Storytellers: Writers Working in Communications
Katherine Perry Harris | November 2015
“Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”
Talk with any of your writer friends, and surely they can share a bit of writerly trivia about the early jobs of now-famous writers: William S. Burroughs worked as an exterminator. Charles Dickens was a factory worker. Raymond Carver found work at a saw mill, and later as a janitor and a delivery man while building his short story career. And who knew that Harper Lee was an airline ticket agent back in the day, writing in her spare time? Flash forward to the present day, and sure enough you and your own writer friends have held a series of interesting jobs, whether it’s cleaning houses, serving as a hospital orderly, or walking dogs.
Debate aside about writing what you know—and whether working in diverse job settings provides fodder for your own writing—at the end of the day, as a working writer, you also need work. An occupation. For some of you, that job may be in academia. But for many others, whether or not you’ve tried your hands at teaching through an assistantship during graduate school, the writing life still calls, but the teaching life, particularly that of an adjunct, does not seem to be the best fit. Sometimes geography calls, or the demands of a family.
Whatever the reason, a job working in public affairs or communications can offer the structure that Flaubert refers to, while also offering, of course, a steady paycheck and a chance to hone your own writing in a day job—no small things indeed. So how to transition from a graduate degree in writing to a job writing in communications or public affairs? And can you write all day for a living and still pursue your own creative pursuits to live?
Writing—good writing—is always in high demand. Besides strong writing skills, graduate writing programs teach writers how to think critically and how to communicate with audiences both internally and externally. Research, a love of language, and presentation skills—honed in readings and workshops—are all skills learned in a writing program, not to mention learning how to read and effectively critique. Some programs also offer editing courses as well. These are skills that can easily be adapted into a career working in communications.
When I moved back to Missouri after graduating with my MFA degree, the University of Missouri offered the best chance at employment for someone with my skill set. I found myself writing speeches, editing a newsletter, and drafting correspondence for government relations and the university president. But when the university job did not provide enough flexibility, I found a good spot at a local marketing communications agency.
From an employer perspective, good writers are in demand in communications. “In today’s technological world, strong writing skills are becoming increasingly critical—particularly as more and more communication is through the written word and not face-to-face,” says Wendy Knorr, president and founder of Knorr Marketing Communications, a marketing communications and event planning agency in Columbia, Missouri. “Writers have a very short opportunity to get the audience’s attention. Writers must also understand the various communication vehicles, as well as different audiences, and tailor their writing accordingly.”
In addition to higher education institutions and private agencies, there are opportunities for communications jobs in the public sector at the local and state government level and for a variety of nonprofit organizations. For many, though, it comes down to finding a job in a higher education setting that does not involve teaching. In many communities, higher education institutions serve as the largest employer, thereby presenting the most opportunities for non-academic jobs for writers.
Higher Education as Public Good
For David Baker, who holds an MFA in fiction from Columbia College-Chicago, traveling out-of-state most of the week while working in corporate communications for Accenture didn’t prove to work well with his family life. He moved into higher education as a webmaster at the University of Missouri System after his daughter was born. “After working for a wide range of corporate clients ranging from Harley Davidson to Halliburton, I was seeking to work with a single organization that had a mission in which I strongly believed,” he says. “Higher education is a no brainer. I’m a happy consumer of the products universities produce. Education is a public good.”
In addition to serving as a public good, higher education institutions typically offer a lot of benefits for its employees. Besides the typical health insurance and dental and vision plans, there can be retirement/pension plans and 401ks, as well as tuition discounts for employees and family members, which can be especially helpful if you want to take a course, consider going back for an additional graduate degree, or have a spouse or child who enrolls.
Baker also mentions the beautiful campus settings and the opportunities to mentor and learn from students as added benefits. “Working with students and being around them is a special benefit,” he says. “Students bring an energy and curiosity. And also irreverence. It keeps you grounded and enthused. Working with interns and seeing them develop as storytellers, designers and producers is especially rewarding.”
The faculty and staff, too, are likely to be supportive of a strong university education and academic environment, one which can produce and bring in the best and brightest minds, as well as the variety of concerts, lectures, readings, and research produced at a university setting.
Celene Carillo, communications director in the College of Liberal Arts at Oregon State University, describes the job environment at a higher education institution as allowing one to still have “room to have a life outside of work.” She mentions the important “work/life balance at Oregon State. People want you to be able to take time off and rejuvenate. It’s okay to take a fitness class at lunch.”
Storytelling in Your Job
As writers, we all know the importance of storytelling, of our craft. We labor over our own words in stories, poems, essays. And this same skill set, this same strong sense of language, is imperative in a communications job, whether it’s crafting a simple press release or working on a series of commercials for a strategic campaign.
