Draft Disaster for my interview with Zack Bean

He said so much that I thought was important so I tried to keep his words as close to exact as I could. As of right now, it’s a disaster. A disaster I’ll hopefully fix…


 

Zack Bean has spun creative writing wisdom at Montana State since the fall of 2013. His interest in writing began in high school after taking part in a summer program, but he didn’t always know he wanted to be a writer. “It’s the first time I encountered creative writing as a discipline. It was interesting, but didn’t take right away. I barely wrote that summer. I was just reading and listening and trying to connect that to what I had read in school.”

 

First a chemistry major, Zack realized early on that the life of a chemist was not what he envisioned for his life. “I switched to creative writing because I envisioned my future as a chemist. I had a friend who graduated and was doing work for 15 bucks an hour, which wasn’t that bad in 1999, but I could already do things I hate for that much money,” he says with a laugh.

 

When asked about how he got to be a writing instructor Zack’s answers reflected how important self-reflection is. “I took creative writing and literature classes and really enjoyed them. I think probably for me, my interest came more from the movies as much as it did for literature. I wanted to be a filmmaker but I couldn’t afford to go to film school and I didn’t like the idea of working with that many people with that much money at stake. It just seemed really, I don’t wanna say doomed, but I could say, interpersonally, that it was not a good match for me. I was really an introvert. It wasn’t until I began teaching that I was really able to talk to people.”

 

After switching from a chemistry major, Zack was a creative writing and mass communication double major, but ended up dropping mass communication his last semester. “I was like 6 hours away from a communications degree. I could just that these were not my people.” When it came to finding his people Zack found home in the creative writing field. “I had a couple classes I really enjoyed, one with a writer named Molly Giles. I wrote a story in there that she thought was pretty good. This was maybe one of the first times that I thought I could do this. A couple years later after I graduated, after bouncing around job to job for a couple of years, I decided I wanted to go to grad school for creative writing and I wanted to learn about writing. That’s how I ended up applying to MFA programs, which ultimately led me to PhD programs. Even after getting my PhD I didn’t ever think I had to be a creative writing professor.”

 

Even though he didn’t have to become a creative writing professor, that is what he did. So I asked him what a typical day looks like.

“I’ll start with the obvious and say, part of my job is to be a creative writer. Most days the first writing I do is early in the morning before the kids get up and that’s working on whatever my creative project is at the time. Usually it’s an hour, hour and a half from 5:30/6:00 to 7:00 in the morning. That’s what we generally think of as ‘creative writing’. Sometimes that’s all the time to do it. Other days I can get back to it later and work. Typical days are hard to address because I don’t think many of my days are typical. I might teach one to three classes a semester. My day constantly shifts. The number of hours I’m teaching shifts, but I’m generally writing all the time. Sometimes it’s ‘I need to send emails, whether that’s to a student or to a colleague. I would say I spend an hour sending or responding to emails.”

“I’ll use today as an example. I do a lot of writing as a professor, whether that’s writing a syllabus or notes for classes I teach. Yesterday, I spent most of the day with a pen in hand, reading stories for a class I teach tonight. Making margin notes, or lecture notes. I probably spent six or seven hours doing that. I’ll probably spend a few more hours today doing that.”

Since Zack is a creative writer who also teaches creative writing, I imagined his own writing must intersect with what he teaches:

“Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. Like right now I’m teaching a class on the short story, while writing short stories, so sometimes it’s hard to separate those two. If I’m reading five or six stories and talking about how they work, if I go back to my own writing, I’m very likely to see some connection or some opportunity that I otherwise might not have seen.”

Sounds like an awesome way of using both aspects of his writing life. “So, in a sense, it almost solves some of your own writing problems by teaching?”

Not necessarily.

“Solves some, or creates them,” he says with another laugh. “I’m not which, but it definitely feeds into my writing. I can’t always separate the two. Sometimes, but not always.”

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Writers in the Academics

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Interview with Jenny Lavey, Communications Director at Montana State University

Jenny writes for College of Agriculture and Montana Agricultural Experiment Stations at Montana State University. She has been working at Montana State University (MSU) for four years. Her writing responsibilities includes reaching out the ongoing research in Agricultural Science at MSU to growers of Montana and federal government by extension and technical writing, and making people aware of MSU’s research accomplishments through news, social media, web and magazine writing. She is the only one writer for College of Agriculture and covers all activities and events frequently done by College of Agriculture in the field of soil, plant, animal, and environmental sciences. In addition, she also teaches two Technical Writing courses in Dept of English at MSU.

