We've all heard it before, at dinner parties, from relatives, from our therapists: "Oh, you write. Does that mean you'll be a teacher?" Fine, fine. We can't make enough money to "eat" or "live" from our poetry. Every MFA graduate knows the horrible feeling that settles into her stomach as graduation approaches. You finished a whole book!, you keep telling people. And still, no prospective employers come a-calling. Here at HFR, we know how you feel. We thought it might be interesting to take a closer look at some jobs we writers and lovers of books might enjoy. Or do enjoy. Or have tried, and regret. This regular post, A Cup of Ambition, will talk to those in-the-know about what the working world is really like.
Meet our fourth guest...
Christopher Burawa; Literature Director and Communications Director at the Arizona Commission on the Arts; Phoenix, AZ.
What do you do, exactly?
About 80 percent of my job responsibilities are geared toward public relations for the Commission, which includes managing the quarterly newsletter that goes out to over 18,000 individuals and organizations, managing content on the Commission’s website, overseeing the design and content of all agency publications, working closely with the executive director to develop our communication strategies for promoting arts advocacy, writing and distributing press releases, establishing working relationships with media around the state, working with other state arts agencies and national arts agencies to promote new initiatives, and offering my expertise on effective public relations and marketing techniques to arts organizations.
As the Literature Director, I oversee the grants to Arizona literary organizations such as small presses, literary journals, writers conferences, reading series, slam poetry events, and book festivals, to name a few. In this capacity, I lend my expertise in helping these organizations develop or sustain their programming, which may include board development, evaluation and assessment, funding resources, among other things. I’ve had the opportunity, in this role, to travel the state, meet wonderful Arizona-based writers as well as visiting writers. But I also work with our Arts Learning Director in promoting writers in schools. I’ve been very moved by how teaching artists—writers—impact the lives of K-12 students. I have seen first-hand how creative writing can improve young students’ lives by giving them self-confidence, improving their grades in all classes, and, more importantly for many of them, giving them a vehicle for personal expression.
There’s actually more to my job than this, but I like to leave a bit of mystery to my role.
How did you get into arts administration?
I never planned on being an arts administrator. In fact, when I was working on my M.A. in Old English Literature, I planned on getting a Ph.D. But then an unplanned opportunity came my way, one with money, and I thought I wanted money. I soon realized that money was relative and so I was an editor with no real plan. And I did no planning. So, I had an M.A. and no plan and was working as an editor. Editing can be a plan for someone who plans to be an editor, but it wasn’t my plan. So, eventually it occurred to me that I needed a plan, and I came up with a plan that I needed to get out of editing. What happened next was something out of a hagiographical saga—a near miracle. I had been teaching myself HTML coding because it was new, and it seemed that editing might become new. I knew that the Internet was new and that they would need editors, but the question was when. Shortly after that I was hired as an Internet Project Manager, and there wasn’t much editing but a lot of proofing. 9/11 happened on the heels of my realization and everyone was laid off. I had been accepted into the Creative Writing Program at ASU and thought that a plan might be developing, but it didn’t. In the meantime, I worked as a grant writer and got good at it. Then, a friend—who I call Paul—called and told me that there actually had been a plan all along and that I should apply at the Commission. I did and realized that had I had a plan I would never have discovered arts administration. But arts administration can be a plan, and I encourage that type of thinking.
The Good Stuff
It’s the environment. My colleagues are marvelous people. And I love working with and around artists and arts administrators. These are people who love the arts, are passionate about creating art or making sure we have art venues and a variety of art experiences—from paint-by-numbers to bang-the-can experimental. I also have a chance to attend arts events around the state and see how important arts are—enriching our lives through shared but not identical experiences.
The Bad Stuff
I think we all dislike what we have to struggle at. That’s all I’m going to say about that.
Arizona has a growing and nationally recognized literary reputation. We’re on the radar.
Spin a Yarn
The most interesting people I have ever met were Icelandic farmers (both men and women) from the southeastern region called Arnessysla. One example. When I was 12 years old, I was introduced to Kólbein of Laxádalur, who could recite several sagas from memory (he didn’t, thankfully), recite Icelandic poetry to suit circumstances (which he did, over an oil gasket, as I recall), had taught himself five languages (i.e., the primary languages that didn’t include English, plus several languages he “dabbled” in), advanced mathematics, alchemy (he fixed the gasket), and had built out of concrete his own astronomical observatory (just off the kitchen—really!), and was an arc-welder sculptor (he made a sculpture garden using old tractors and cars from nearby farms). I just returned from 5 weeks in Iceland and my uncle told me that all of them are all dead now. Each pursued some artform, if not several—singing/composing, carving, sculpting, poetry, to name a few. After working hard all day, they didn’t just plop down and veg in front of the radio. They did something that they enjoyed, that fed them spiritually. And what was so remarkable about each of them was how none of them projected a sense of accomplishment but were just who they were. But after telling you all of this, it suddenly occurred to me that you may have wanted an anecdote about my job…
Who would be good at this?
I think writers are by nature perseverant, and that’s an essential trait in arts administration.
How do I become you?
I would recommend trying it out first by becoming an intern or volunteer with an arts organization.
Thoughts about this job for writers...
I think communications/public relations/public information is an excellent field for a writer to be in or begin with, especially in the nonprofit sector. Nonprofit organizations, by in large, provide services and are advocates for change. And they represent an incredible array of interests—arts, environment, education, you name it. There are jobs working with literary organizations, but these organizations usually have small staffs and turnaround is almost nonexistent. But I wouldn’t let that deter you from trying.