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

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.

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 in 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.”