Recent Grad Describes Writing Life After Berkeley

In what follows, Margaret Boehme, who graduated from Berkeley in 2005 and now writes for the NPR program The Writer’s Alamanc, reassures her parents about her writing career.


My well-meaning parents, concerned about the security and stability of their middle child, seem somewhat incredulous of my claims that I am gainfully employed, given that my daily habits appear strikingly similar to those of my undergraduate days at Berkeley, where I was once a practicing English major.  “When are you going to get a real job?,”  they enquire with faces full of loving earnest.    I try to tell them that I have a real job – as a writer – but people have these pre-conceived notions about writers which are really very hard to repudiate, much less vanquish.

Versed in the empirical school of thought, my scientist-parents make the following observations which they point to as evidence of my perpetual Berkeley English undergraduate existence.  Now, as then, I burrow into Bay Area libraries in clothing resembling pajamas, where I hunch over a tiny little screen, zombie-like, oblivious to closing hours and natural disasters, fingers prancing above those qwerty keys, one or the other leg bouncing restlessly up and down.   Now, as then, I surround myself with stacks of bulky literary anthologies and notepads with indecipherable scribbles.  I carry these colossal high-tech black audio headphones which make me look like an independent public radio producer but whose purpose still is to convey the following message: do not attempt to make small talk with me. Copious amounts of coffee, a ritual which had its singular origins in the Free Speech blend, continue to be consumed.  And there are the 2:30 am bedtimes, a pattern developed at the Underground Stacks 8 or 9 years ago, which I can’t or won’t seem to kick.    Some things don’t change.

But then some do.  No longer do I consult the MLA style manual, given that my yellow Labrador ate it, leaving a trail of shredded, meticulously footnoted pages in his wake.   Eschewing dangling modifiers and end-of-sentence prepositions is something I’m no longer so vigilant about.  I take highly presumptuous liberties with verbifying nouns and so forth, but then I think we all do these days (think: “google” and “friend”).   For what it’s worth, strong stand I still against text-message-formatted shortcuts (gr8! Cant w8 2 c u l8r!) outside of the text message medium,  while occasionally proclaiming with great ceremony:   “There is nothing outside the text”just to see who will get the allusion.   If he or she had been a Berkeley English major, it is likely that he or she would.

Aspirations of sophisticated syntax are a thing of the not-so-distant past, my sophomoric and even seniorific days as an English major. But now, while hunched over a blaring white screen, the little cursor blinking impatiently at me, I tend to ask myself the following:  “Can a hybrid-vehicle driver in the center left lane going 65 miles an hour, who is trying to keep an eye on the hulking SUV in her blind spot and also squinting into the sunshine in her windshield —- can she comprehend this clause I’m composing, and maybe even find it interesting?”   A compound question which lacks written grammatical niceties, true.    A lower standard, perhaps, but in this case a pragmatic one — since I write for radio.  English majors are capable of pragmatism, too, you know.

But I digress.   What I’m here to tell you, Mom and Dad, is not to give any more thought to that sensible biology second major which I had planned to do but did not – I’m on the full-time English major career track now!  And here’s the reassuring part: English majors can find paid employment at which their English major backgrounds are really very useful.  It has happened to the least of us.

I try to explain to my parents that the pajamas that I work in are not unlike those weird monogrammed bathrobe-type white frocks which scientists wear into laboratories and sometimes forget to remove upon exiting.  Tools of the trade.   It is a stretch of a simile, I acknowledge, compounded with litotes.  My parents renew their looks of incredulity and go back to sketching on paper napkins the molecular structure of Curiosity (Cu+) which I deem both Surreal and Fictitious; the familial metaphysical crisis passes.  Security and stability hover in the wings, and I deduce that we all will be just fine.