If you search online for the term “starving writer,” Google returns over 8 million results—about the same as a search for “English bull terrier.” This may not come as much of a surprise: after all, it’s a dog-eat-dog world.
Clearly, the figure of the starving writer occupies an important place in our culture. This figure represents the intense, painful pursuit of a passion over material concerns. Writing doesn’t pay; his hunger is proof of his authenticity.
Each year, many Harvard students with literary interests come up against this cultural type. It’s the purest form of the “passion versus paycheck” dilemma: Do I do what I love for no money, or do I go after a more lucrative but so-called “soulless” career path?
Despite the prevalence of the “starving writer” image, I believe that students with literary interests do not need to conceive of our choices in these terms. A body of undergraduates with interests in both literature and business are finding innovative ways to move past this binary.
Stephanie L. Newman ’13 is one such student. An English concentrator, she is the publisher of the literary magazine The Harvard Advocate (of which I am also a member) and a former executive board member of Harvard Undergraduate Women in Business. She spent the summer as the interim managing editor of online content for a tech start-up. This semester, she is using her leadership of the Advocate as an opportunity to help members of the magazine, some of whom might otherwise be starving writers in training, think in new ways about their career possibilities.
“The lines are blurring,” Newman told me. “The [publishing] industry is becoming very fluid now. I think that there's a lot happening behind the scenes, things that aren't visible to students, because they’re not changes that we see in big name, old-model publishing companies . . . There are exciting opportunities there for students who are literary minded to get their feet wet in something that is content-related.” She cited the growing number of online publications and digital media firms, such as Oyster (which aims to be a “Spotify of books”) and Activate (a new media consulting firm), as prime examples of these changes.
Newman planned an event at the Advocate last month to bring professionals whose careers are proving her claim or, in her words, “to give Advocate members a sense of what is happening now with digital media and how that interacts with developments in the literary world” and to “get people thinking about their postgraduate lives in different ways.”
Not every student organization is finding ways to help people pursue literary careers that avoid the “starving writer” cliché. The Harvard Crimson’s annual Journalism and Media Fair, held last week and co-sponsored by the Office of Career Services, targets students who want to enter these fields, but it’s unclear what the benefits to students or employers are. As one senior member of the news board told me, students in the Crimson joke that no one knows if the employers they bring to campus year after year can actually afford to hire anyone for more than an unpaid internship.
Yet student organizations aren’t the whole story. Escaping the “passion versus paycheck” mentality, when it comes to a literary career, will also require that students let go of some of the pretensions and assumptions that older writers have handed down. When I spoke with students for this article, some expressed doubt that an English concentrator would have the necessary skills to forge new career paths. Still others turned up their noses at the idea of a day job that wasn’t a conventional first writerly job, like copy editing at a magazine or working as an editorial assistant at a publishing house. “T. S. Eliot’s being a starving writer was part of how he became T. S. Eliot,” one student said.
He’s wrong, though. Eliot worked as a bank clerk for years before becoming an editor at Faber & Faber. Wallace Stevens worked as an executive at an insurance company. William Carlos Williams was a doctor. There doesn’t need to be an inherent contradiction between having active but distinct professional and literary lives, just as literary skills and interests can help individuals develop a unique and innovative career path.
Work like what Newman is doing at the Advocate may help the next generation of Harvard writers prove in new ways that these ideas are true. “I also just wanted our members to know that other people are going through similar struggles, people from arts background and humanities backgrounds, and dealing with it in really creative ways,” Newman told me. “They're not just working at [newspapers and publishing houses] or in finance. They’re finding an in-between area.”
Julian B. Gewirtz ’13 is a history concentrator in Quincy House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.