March of 2014 when I got offered to work as the Mayor’s Executive Assistant. In 2012 my manuscript Fantasies of Men won the 2012 Main Street Rag Chapbook Contest. I say that to get back on the topic of writing. Before I got that acceptance, I was writing every day. But the hardest part was writing when I didn’t have a steady job. I am a person that must have a schedule. When I didn’t have a schedule, I could get into the groove lots quicker. Now, to get back to your question of feeling uprooted from a community of writers – I still used my classmates to read my work. Maybe not as much now, unless its something I am really trying to work out. But for my chapbook and anytime I have a series, I would always get friends from McNeese to give it an edit.

Value your degree. In the current business model, creative solutions and critical thinking are highly valued.

NICHE: Most authors can’t live off book sales alone. Most have other sources of income that allow them to live and sustain a family.  Many authors teach at universities. William Carols Williams was a doctor. So was Chekhov. John Irving was a wrestling coach for a long time. What can you tell us about your current job?

WILLIAM LUSK COPPAGE: Many people ask how did I end up in politics with a Creative Writing degree. I would have never thought I would be here as the Mayor’s Executive Assistant, but my job and my past degree makes sense. Think of all the years of workshop. We had to learn to talk to our fellow writers in a way to get the greatest outcome from them – to make their writing effective and efficient. That is the mantra I used every day: How can this project or task be accomplished most effectively and efficiently?

NICHE: Does your current job affect your writing?  

WILLIAM LUSK COPPAGE: Yes and No. When I was a reporter, the last thing I wanted to do was write. I would get up in the morning, off and on, and tried to get it out of the way. But it was a chore. Not something I look forward to. Now, I have more time to write. I work a great deal in fiction now. The biggest thing that affects my writing is time. I do set aside time to be creative, but it is not just writing. I do woodworking and songwriter, which I perform a great deal. It is not about scheduling time out, it is about there is just not enough time in the day.

NICHE: I am the daughter of two academics, and I’ve spent the majority of my short life in school. Therefore, I have not seen other careers modeled, as it were. In your opinion, what are the upsides or the downsides of continuing in career away from university life? 

WILLIAM LUSK COPPAGE: Academia is a bubble, a closed community of sorts. I do miss the discussions I would have, and I really miss using the library. (I am lucky the public library now is right across from City Hall.) As an academic we analyze and over-analyze. And as a writer we strive for perfection. Away from those worlds, that can be absent with a lot of people. If you keep striving and put out the effort and drive that we learned in grad school, anyone of us can excel in any job.

The biggest thing I want to get across, or say, is that students should not feel they must go into academia. However, some a perfect for it. I will add more that you can use if you would like.

I think movies and literature build up teaching as a calling, almost like priesthood. I didn’t get that feel. I guess you could say I had lost my faith. Before I had invested years, a career, and life into something that I wasn’t passionate about (it was just a job – and adjuncting was not a steady job at that), I felt the need to take a leap. And yes, there were years of struggle, but I finally feel that I am on my two feet.

I also think I might have a different mindset than a MFA student coming right after undergrad. I was 28-29 when I started McNeese. Many of my peers were right from high school to undergrand and then to graduate school. Many had a different mindset. Many saw that the only way to continue as a writer was to stay in academia, whether go the PhD route or teaching route.

I had already set my life up to survive creatively and while times get tough, I was able to write, play music, paint, build furniture, etc. And that was what I was wanting after graduate school – to continue to survive, but on a more professional level creatively. That does not mean that my job had to be creative, that meant that at the end of the day I was motivated and charged to continue doing the things I loved. Except for getting to work with brilliant people, I didn’t feel that teaching allowed me to pursue creative interests.

NICHE: Do you think students are given an accurate portrayal regarding the current political climate of academe?

WILLIAM LUSK COPPAGE: It seems that we were in grad school during a shift in academia. From day one, everyone was concerned about making a living, but everyone knew it was going to be a struggle. Phd programs in creative writing were sprouting up. Tenure jobs and the struggle to get tenure was becoming more and more to the surface. More folks were being hired as adjuncts, rather than full time. All these things made us, at the time, realize that we were going to have to be exceptional if we wanted professional jobs. I think that is why McNeese excels – the fact that you can also work towards a M.A. in English to be more appealing on you C.V. Also, from day one of classes, you are told to submit conference papers. The faculty understood the hardships that we were all facing and they extended their support to help us thrive in the ever changing academic world.

I think the biggest wake-up call was when our class was applying for jobs, and we were being made more aware of the adjunct pay. It makes you feel good about McNeese and its program with its funding. I think also this lends to the appealing nature of the Creative Writing PhD programs. You are able to stay in a community of writers in a program that is most likely funding your studies and some money on the side to live. It makes sense.

NICHE: Several graduates also say that an MFA program was invaluable in part because the program allowed them to build a writing routine that often stuck with them after graduation no matter what career they landed in. What does your writing routine look like now? 

WILLAM LUSK COPPAGE: I do set aside time each day, but I would call it creative time, rather than writing time. Every day I am either in my woodshed, writing, or crafting songs. Yes, that slows down the writing process, but it makes me whole. What I miss the most is time set aside to read. Remember, you must be a reader to be a writer.

I can say I did get more writing done when I worked in academia. But only because I scheduled my time early in the morning before going to work. The last thing I wanted to do was to write after grading. Therefore, I hope that whatever program a writer is in, they must learn, the muse leaves just as quick as she shows up, and writing, real writing, is a craft that must be worked on and honed, and scheduled out. You must submit to it. You must give up a part of you, your time, your day, your life. That is what I learned in school.

NICHE: What are you working on now? 

WILLIAM LUSK COPPAGE: I have crafted and edited a good bit of poetry since I moved to MS. I am trying to get a full-length manuscript together. But, I would say, I have devoted more time to fiction and novel writing. During my MFA I took fiction workshop as well. My poetry is extremely narrative, so fiction was a logical transition/desire. The novel is a Southern tale of two friends, one love interest, revenge, murder,  and everything from cock fighting and hog hunting to hot tamales warm beer.

NICHE: What advice would give students who are graduating out of MFA Programs?

WILLIAM LUSK COPPAGE: The time in the MFA program, the institution really seemed to push academia. And it was hard to be able to vocalize I didn’t want that. I felt like I would be letting my professors and mentors down. I see newer classes graduate and I see their accomplishments. I know they are working hard. That is the beauty of an MFA program – everyone really wants to be there.Value your degree. In the current business model, creative solutions and critical thinking are highly valued. While sometimes I do, “Why the Hell did I get a degree in poetry,” I think the time in an MFA program is the reward, rather than what is simply on a page.

NICHE: Is there anything else you would like our readership to know? 

WILLIAM LUSK COPPAGE: I will leave on a true story that I find comical. (Please remember, I am in the South and do have an accent.) When I came back to my hometown, I ran into a father of one of my friends. He asked me where I had been and what did I get a degree in. I told him “po-try.” He looked at me strange and said, “I didn’t know there was that much money in chickens.”