She fell in love with reading and writing in her school days and then earned bachelor degree in English Literature and masters in Composition & Rhetoric. After college years, she started reporting for a newspaper about criminal behaviors and their court trials. Within few years of doing that job, she emotionally drained with that and decided to change genre and started learning and reporting local farmers about agricultural and natural resources. The 2008 economic recession in US shut down her newspaper and she had to find another job and then she got new job at MSU.

She works individually and feel more comfortable doing that, but she also believes that sharing your writing piece with others for editing, language and fluency make a writing piece stronger. Because if more peoples are engaged in a writing more ideas come in, hence she collaborates often with communication department at MSU and asks for necessary feedback.

She always interacts with her clients and writes what are they doing that has impact on state or national agriculture. She seeks for new inventions, discoveries, new recommendations, high impact journal articles from faculty and researchers and then prepares writing pieces for general public and then sends for publication. She observes that the researchers are too technical and it is difficult for them to come out from technical zone and write for general audience. They can’t communicate efficiently with people who are outside their technical zone, trying to do so may impair their technical skills. So, they need someone who can outreach their work to public and writes do that very well. She feels, she always has more science work than her ability to write, hence this job is too demanding.

She has three type of audience, one is federal government personnel- technical, second is growers- non-technical and third one is website users- informative. So, to fill the everybody’s need, she writes same piece in different voices, for different audience. Faculty send her annual reports of the work they have done and then she prepares it to satisfy the objectives of federal or private funding agencies and to convince them to provide funding again if necessary. She writes feature stories like about pulses, horticultural crops, and new technology for growers and for the same she visits experimental stations and asks researchers for scientific ideas and innovative growers to collect content. She interacts with growers on ‘field days’ to present the work university is doing for them and to cover the news. Since social media has become more powerful news sources, she also writes for social media account of College of Agriculture.

She writes only during academic hours. She wishes to write for her own writing during non-academic hours, but also need personal and social space, hence it hard to be a writer and getting paid. However, she always thinks about new ideas and ways of improving her academic writing beyond academic hours. She believes that you are always catching ideas whether you are in grocery store or in social conversations. In free time, she reads other’s writing ranges from fiction to non-fiction and that help her to hone her writing process.

The most challenging part of her writing is the conversion of technical language from scientific to meaningful non-scientific language, in a way to reach its intended audience like a grower or a layman. That’s the most difficult part because she has master in English- Composition & Rhetoric and doesn’t know much about scientific, and technical jargon. Similarly, researchers and faculty are not efficient in non-scientific writing. So, whenever she writes, she sends back the writing piece to the faculty for proof reading and editing. Sometimes, there are conflicts on certain piece of writing, both sides claim to be right. She learns from the faculty about the technologies and faculty learn from her about the easily consumable forms of writing, hence it becomes two-way learning.

Her writing inspiration comes from the moral science that she is helping the researchers and students in their efforts to feed the world. She feels more rewarded when she comes up with a magazine or a feature story that can influence people and help growers to produce food to feed the world. And that’s how, she justifies her work and feels energetic.

Expert in Audience

“You have to be willing to have people look at you and think you’re stupid, and it be okay.”

Nika Stoop is the grant training coordinator for the center of faculty excellence at Montana State University. This means that she goes a couple of different things, she helps faculty figure out how to teach research scholarship, and it means she holds writing workshops where she works with people on grant writing.

The time I spent interviewing Stoop really allowed me to reflect on my experience last semester in Doug’s science writing class, which boils down to my consistent struggle with my questioning expertise. Stoop disclosed that in her time working at Novartis, a pharmaceutical company, she often times did not know the deep science of what she was asking people about. Although from a scientific background, a chemistry major in college who went on the get her PhD in molecular biochemistry and molecular biophysics, she found that in conducting interviews with scientists it wasn’t about getting into the nitty gritty details of what she was composing a story about. It was gaining enough information and figuring out how to “pick out the nuggets” of information that will be important in writing for Novartis.

“I can still do my job well even if I don’t know exactly what you’re talking about.”

She was writing for the people who visited the company and providing them with information on the different pharmaceutical research that was happening there through internet resources, posters, pamphlets, and even presentations to the people who came to visit the company. Getting into the specific scientific details was less important than communicating to others what exactly what happening at the company. It boiled down to being “accurate enough” that the information wasn’t skewed, but that others could understand it.

“As a writer, you’re always going to be in a situation where you don’t know all of the answers.”

She had never gone into anything thinking about being a writer. However, she expressed that she had always been interested in the writing process. Her first job working in writing was working for MIT writing research grants. This job was her first introduction to writing as a career. From there she work at the pharmaceutical company before moving to MSU where she now writes less and assists writers more.

