Profiles in Gradliness: Jessie Morrison

Graduate Student Jessie Morrison

I’ve loved Jessie Morrison’s writing since the third week of class, when our teacher read our class a story she’d started two weeks before, about a lousy husband with an expensive Halloween costume. Since then she’s written, and published, a lot more…all while teaching high school during the day. I wanted to spotlight Jessie because she’s a great writer and a great person (except for the coffee-flavored Patron), and so that I could ask her about going to grad school part-time.

Where did you go to undergrad? 

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  I got my BA in English.

Why did you decide to go to grad school part time?

It was mainly for financial reasons.  I had a full-time job that I enjoyed, and that provided me with a steady income and insurance, plus summers off to travel and to write.  I thought it would be a bad idea to leave all that behind if I didn’t absolutely have to.  Plus, I’m a pretty naturally lazy person: I gather moss pretty quickly.  But if I’m really, really busy, I have no choice but to be productive.     

Tell me about your job.

I teach English at Loyola Academy, a Catholic high school in Wilmette.  It’s a great place. We have some of the nicest kids in the world, and they come from something like 60 zip codes, from all across the city of Chicago and northern suburbs, so it’s really a fun mix of kids.  This year, our football team made it to the state championship, which was a huge deal for us.  I went to the game, which was played at my alma mater, U of I.  It poured for the entire game, and our team suffered a heartbreaking loss.  Afterwards, to drown our sorrows and to dry off, my boyfriend and I went to Kam’s, this disgusting bar that was basically the mecca of my college years.  It is just as disgusting as I remember–there was a crust of vomit around the cable box behind the bar, for example–but the fun part was that many of my former students, who are now in their 20’s, were there.  After they got over the trauma of seeing one of their former teachers at a bar, they bought me drinks.

Does teaching inform or inspire your writing?

Absolutely.  My thesis, which I just finished, is a novel in stories about teachers at a fictional Chicago public high school.

What are the advantages to being a part-time grad student?

Well, I think having life experience gives you something to write about, most importantly.  If I wasn’t working as a teacher, and actively thinking about my job all the time, I never would have been able to write my thesis about teachers.  I love reading about all the crazy jobs famous writers had before they were “writers” (I put that in quotes because really, they were writers all the time, just not famous ones).  Louise Erdrich weighed trucks on the highway.  Raymond Carver was a janitor.  Just think about how much experience they must have picked up in these jobs, how much observing and thinking they got to do. I had an idea last year to write a book about this really competitive group of scrapbookers.  I thought maybe I should work at Michael’s Arts and Crafts to learn about scrapbooking.  But then I went in there one day and walked around.  Everyone was wearing Crocs, and the whole place smelled like potpourri.  I couldn’t do it.

My point is that, at least for me, not being completely consumed in a full-time writing program actually made me more productive.  I learned to heighten my awareness and to mine my job for story potential.

What are the drawbacks to being a part-time grad student?

One, it takes longer. Also, you’re restricted to night classes. Columbia does offer a lot of night classes for fiction students, though, so that was never a problem for me. I think there were only one or two times where I wanted to take something and couldn’t because it was only offered during the day. The other drawback is social. I think it also takes longer to make connections with other people in the program since you’re just not around as much.  I sometimes felt out of the loop, and I couldn’t make it to all the literary events I wanted to attend. 

What advice would you have for someone trying to decide if they should go to grad school full time or part time?

I think it comes down entirely to money.  It’s a lot to work full time and go to school at night.  But it is certainly doable.  As I said earlier, I think it just forced me to work all the harder.  I didn’t have time to slack off.  I didn’t want to slack off.  I wanted to write and learn like crazy.  

The other thing to keep in mind is that a part time student takes 2 classes per semester and a full time student takes 3.  It’s really not all that different.  Is it worth quitting your job to take one extra class?  If you hate your job and are looking for a way out, then maybe the answer is yes.  But for me, it was no.  I finished my classes in three years, and my last year has been spent working with my thesis advisor.  Also, almost all of the full-time professors teach night classes, and they are all, universally, awesome.

Tell me about your thesis.

It’s a novel in stories that took me about a year to complete. There are nine chapters, one for each month in the school year of a fictional Chicago public high school.  Each chapter centers around a different teacher at the school, but the characters are interconnected.  There’s a shooting, a fetal pig dissection, a student-teacher affair, a game show, and–though I only noticed this later– lots of vomiting in parking lots. I started at least four of these chapters in my story workshop classes at Columbia.  It’s 51,000 words, and I could probably recite most of it by heart. I’ve never worked harder on anything in my life.

What do you like to read?

I read an article recently about how a group of some of our best American writers–Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Franzen, Mary Karr, David Foster Wallace–all hung out together at one point or another. 

To me, those writers are like the popular kids who I’m not cool enough to hang out with.  I worship them. After I read the article, I read Franzen’s Freedom, then Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot, then Karr’s Lit.  I’m saving Infinite Jest for when I get out of work for the summer. The writers themselves, or characters who very closely resemble them, appear in each other’s novels.  I love that.  I love reading books by people who knew each other.  When I was in college, I read Nelson Algren’s “The Man with the Golden Arm,” and then, right afterwards, Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Mandarins.” Can you imagine their pillow talk? 

Where can I read your work?

A version of one of my novel chapters, “Teen Jeopardy,” appears in this year’s Chicago Reader Fiction Issue.  Another one of my short stories was in last year’s CR fiction issue as well.  I also have had work published in McSweeney’s, Word Riot, the Copperfield Review, and the Columbia Storyweek Reader 2009 and 2010.  I wrote a blog last year, “MFA Confidential,” for Writer’s Digest.  And I have an essay coming out in Hypertext Magazine in the near future, as well as a piece of flash fiction in the Columbia Storyweek Reader 2012.

What are you going to do after you graduate?

First, I’m going to have a raging party in my backyard.  Then, the next morning, when I wake up in a lawn chair surrounded by empty cans of Old Style and a deflated bag of Franzia to the ringing of my cell phone, I’ll discover that it’s my agent calling to tell me that my book has been sold to a major publishing house, and can I hop on a flight to New York to sign contracts?

At least that’s what I’m hoping.