An English major goes entrepreneurial — and loves it!
I chose my degree by instinct, the same way I chose Grinnell. There was something about dissecting poetry and prose that made me swoon. Practicalities were far from my mind.
Then came senior year, and reality set in.
Well-meaning relative: “What’s your major?”
Me, brightly: “English!”
Relative, perplexed: “So … I guess you’ll try to teach, then?”
It was a kind of A Prairie Home Companion moment. In my relative’s eyes, I’d already joined Garrison Keillor’s fictional Professional Association of English Majors. According to one Keillor radio skit, I could look forward to three employment options: Writing inane press releases for pharmaceutical companies, teaching literature to students who can’t put two coherent words together, or working at Burger World.
But no — my instincts told me I didn’t want to teach. Instead, I would follow my heart, combine my love of obscure literature with a love of grammar and be … a university press editor!
I sent my resume to dozens of fortunate presses. The few that wrote back offered the same basic response. We’d love to hire you, really we would, but we have barely enough money to pay ourselves let alone a college senior who doesn’t know the first thing about editing. Maybe another time?
A bit discouraged that my instincts and the real world didn’t seem to mesh, I graduated, moved to Minneapolis, and landed a “job” as an unpaid intern at a small literary press. That summer I tried — and failed — to break into the city’s thriving publishing industry.
Instead, I got a job as a grant writer for a women’s college in St. Paul, Minn., then a Fulbright to study women’s literature in New Zealand. As I set off for the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, I thought maybe my instincts were wrong and that I was destined to teach after all. New path: Fulbright, grad school, English professor!
That might have worked, except for the unwanted realization that I didn’t particularly enjoy the life of a graduate student. As much as I’d enjoyed dissecting and analyzing texts at Grinnell, I craved something else now. So after more than a year overseas and a lot of soul searching, I once again followed my original plan. I returned to Minnesota, took another run at publishing, and this time landed a job at a large children’s press.
Editing is an apprenticeship profession: You roll up your sleeves and learn on the job. Luckily, the senior editors who took me under their wings were tremendous. I worked on children’s nonfiction instead of the academic tomes I’d imagined editing at a university press. To my surprise, I found it deeply rewarding, and after several years of courage-gathering, I wrote a book of my own — a biography of Thomas Paine. I submitted it to my company and was delighted to see Uncommon Revolutionary published the following year.
I’d discovered my calling. I quit my job to start a freelance writing and editing business, eventually combining that work with the work of raising two children.
I’ve now written nearly 50 books for young readers and edited dozens more. My books cover everything from black holes to sea otters to the extraordinary life of Dr. Seuss. In many ways, I’ve never left college, and I love that about my work: I delve into one intriguing subject after another, and then I write about it.
My leap from young scholar to writer and editor wasn’t one fluid jump. It took trial and error. On that zigzag path, I converted a passion for literary analysis into a passion for creation. Today I use that same dedication to research, eye for interesting details, and obsession with language to produce tangible works that serve a meaningful purpose.
It’s an honor to help inspire a love of learning in children. I still get a thrill every time I hear from an inquisitive reader, or see my work in a library, or share my books with my own kids.
In the 20 years since I graduated from Grinnell, my English degree — like my instincts — has served me well. Looking back, I think that nervous young English major would approve.
By Laura Hamilton Waxman ’93. Waxman lives in St. Paul, Minn., with her husband, Shaan Hamilton ’92, their son Caleb, their daughter Yana, and their faithful dog, Sumah. Her books are published under both her name and her pen name, Michelle Levine.