John Kersey graduated from DePaul in 2005 with a bachelor’s degree in English. In 2011, he received his MFAW from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His short stories and essays have appeared in Fifth Wednesday Journal, Trop, and the Chicago Tribune. He teaches English and creative writing at Elgin Community College, and lives in Chicago with his wife and their two children.
Underground: What year did you complete your degree in English at DePaul? Did you have a concentration, or did you double major or minor in another area?
John Kersey: I graduated in 2005. My major was English with a “focus” (this is what the department called it at the time, if I remember correctly) in creative writing.
U-2: Did you pursue any graduate or professional studies after you graduated?
JK-2: Not immediately. I had a sense that I wanted to go to graduate school for an MFA, but I wasn’t sure if the writer’s life was the life I wanted. I also hadn’t produced enough work yet for a portfolio because I didn’t realize I wanted to write short stories until late in my junior year at DePaul, when I took a literature seminar with Dr. Ingrasci on Hemingway, Faulkner and Bellow, and an advanced fiction workshop with Dan Stolar. Nobody had ever taken me as deep into fiction as Ingrasci, (I’ll never forget the experience of reading “The Bear” in Go Down Moses) and Stolar showed me that I had a talent for writing prose. I remember Dan wrote “This is impressive,” on the back of the first short story I submitted, and that was just fantastic. I’d worked on that story night and day for like three weeks. I probably read those three words a hundred times as I walked back to my apartment after workshop then passed out from exhaustion. So after I left DePaul I spent two years serving tables in the evening to support myself, and writing during the day. Two stories that I wrote during that time, along with a revised version of the story I’d submitted to Stolar, wound up being the work that got me accepted to the School of The Art Institute of Chicago. I studied there for three years and received my MFA in 2011.
U-3: What’s your current position? Describe a typical day at work.
JK-3: I’m an adjunct English instructor at Elgin Community College. When I’m not teaching or in office hours, I work from home on class work, short stories, and any freelance writing assignments that come my way. Typically, I wake up a little before 4 am and tiptoe over to my office to squeeze in two to three hours of writing before my children wake up. After breakfast and a wagon ride with my daughter (my son, who’s still too small, stays home with my wife), I’ll head back upstairs and write for another couple hours, then prepare for class and grade papers if they’re around. I typically teach three classes during the semester, two sections of Composition 101 and one section of creative writing.
U-4: How did you find your first job after graduation and/or your current position? Be specific about the steps you took to explore possibilities and to secure a position. (Inquiring minds want to know!)
JK-4: In graduate school I fooled myself into thinking that my writing would immediately open doors for me. This was not the case, especially because I write very slowly and after three years at SAIC I had just two complete stories, neither one published, and a whole lot of sketches. Even during my third year, I kept telling myself that all I had to do was focus on honing my craft and writing the best prose I could write, and if I did this everything would be fine. In retrospect, I should have dedicated a little more energy to figuring out how I was going to support myself after grad school. I knew I wanted to teach English, so I could have tried to gain some teaching experience as a TA. I could have looked into a teacher-training program.
I almost set myself up for what I think would have been a difficult time trying to land on my feet after graduation, but I got lucky. A close friend of mine introduced me to his stepmother, an English Professor at Elgin, where they needed a new adjunct. We bonded over books we both loved and hit it off right away. After an interview with the Dean, the school offered me the position. I had no teaching experience, but they gave me a shot. That was in April 2011. I earned my master’s degree two months later and started teaching at ECC two months after that. I’ve been teaching there ever since.
U-5: How important has networking been in your employment searches? How did you find or build contacts in your desired field?
JK-5: The great hope for any writer is that your work will be undeniably good and impossible for a reader to ignore. I think you have to believe that you’re capable of creating something like this, but it’s not always a realistic way to think; indeed, you also have to realize you’re capable of writing something terrible if you’re not subjecting your work to intense scrutiny. The first story I published was rejected by six publications before an instructor of mine from SAIC, Jim McManus, asked if I’d like him to send it to a colleague of his (Eileen Favorite) who was guest editing at Fifth Wednesday Journal. Instead of arriving on a slush pile with most of the other submissions, my story reached Eileen independently, and with backing from someone whose opinion she respected. Perhaps that made all the difference. I’m not sure. Knowing people and forming reliable networks can certainly make things happen, and happen faster. But my writing career hasn’t only advanced in situations where I knew someone. The most recent story I published appeared in The Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row Journal, where it was picked off the slush pile—I knew exactly zero people there. Truth is, you can have a clear line of connections to Deborah Treisman at The New Yorker, or you can be the brother-in-law of Lorin Stein at The Paris Review—if the writing isn’t good, no one is going to publish it.
U-6: How does your English major help you in your current position?
JK-6: Oh, boy. This is sort of a whopper of a question. A more realistic question to answer would be, how doesn’t your English major help you in your current position? Or, even, how doesn’t it help you in your everyday life? I think the beauty of majoring in English is that the idea of a “career” isn’t always so clearly defined. The English major understands that her degree is contributing as much to the quality of her character, her ability to feel empathy, as it is to the quality of her ultimate career. I’m reading a great book called Why Teach? In his chapter titled “The English Major,” the author Mark Edmundson of the University of Virginia, writes, “To me an English major is someone who has decided, against all kinds of pious, prudent advice and all kinds of fears and resistances, to major, quite simply, in becoming a person.” Right on.
U-7: What advice would you give current English majors about their studies or extracurricular activities while they are still at DePaul?
JK-7: Take a moment to lean back and just enjoy how awesome it is to be a student. Truly appreciate the free pass you have to be completely self-absorbed. Because after you graduate, you’re going to take a big juicy bite out of life, discover a career, fall in love, get your heart broken, get mugged walking home from the bar, fall in love again, have some kids, buy a house, drown in bills, create an elaborate filing system for your bills in order to prevent drowning in them, et cetera. But you get older—ridiculously fast—and you’ll reach a point where you can’t just suddenly announce to your significant other, “Hey, babe, I know there’s a lot going on, but I’m just going to take these next four weeks here to focus on my intellectual growth—you can handle the bills and the kids and the trips to grocery store and driving my mother to the dentist next Tuesday, right?—then I’ll be back.” As a student, it’s your obligation to be selfish. Enjoy it while you can get away with it.
U-8: What advice would you give to graduating students as they move into the job market?
JK-8: If you’re not dating someone, now would be a good time for a companion.
U-9: Is there any additional advice or information you would like to pass on to our majors?
JK – 9: Read. Never stop. And not just anything. The good stuff. Reading just anything doesn’t count. There’s one hell of an enormous difference between E L James and Henry James.
Thank you, John, for your words of wisdom!