Getting a job with an arts degree

indepth1“Fresh eyes, fresh eyes, fresh eyes,” the speaker encouraged us to chant. This surreal mantra was the one piece of advice that we were to take from the CV clinic, which had been sponsored by Deloitte. The clinic was being administered by Deloitte’s head of HR, and was the first CV-related event I had attended since transition year. I was hoping to improve on the already winning formula I had hit upon in Ms Kerrin’s career guidance office, sometime in early 2009. As the speaker conceded, however, there are no universal dos and don’ts in a field where the key factor is to differentiate oneself. Instead, she asked us to fill up the front two rows and dissect some sample CVs. While the “fresh eyes” mantra may initially seem vague, it was only with fresh eyes, through putting the CVs through the scrutiny of several different readers that is, that we discovered that Candidate A had laid out their personal details in much the same way George Lucas did the opening credits of the Star Wars films.

It was the second morning of College’s Careers Week and it was time to go to some potentially degree-defining talks. The timetable was pretty comprehensive with talks for the medical students, the engineers and those graduating with a language. That a few staff members had not been corralled for a talk on working in academia was the only notable oversight. What interested me most of all was the talk entitled “Voices from the Creative Arts”, as these were the arts I had studied during my degree and now I was eager to convert them into cash. Little did I know my eyes were about to be freshened.

The diverse panel included author and writer in residence, Chris Binchy; composer and record label owner, Benedict Shlepper-Connolly; freelance theatre director, Maeve Stone; and veteran film producer, Nodlag Hollaghan. Shlepper-Connolly spoke first and his remarks on the hand to mouth nature of his existence, which drew mirthful grins from the other panellists, set the tone for the talk. The stories of how the panellists had forged careers by carving out niches for themselves were at once inspiring and sobering. Perhaps one of the least inspiring realities revealed was the necessity of networking, a process Binchy characterised as essential for new authors who are hoping to find representation. He pointed out that there are several book launches a week in Dublin, which allow you to get face to face with those involved in what is a relatively small scene. Stone also emphasised the importance of networking, coupled with a strong sense of self-confidence when presenting oneself as a creative artist. Additionally, when new on the scene, a reputation as a reliable collaborator (working hard and keeping your word, and being seen to be doing so) is the surest way to establishing a career.

In order to better understand this process, I spoke to senior sophister student, Alicia Byrnes Keane, about her own attempts to get her writing out there. It was through attending The Monday Echo, a Dublin slam poetry event, and performing in the open mic section that she began to put herself out there. Following the open mic, she was asked to give a full performance at a subsequent event and it was through talking to people at The Monday Echo and The Sunday Slam, that Alicia got offers to perform at other poetry events such as Underground Beat and The Circle Sessions.

Networking is a means to an end, particularly for those whose product is the written word. 

These performances have led to further opportunities: Alicia will soon be performing at the spoken word festival, Lingo. She also stresses that, while the atmosphere at these events is often informal, they have given her practice as a performer and shifted her writing from the realm of hobby towards more serious territory. Interacting with other poets and people like the organiser of The Monday Echo, Aidan Murphy, has advanced Alicia’s work in terms of exposure but it has also given her the confidence to take her creative output more seriously.

Alicia’s story injects some inspiration back into the networking process, but it must be remembered that networking is a means to an end, particularly for those whose product is the written word. While Alicia’s writing does have a distinct performance aspect, she has also made submissions to college publications. Her description of her first rejection from Icarus reminded me of my own first submission (and rejection): an atmospheric reflection on the fresher’s experience in which the ghost of F. Scott Fitzgerald made a sudden and somewhat inexplicable apparition, mid stanza. Unlike myself, however, Alicia went on to make many other submissions to both Icarus and The Attic. Beyond the parameter of Trinity’s sheltering walls are independent publications such as Belleville Park Pages, “focused on connecting contemporary writers from around the world.” The Pages offers new writers a chance to have their work published beside those already published in The New Yorker and Tin House, in “a publication printed on paper.”