Baker currently works as the director of interactive communications at Oregon State University, where he manages a team of eight writers, designers, web developers and media producers. The group does everything from creating websites to commercials and long-format documentaries. “Our aim is to create and share stories in the digital space that advance the reputation of Oregon State University,” says Baker.
“Storytelling drives everything we do,” says Baker. “Even though the medium has changed and much of what we do takes place in the digital space, all of the techniques you would use to tell a story on the page, around the campfire or in a theater are still the same. Spending several years immersed in the craft of storytelling provided a foundation that I use every day on this job.”
Carillo, who holds a master’s degree in journalism (literary nonfiction) from the University of Oregon, worked as an editor and a writer before moving to her current position. Because the communications director position is an entirely new one, she is responsible for “creating a communication program from scratch for a college that some perceive as secondary to our university’s mission. I am here to change the way people feel about liberal arts at Oregon State.”
This involves creating and developing an alumni magazine, faculty newsletter, website, new branding and a recruiting strategy, among other duties. “The skills I learned in the graduate program have been integral to what I do here, which is, largely, storytelling,” she says.
This same sentiment is shared by Sara Freedman, who holds a master’s degree in the book publishing track from Portland State University and currently works in digital communications at Oregon State University-Cascades. “No matter the tool,” Freedman says, “it’s always about the story you tell.”
Working in an institutional setting also can provide its own set of challenges, among them the fact that large organizations may be slow-moving and slow to change. There is also the chance for decisions made by committee. “It’s hard to take risks in institutional communications. There are a lot of cooks in the kitchen,” Baker says. “There are lots of calls for caution. But playing it safe doesn’t create compelling content.”
Carillo agrees that sometimes you have to be “convincing for people who come from a more academic perspective. There’s translation involved.”
But oftentimes communications offices are an island of creativity among like-minded souls. “It’s rewarding to be working with words and images for a living,” Baker says. “And creative people. Every communications department I’ve worked in has had its share of writers, artists, illustrators, filmmakers and poets. And the best of them bring their creative passion and drive to work.”
Storytelling on Your Own
So if you’re writing all day long for your day job—and not necessarily writing what you’d prefer—how do you make it work with your own creative pursuits?
Carillo acknowledges that she is “continually trying to find that balance, with varying success.” Yet at the same time, she feels that she has “matured as a writer because I am working with words all the time. So even though I might not be writing for myself, I know that my skills keep getting sharper over time. There is real value in that for me.”
Baker, who is the author of Vintage: A Novel (Touchstone, 2015) and the director of the documentary American Wine Story, has found that “both pursuits feed off one another. You’re exercising the same muscles.”
Baker also finds that not teaching and instead having a regular schedule provided by an office job helps with his own writing. “Writing benefits from habit and routine,” he says. His schedule allows him to “work on the fringes” on his creative projects, either early in the morning or late at night.
“I liken it to wildlife… you always have the best chance of spotting wildlife near the edges: where the forest meets the meadow, or in tide pools where the sea meets the land,” he says. “So I steal an hour or two every day. Over time it adds up.”
He also credits his graduate program’s approach to writing workshops as helping his own writing. “We did a lot of in-class writing,” he says. “I resisted it, but it became second nature. It’s helped me to write on lunch breaks. Or in a car or a plane. It’s the most valuable skill I learned.”
Carillo finds that her current position helps her look at “projects in a more ‘macro’ way, and demands that I do a good job articulating their purpose and process. It’s made me more cognizant about how I communicate with people, and has made me observe people more closely so I can better understand where they’re coming from… I bring that to my creative pursuits.”
So degree in hand, job search ready, where to go next?
Some recommend expanding your reach and emphasis beyond writing in order to become the most marketable in a communications setting. After all, it never hurts to showcase a variety of skills, especially in today’s tech age, so diversify your communications platform if you can. “You most likely have the writing part down,” Freedman says. “Be the expert on social media platforms, website editing, data, email.”
Carillo advises building a portfolio, whether through internships that allow you to produce content for a website or magazine or through setting up informational interviews with whomever you can just to add to your work experience. “A lot of people know good storytelling when they see it, but it helps if people can see that you can tell stories on behalf of an institution,” she says.
And remember it’s the stories that brought you to your graduate writing program and that will carry you forward in your next job and in your writing life.
“If you have an MFA, you are a storyteller,” Baker says. “You can apply it to everything you do, from a website, to some brochure copy, in a video of an article, wherever. Humans instinctively like stories. And if you tell them well, they will like you, too. And they might even give you a job.”
Katherine Perry Harris lives in Columbia, Missouri, where she works as an account manager for a marketing communications and events firm, KMC. She previously served as a speechwriter and communications coordinator for the University of Missouri System, and as the publications manager for AWP. She holds a master of fine arts degree from George Mason University and a bachelor’s degree in English and psychology, summa cum laude, from Drake University.