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Episode XLIV: JD vs. MFA

Published 12/30/15
In this installment, I speak with an anonymous friend. Topics include corporate law, people at parties that behave like they're in Joyce Carol Oates novels, Plath and her figs, what happiness means & more.


Today I’m in discussion with an anonymous friend of mine. (In lieu of the usual photograph, you can imagine a toothsome man with vaguely semitic, vaguely Mediterranean features.) I asked him on because he’s thoughtful, insightful, self-aware and (crucially) forthright, but also because he’s currently in a position well understood by our generation (or anyone in the arts): supporting himself with a nine to five, undecided about whether to spend his next years on a degree toward ‘stability’ (in the form of a JD) or one toward ‘passion’ (in the form of an MFA)—a decision that will serve as the conversations’ axis. Let’s start with a question so beyond cliche, I’m hoping it swings back to the novel: Where do you see yourself in ten years?

Well, I think that's a good question. I think what that question usually means is, what to you hope your life will look like in 10 years, in which case, it's definitely useful as an organizing idea. For me, I'd like to have a loving family, that I can help to support in some meaningful way. That would be my top priority. Professionally, I'd like to be doing something that doesn't make me feel like shit at the end of the day. Which is to say, something that satisfies me intellectually, and doesn't feel exploitative, shallow, or false.

Is being a lawyer, in the sense that you'd be one, any of those three?

Yeah, I think being an attorney, at least the kind of attorney that I envision I'd be, would check off some (maybe all) of those boxes. My concern would be the feeling shitty at the end of the day part. I think some attorneys are overworked, and doing work that doesn't particularly line up with their values.

But surely not all lawyers are overworked, and that's a position you put yourself into when you pursue, say, corporate law.

Yeah, that's definitely true. And I don't see myself being interested in corporate law, though everybody says that, and once the competitive juices start flowing, people can get motivated by that. For me though, I guess what's more concerning is that I'd be in a job that felt intellectually dry, uncreative, monochromatic. Partly why the allure of being an artist, or a journalist, is so strong for me. More variation. More adventure!

Don't you think that the competitive spirit that comes naturally when you put yourself through the JD churn is a prerequisite for becoming a writer, and for finding work that is the opposite of all of those things: intellectually 'wet', creative, multichromatic?

Yeah, I think there's a lot of truth to that. I mean, the competitive spirit is essential in becoming a writer, which you might know a bit more about than I. People like to get worked up about talent, and whether or not they have it, and talent is of course valuable, kind of like being born into privilege. But of course you need to work your ass off, and that may take a little bit of having a chip on your shoulder. It's sometimes strange to me how competition works in the writing world. It's more indirect.

And yet you do meet writers who are 'successful' by most definitions and you don't sense that they're crushing, or that they're using other people as fulcrums; you mostly just get the impression they're working hard. I want to ask if you can see yourself as that person, but instead let me take this angle: We were recently at party (surprisingly) full of corporate lawyers. A lot of them were conspicuously wealthy and had the mannerisms (either ingrained or acquired) normally associated with the set. It’s hard for me to imagine you in that skin, but if you saw yourself as one of them (in the ten year down the road vision), would it make you upset, or do you think it would be oddly comforting?

I wouldn't want to generalize about corporate lawyers as a set. We met some lovely people at that party, and also some people who spoke as if they were living inside the pages of a Joyce Carol Oates novel.

Which, in turn, gave us the opportunity to live inside a Joyce Carol Oates novel.

Right, which made me realize that I prefer to read about, rather than live out, Joyce Carol Oates' novels. The truth is, I think you're somewhat correct in not being able to see me within that set. I think that a lot of this has to do with expectations that one may keep for themselves, whether ingrained or whatnot, and the gradual shedding of those basically preconceived expectations.

What forces you to shed? What does that tangibly mean?

I've worked in a corporate environment that had as its main goal making as much money as possible. Now, this was not a corporate law firm - far from it. But it did have people working long hours in pursuit of the goal of accumulating wealth, basically. Though they entertained alternative visions about what they were doing. And I got paid decently well, and was getting promoted, etc. It could have turned into something. But I ran into that feeling shitty at the end of the day part. I felt like I had basically neglected my favorite aspects of myself the entire day.

I'm not sure if that answers your question.

I think the preconceived notions have to do with family expectations, but also what you imagine your life will be like when you're younger. I know everybody goes through it - the Bildungsroman - it's an eternal story. But it plays out differently for everyone. At times it hasn't felt like a totally clean break, it's been a process. I don't know if you've read Hermann Hesse's Damien, but it deals with that - the messiness of it.

