fontana lake, nc mountains, blue ridge

Note to readers: My friend Katie Rose Guest Pryal (who is also a talented novelist) and I are writing letters to each other on our blogs. I’m posting them here, and she’s also posting our letters on her site. Previous letters are in the archives.


Dear Katie,

Remember that time we were both teaching English Comp? You lasted a whole lot longer than I did. We were a little out of touch for a while and I probably never told you about some of the odd jobs I did instead of teaching. And I mean “odd” in the strict sense of the word. Things got weird now and then.

Don’t get me wrong. There are a lot of things I love about teaching. The adjunct mill wasn’t one of them.

During grad school, I taught some classes to help with tuition. I also picked up other jobs. My art and writing degrees were supposed to help me get a job teaching one of those subjects while I worked on my own novels and artist books. It didn’t quite work out that way.

Did I ever tell you about working in the veterinary clinic? I did that until they wanted me to insert things into cats. (I was their receptionist.) I worked as a contract archaeologist for a couple of years, which meant digging holes every thirty paces through fields and swampland (I had this delusion of being Indiana Jones). I slung coffee in cafes, filed papers in a university law office, worked in a chocolate shop, and when it closed moved to the factory. (It was not as funny as that episode of “I Love Lucy,” though I did manage to knock over an entire baker’s rack of chocolate truffles.) I was a studio coordinator, a retail clerk, a web illustrator, a teacher at a military academy in middle Georgia. I did data entry for tax forms, and sometimes I got lucky and taught letterpress-printing classes.

What do all of those jobs have in common? Ha! Nothing. But here’s the thing: I wouldn’t trade those experiences (well, maybe the one with the cat). Each one taught me something I carried with me, and gave me a different kind of education that college doesn’t prepare us for. (I wrote about that here, and called it “How Liberal Arts Saved My Life,” because IT DID.)

Now I teach workshops in writing and letterpress printing, but on a part-time basis (you know, when I’m not writing those novels that you so generously beta-read). And now I work for the National Park Service. And guess what? I use a lot of those seemingly unrelated skills that I learned in all of those jobs I held for a year or less. AND I still get to educate people—just in a different way. Instead of sitting in a circle of desks, I stand outside and chat with park visitors about those elk they’re watching graze as the fog rolls into the valley. (Sometimes these folks have never seen a wild animal before.) We talk about why we have those new regulations about firewood, and why it’s important we protect the species in the park, because some of them are growing rarer by the day. After all, we want to keep our parks are around for another 100 years. (This is our centennial, did you know that? Google that to see just how many special events are happening. Did you know we have over 400 national parks? There are some nice ones near you.)

Just yesterday I read a job posting for a creative writing instructor at my alma mater, and for a moment I thought about applying. Then I thought, “I’ve been out of the teaching game too long. They’d laugh at my resume.” And they might—it’s all over the place. But then I remembered that what’s happening now is the right speed for me. (Sometimes when the grass starts to look greener, you have to check around your own feet again.) I don’t want to worry about teaching loads anymore. I don’t have the resolve to grade the endless papers. I’d rather stand in the drizzling rain, watching kids get that look of wonder wash over them as they tug on my sleeve and ask what that big animal is strolling through the valley. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s this: people can affect us deeply in the briefest of moments: a day, a week, a minute. I’ve got a long list of people who have affected me that way, so this “job” is a way for me to balance those scales.

Until next time,




pictured above: a view from Fontana Lake, near the dam, in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.