Name: Maggie Smith-Beehler
College & Majors/Minors: Ohio Wesleyan University, BA English & The Ohio State University, MFA Poetry
Current Location: Bexley, Ohio
Current Form of Employment: Poet, Author, Freelance Writer and Editor
Where do you work and what is your current position?
I work at home and have several positions, some more glamorous (and lucrative) than others. As Maggie Smith-Beehler, my married name, I’m a freelance writer and editor, owner of Versed Creative Services, LLC, and a stay-at-home mom to my two children. As Maggie Smith, I’m a poet and author.
After college graduation, I earned an MFA in poetry from The Ohio State University, taught creative writing at Gettysburg College for a year, published my first book of poems, Lamp of the Body, got married, and began a career in publishing. I worked in educational and trade book publishing for several years, balancing full-time editorial work, poetry writing, and family.
When I received a creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2011, the financial cushion gave me the courage to leave my full-time job and begin freelancing from home. These days I’m on kid duty during the day, and I work at night after my daughter and son are in bed. The work is complex and varies from client to client, which I enjoy. Projects to date have included writing lessons for a Grade K language arts textbook, writing rhyming poems for a Grade 1 poetry anthology, editing digital activities for an elementary reading intervention program, and copyediting academic books for a university press.
Tell us about how you found your first job, and how you found your current job (if different).
In the year between college and grad school, I worked as a receptionist while continuing to write. My first writing-related job after graduate school was at Gettysburg College. I received the Emerging Writer Lectureship for 2003–2004, so I moved to Pennsylvania and taught both introductory and advanced creative writing courses for one academic year. It was an intense and mostly wonderful experience, but I’m an introvert, so being “on” so much of the day was challenging. I also knew that going on the academic job market would mean that I would have to follow the teaching jobs rather than settle back in Ohio. So I moved back to Columbus in 2004 and figured I’d find another way to make a living.
I wasn’t quite sure what I would do next. My first book had been taken by a publisher and was due out the following year. I’d had a prestigious position…but now what? Could I cobble something together by adjunct teaching? Could I find a job at a magazine? I ended up interviewing for an assistant editor position with a children’s trade book publisher. The interview required an editing test and a writing test—and frankly, the interview process was a cakewalk compared to daylong academic interviews. I got the job. It meant a $10,000 pay cut. It also meant no summers off, no winter break, no community of poets and writers. I’d be lying if I said that leaving academia didn’t come with a price, but I was home with my husband, and I really enjoyed editorial work.
I was there for two years and was promoted fairly quickly to associate editor. I read the “slush” (unsolicited manuscripts) and chose the most promising proposals to present to the editorial director. I also got the opportunity to work with authors to revise their manuscripts and develop the books. At the same time, I was writing copy for catalogs, posters, websites, bookmarks, book jackets, and book flaps. It was a terrific crash course in publishing, and writing and editing felt like a natural fit for me in a way that teaching hadn’t. I left that company in 2006 and went into educational publishing from there. In 2011 I took the leap of faith to go freelance.
What was another writing-related job that was important in your career?
The “other” writing job in my life is my career as a professional poet. My latest chapbook, Disasterology, won the 2013 Dream Horse Press National Chapbook Prize and will be published in 2014. My next full-length book, The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison, won the 2012 Dorset Prize and will be published by Tupelo Press in 2015.
When I was working full-time in an office, I had two weeks of vacation time per year, and I used most of that for my daughter’s sick days. Now I have a lot more flexibility. I can spend more time writing and revising individual poems, organizing book manuscripts, writing commissioned work (as I did for Nationwide Children’s Hospital), and sometimes guest blogging (as I did for the Kenyon Review). I can schedule afternoon class visits and out-of-town poetry readings, and even travel for brief teaching stints, readings, and residencies. In 2011 I was able to accept a two-week residency fellowship at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and this summer I’ll be a Peter Taylor Fellow at the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, where I’ll spend a week assisting poet Stanley Plumly with his workshop.
What did you do in college to prepare for your post-grad life?
I’ve never been a “joiner.” Maybe that’s why writing poetry has always appealed to me—it’s not a team endeavor. I did work on the college literary magazine, though, and I loved it. I enjoyed seeing what my peers were doing, and I liked curating each issue with an eye toward how different pieces writing could speak to each other. But the one thing I did in college to prepare me for my post-grad life was writing. I wrote. I wrote and wrote and wrote. I took a year off between college and grad school to see if I’d keep at it, without the motivation of deadlines and grades. If I didn’t, then maybe I wasn’t a “real” writer—and maybe I shouldn’t go to grad school for poetry. But if I did keep at it, I’d let myself give an MFA a shot. And that’s what happened.
What is your advice for students and graduates with an English degree?
I’d suggest thinking about a potential career in practical terms. Think about the logistics. How much education or experience is required? What is the average salary? Could you do the job where you currently live or would you need to move to a place where the industry is more developed? Do your research. If you can intern, do so. If not, perhaps your alumni relations office could put you in touch with an alum in the field you’re considering. Also keep in mind that there are plenty of careers in which writing and editing skills are extremely important, even though they may be less obvious choices than writer, editor, or teacher.
And for the creative writers out there: write. Find some aesthetically compatible people with whom to share your work. Maybe you meet a few friends at a coffee shop once or twice a month, or maybe—like me—you email poems or stories back and forth with a few close friends, because your best readers live hundreds of miles away. Submit when you’re ready, but don’t be in a hurry. Read literary journals, buy them, subscribe to them. And don’t take rejection too personally. Some pieces or books get snatched up quickly. Others you may send out for years. All that waiting will give you plenty of time to write some more.