Grants, she explained, are really collaborative. She looks at the needs of the grantor, and what they are trying to spend their money. Then, she looks at the researchers and what their needs are. And in that, she sees a partnership and helps those searching for grants better be able to meet the needs of those who give grants.

Stoop’s job at MSU has her doing a lot less writing than she did before. Her focus at MSU is to help faculty and researchers construct their grant proposals. She explained that this type of writing is more like a partnership. She does everything from helping the researchers figure out how to better write their grant proposals to better match the criteria the grantor is putting out there.

She recently held a one hour grant workshop to try to give people the basic information they need to know about grants in a short hour of time.

“You’re never going to be an expert in everything you talk to people about, so you’re going to have to be an expert at understanding how much you need to know to write the story. And to write it in a real and accurate way.”   

Stoop talked about her background in science and how it better helped her in helping writing grants or the science writing she was doing before coming to MSU. She said that knowing more about the focus and mentality involved in getting a higher degree has helped her with the people side of her writing interactions and less in the actual writing of the things. Within this she’s better learned how to balance the use of scientific language and understanding for people who are asking for her help. She explained that her job is important because she’s giving them an audience who doesn’t know everything about what they are researching because their audience probably won’t have anyone who is an expert in what they’re researching, and so that makes it important.

“Know in your own heart that you’re not stupid.”

Stoop knows full-heartedly that writing professional is a difficult endeavor, but from what I learned from her, it’s about not taking it personally when everything goes wrong. It’s about believing in yourself if people don’t think you’re qualified enough to do the job you’re paid to do, and it’s constant learning. It’s attempting to gain the skills to figure out what information is important and what will facilitate the common goals of audiences, institutions, and writers. It’s having faith in your own skills and what you can do.

Popping the Technical Bubble

Kerry Byrnes has been a Technical Editor for Barnard construction for a little over a year. She started out as a writing major who worked in the writing center while attending school at Montana State University. The writing center gave her an insight to her passion to talking with others to develop their writing. Through her connections at the writing center, she found a job with Barnard as a technical writer in the marketing department following graduation. With a passion for professional and practical writing, the job seemed to be the perfect fit.

As a technical editor in the marketing department, Byrnes is responsible for taking various forms of technical information and converting it into audience driven documents. Several of the examples of writing she brought to the interview were of various genres that portrayed the same information. There are the project profiles that are to inform the owners of the projects and sites of the status and work being performed. There are then quarterly publications for all of Barnard’s clients that update the clientele as to the projects currently being worked on and their status. Finally, there is the internal monthly newsletter that includes a more personal touch for project updates in addition to employee lifestyle articles. While all these pieces of writing fundamentally contain the same information, they are each tailored to who will be reading them.

Byrnes’ writing process begins with identifying the purpose of the document to be circulated. The audience varies based on the type of circulation, meaning the level of technical information going into any given document fluctuates with the audience. The content and types of stories that go into each is also determined by the audience. The project profile, for example, would not contain information on multiple projects, but rather a greater amount of specificity to the single project covered. Once the audience is identified, Byrnes spends time going through internal documents on the projects as well as interviewing the personnel on the project to gain a better understanding. Much like her work in the writing center, it is more a method of taking content that others have already written on the subject and improving it by means of simplification and tailoring to the desired audience. In many ways, her job as an editor is more prominent than that of a writer in the sense she morphs the information to better fit the publication’s audience.

Any non-work related writing Byrnes chooses to indulge is also focused in the real world of professional writing. She explored the peculiarity of being odd one out as an undergraduate in the sense of not having an affinity or desire to write fiction; where she dabbled in creative non-fiction, found far greater enjoyment in helping others improve their writing and writing with a real world application and purpose. Currently, writing outside of work consists of essays on various topics.

As an engineer myself, I have worked in several companies where those of us who worked in a more technical realm weren’t usually responsible for conveying information to clients. This interview was interesting in the sense that I now saw how it connected. A business obviously has to work with stakeholders and clientele, but existing in the technical bubble can make one forget communication with stakeholders on their level of understanding is an activity that must be done. Byrnes’ role as a technical editor fills a need that is up and coming. The need to take technical knowledge and shape it for the appropriate audience is a skill set that is needed when it comes to relating the technical bubble to the real world. However, these types of jobs aren’t explicitly marketed as jobs for writing majors and can require a bit of networking and selling one’s skills in that department. There is a great need for technical editors to pop the technical bubble, and Kerry Byrnes is one of many young professionals leading the way.