This emphasis on the printed word springs from a conviction the founders, James and Will, have that the publishing world needs “a shake-up.” The basis of this belief seems to be that new writers needed a physical platform In describing his own route into print, Binchy was quick to emphasise that the industry has since changed. The days when newer authors were offered two-book deals based on previously published work (in Binchy’s case a series of well received short stories) are gone. He pointed to self-publishing, online or otherwise, as a way in which new writers have a chance to discover their own readership. He noted that self-publishing does place the burden of promotion and marketing on the author, but this can also be a way of getting noticed. Among the guidelines for submissions listed on their website, Blackstaff Publishers express an interest in self-published work of prospective authors (accompanied by sales figures and information about media coverage), as well as authors who are “world leaders in the way they use Pinterest to promote their work.” However, being a world leader in anything is time consuming and seems at odds with the exacting process of creating original work in the first place. Both Binchy and Stone emphasised how constant engagement with art was necessary to be creative and should be one of the budding artist’s primary concerns.

By contrast, Tramp Press treats all submissions equally, be they from an established author or a “12 year-old first timer”. This kind of egalitarian assessment presents new authors with an opportunity not dissimilar to self-publishing, but with the key distinction of the prospect of a “lasting editorial relationship” with both Tramp Press founders Sarah Davis-Goff, who discovered Man Booker Prize winner, Donal Ryan, and Lisa Coen, a veteran of Hot Press and The Lilliput Press. However, Tramp Press also warns prospective authors to manage their expectations, stating that they, “like most publishers, will want to publish one manuscript in every hundred.” Tramp Press hold very high standards; what sets them apart is their willingness to publish outstanding new authors.

The other three speakers made similar references to their work being pursued with passion that sustained them beyond the comforts of sustainable income.

As Goff puts it, “We simply don’t trust anyone else’s tastes… There are some brilliant, ballsy publishers out there like Galley Beggar’s Press, The Lilliput Press and The Stinging Fly, but they are islands in a sea of publishers that refuse to take risks and allow their marketing departments to make editorial decisions.” Tramp Press “are looking for brilliant writing, everything else (social media presence included) is just noise.” Unfortunately making it into print or onto vinyl, film or the stage is not a precursor of financial success, or even security. Binchy opened his portion of the talk by quoting a recent ACLS study which found that the median income for writers in the UK to be £11,000 (over £5,000 below minimum wage). The other three speakers made similar references to their work being pursued with passion that sustained them beyond the comforts of sustainable income.

It seems these days that a day job is almost a necessity, at least as far as authors are concerned. Sadly, living the dream as a publisher by day and author by night is less than realistic as breaking into publishing itself, a traditionally competitive industry which isn’t getting any less competitive, often means “running a gauntlet of unpaid internships before acquiring a job,” as Davis-Goff puts it. In her correspondence with me, she attributed this competition to the volume of book lovers who perceive working in publishing, “amongst the authors,” as glamorous. “Spoiler Alert!” she says, “it isn’t.”

As far as a day job goes, Alicia has a few things up her sleeve. Early on, she recognised her writing as a side-project, but one that she undertook with a view to one day having a creative profession. Since her first submissions to Icarus and The Attic, she has had reviews published in Trinity News and The University Times. She is currently serving as deputy editor for the Rant and Rave, as well as editing poetry for a publication in Wales (by email, she hastens to add). The next step for Alicia seems to be graduate study, possibly abroad, even though the thought of leaving the Dublin poetry scene behind is saddening. Connolly-Shlepper put the fact that he has been able to forge a career in composition down to the opportunities he made through activity undertaken during his college years. It is likely that any further opportunities that come Alicia’s way will have been similarly self-made, in the way that she seized the opportunity presented by events like The Monday Echo.

Upon leaving the GMB, I began to wonder whether the advice I had received from Deloitte’s head of HR was perhaps the most valuable to those other, now somewhat chastened, creative types who had attended. The “Voices from the Creative Arts” had spoken and apparently there are no hard and fast dos and don’ts to be found in their field, where the objective is to differentiate yourself. The one piece of advice to be taken from the talk as this: if you are going to be creative, or even work with creative types, you must be equal to the scrutiny of many pairs of fresh eyes. And so I wandered home, repeating the mantra and quietly ruing all those times I had brazenly told my parents I would never become an academic.

Illustration: Mubashir Sultan