I haven't read Damien, but it's the question behind every Bildungsroman, an adjustment, sometimes violent, of how you see your future. I liked how you mentioned your 'favorite aspects' of yourself, because I think any feasible, happy outcome for you involves engaging those aspects. At the risk of embarrassing you: What are those aspects? And then: Do you think it's possible to satisfy them solely outside of working hours, i.e. family?

I feel like I'm on the couch a bit. My favorite place.

Cushions of honesty.

I think discovering what one truly likes about oneself is also an unfolding process. I like working hard. I like that part of corporate culture, to a degree. I don't think it's possible to neglect the aspects of yourself that you like during work, and then engage them solely at home. I think that's a recipe for disaster. But for me, there's both an artistic impulse and a sort of activist impulse. I think in many ways the two are separate. Like you don't want to read a novel with an activist bent (although Franzen likes to write about conservation and saving birds). I think one's values should pervade everything they do. If they don't, there will be conflict. Spiritual conflict.

And let me play devil's advocate now. I think one grossly positive aspect of corporate culture is, that for a certain part of the day, you’re actually willfully neglecting yourself. You’re putting in work, and closing yourself off a bit (or a lot), and so there’s less on the table for you to get upset about. It’s the inverse of the problem of being an academic. If you were to follow your passions, say, become a scholar like your hero Žižek, you might find university bureaucracy so much more crippling than, say, empty watercolor talk about anodyne politics or last night’s game.

Yeah, I think that's well put. The sorts of battles that go in academia to me seem worse than the sort of competition that goes on in the corporate world. It's more personal.

And the element of getting lost in the work, in just soldiering forth. There was an article recently in the New York Times Magazine, I believe that talked about how the structure of corporate hierarchy was taken from the US military. The article was about how middle managers are getting edged out, and replaced by these flat corporate structures. In a sense I think a flat, unhierarchical reporting structure would be hell. People respond to leadership that is humane. I do. But the workday is so fucking long. By the time 2pm rolls around, it's like, ok I'm done with this shit. Let me think for myself now.

I can, and I think you can too, imagine yourself in an academic atmosphere, with a full semester’s worth of classes, preparing yourself a K-cup in a modestly designed teacher’s lounge, maybe getting over the fact your colleague’s language is affected (affecting yours and vice-versa) with the daily assumption you’re passing along knowledge, part of the long con of cultural enrichment. Is this scenario somehow less anxiety-producing for you?

I mean, it's easy to imagine yourself doing something.

It's not easy for you to imagine looking down the rest of a corporate day from the vantage point of 2 pm.

Yeah, but I do it daily. I think there's a good chance I would be satisfied being a college professor, a corporate lawyer, or a host of other professions. You never know until you try, I guess.

And that's the crux. As Plath would put it, you can't choose more than one fig (and worse, if you wait too long, all the figs will be rotten and you'll go hungry while everyone else is busy sucking the life out of the fig they chose).

Ha, yes, although I think figs are overrated. I guess what I'm responding to is the sort of fishbowl feeling I get when I feel compelled to examine my external ambitions with a microscope, or to anticipate things for myself. It feels sort of suffocating. And I feel lame saying that the reason I'm not on the path towards being a corporate lawyer or a college professor or whatever is because I simply haven't chosen to. Maybe it's that the anticipatory/prospective quality keeps the future at a safe distance.

I know that feeling too, I think most people do who still feel distance between them and a more settled future. The question is, when do you take the leap.

Daily. I don't think the proverbial "figs" will go bad, necessarily, but I think the time spent deferring is time wasted. Missing out on that delicious fig tart. Or a nice dried fig.

And right now, you'd agree, is time wasted. So what's stopping you from choosing a fig tomorrow?

Well, I wouldn't say that I'm wasting time. I think one runs into practical considerations, like how to feed themselves, etc. I'm moving in a direction. I think this interview has been a positive re-fueling. Maybe a little step stool to help one reach that fig on the tallest branch. Or something like that.

Then let's talk tangibles to help us fade to black. What's next?

Well, I'm currently doing some freelancing for Vice. But maybe more importantly, I'm applying to some grad programs. MFA's, one MA, and at least one law school. Is that weird?

How would that be weird?

They're pretty disparate fields. But as I've mentioned, I'm interested in each for different reasons. And for the same reasons.

To close us out, answer one last question, that I hope will somehow refocus in its broadness: What is happiness to you?

Happiness is a word that I generally shy away from, but contentment, to me, would take the form of surrounding myself with people and ideas that matter to me deeply.

Thanks for your time, and your words.

Thanks man. It was fun.