No Starving Poet: Alumnus Michael Cook and the World of the Working Writer

Bio at a glance:

Name:  Michael L. Cook

Degree and Year: English BA, Creative Writing concentration 2003

Current Position and Employer:  Technical Marketing Writer, Niche Associates

Current Location:  Salt Lake City, UT

Experience in Other Fields:  Tech writing, grant writing, freelance writing, magazines, online writing

Other Degrees/Areas of Study:  A citation in Spanish language


Mike Cook

For Mike Cook, the third time really is the charm.  As many college students do, Mike spent his early years at UMD unsure of his long-term path.  After slowly ruling out things he didn’t want to do, Mike was left with majoring in English, a subject he’d always liked.  Mike explains, “I became very interested in the creative writing program. They rejected me twice, but by the third time they'd gotten so tired of seeing my application they gave up and let me in.”  (This should be enough to warn us all that one day Mike’s name will be in lights; after all, every good hero starts out an underdog).   

During his time in the department, Mike remembers fondly Verlyn Fleiger's class on Tolkien and Medieval literature, as well as the classes he took with Jeanne Fahnestock, though he subtly reminds any undergraduate readers that the most useful course he took was a technical writing class, and “those English 301s are required for a reason.”

Mike’s path post-graduation has, at times, exemplified the struggles of graduates in the humanities. As he puts it, “As a creative writer you're always looking for a way to pay the bills until your novel or short story collection starts earning you some money, which in some cases is never. So I worked landscaping and construction and bartending for quite awhile, but eventually I missed the intellectual stimulation I got used to in my English classes and decided to try and make some money writing. I started freelancing and did that for about five years. At first I started with just a few online gigs that hardly paid, and still had to work full time at the bar. Eventually the ratio flipped.  Mike has written for Baltimore’s “Style” Magazine, “Mutineer,” and various websites such as GoNomad.com on topics like gypsy brewing, wine importing, and travel. While living in Baltimore he wrote for LivingSocial and regularly reviewed bars and restaurants for “Metromix.”

A recent move to Salt Lake City, Utah, with his wife has brought with it the difficulties of any new start, including the desire for a steadier paycheck than that afforded by freelance writing: “Freelancing is an awesome lifestyle, but steady is not a word one should use for it. Now I'm doing technical marketing writing.”  Mike hasn’t given up on his dream of making a living writing fiction, but he’s not about to put all of his proverbial eggs in that one basket.  

Mike has a practical and unromanticized view of the English Major/Creative Writing concentration, and their relationship to his post-graduate life.  While the actual degree hasn’t made him stand out, the things he learned while an English major have been indispensible.  He calls the English major “ one of the most underrated majors in the world today,” adding, “I get the impression that people in the world don't know the value of an English major, so they afford it none.”  Ultimately, despite his own struggles in the current market, Mike still believes that the skills you learn as an English major—namely the ability to think clearly and communicate well—are more important than job-specific skills. 

Equally important, his background as an English Major and his skills in creative writing are often called upon by those for whom he works:  “When people ask me to write pieces for them they're not just asking me to put their ideas into words, they're often asking me to shape the ideas themselves, because they don't understand them clearly enough to do so themselves. My experience gained through all those research papers and critical essays becomes crucial then.”

His advice to current students in the English department?  Think broader than you’ve been taught to think about where a degree in English can lead you.  Don’t limit your search to jobs that are solely writing- or editing-based, especially since writing and research skills translate to every business setting.   Mike also encourages diversifying your skills: “Combo your major with something else you like, like sports or science or politics, and you'll have a lot of success. To that end, it doesn't hurt to take some non-English classes.”  And on a practical note, Mike advises against the cycle of debt that can encroach upon new graduates of any major, but perhaps especially humanities graduates.  He remarks, “Look, the starving poet thing is a joke. We do just fine, but if you stack twenty grand of unnecessary debt on yourself, life gets a lot harder. Don't do it.”

 

"Engage with your professors. They're so interesting and brilliant and half the time they are sitting in their office hours alone.
I only got to know a few of my professors and that was because I was dumb."

 

 You can follow Mike's missives and writings online at bmoreinutah.wordpress.com and www.literatureisnotdead.com.