Gutsche Lecture 2015: Beth Harrison

by Erika Robota, Creative Writing Program Intern

Gutsche Lecturer Beth HarrisonThe Miami English Department welcomed Beth Harrison to Miami’s campus for this year’s Gutsche lecture. The Gutsche lecture series brings highly successful Miami English Department alumni each year to speak about their experiences in the professional sphere and offer advice to Miami students who are on the brink of entering that sphere.

Beth Harrison graduated from Miami in 1992 with a B.A. in Creative Writing. A handful of her most notable job titles include: Interim Executive Director of the Academy of American Poets, Director of Development & External Relations at the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers, publishing editor at Oxford University Press and Princeton Architectural Press, Managing Director of the Discover Outdoors Foundation, and founding editor of literary magazine Spinning Jenny.

Beth Harrison is a prominent figure in the literary world, but during her talk she made sure to emphasize that she used to be just as clueless as anybody else. When she graduated, she had no idea what her future looked like. When asked if she still considers herself to be somewhat clueless she said yes, and that she hopes to stay that way. For Harrison, it is the process of figuring things out, day by day, that keeps life interesting.

Harrison was gracious enough to lay down advice in bulk. These tokens were taken from her treasure trove of knowledge and experience, as well as her colleagues’. Here is a simplified list of the top 10 points she made:

  1. Say “Yes!” to opportunities, big and small. A willingness to learn new things, even things that don’t seem immediately relevant, is imperative for developing a broad arsenal of skills. Plus, one thing tends to lead to another, and that initial “Yes!” was the first step on the road to something greater.
  2. Determine what you’re passionate about, and then write to your heroes/heroines in that field. You’d be surprised by how many of them will take the time to write you back and do their parts to help you achieve your goals.
  3. English skills are incredibly versatile, so don’t pigeonhole yourself! Just because you’ve graduated with a degree in Creative Writing doesn’t mean you must become a writer. Strong writing skills are important in any line of work. Jobs for good writers, in a variety of industries, are more abundant than you might think.
  4. Keep in touch with your professors and mentors. If these people have been influential in your life, there’s no reason their influence should cease merely because a semester has ended or you’ve graduated.
  5. Don’t be afraid to take a job because it’s not your dream job. If it’s a good job and you need it, then take it.
  6. Read. A lot. Here a few of the websites she recommended specifically:
  1. Manage your online image. If you don’t think potential employers are actually going to peruse your profiles, think again.
  2. Write thank-you notes. For every interview. For every favor. For every connection or name or idea someone gives you related to your career search.
  3. Learn to code. In this day and age, knowing how to create a basic website or blog is a huge asset. Having even just an elementary understanding of code will make you an attractive candidate in our digitizing world.
  4. Do things one step at a time. The greatest works of literature ever written were all written the same way – one word at a time. Try not to get too overwhelmed by what’s coming, and focus on what’s right here, right now.

Harrison is an extremely charismatic individual. After the conclusion of her talk, students waited around for nearly 45 minutes to speak with her one-on-one. She shared that some of her favorite poetry at the moment is anything written by Robert Creeley, Citizen by Claudia Rankine, and Void and Compensation by Michael Morse.

Beth Harrison gave a room full of English majors the glimmer of hope they needed, especially at this pivotal point in a long semester, to have faith in their education and have faith in themselves. Graduating from college is daunting, and hearing Beth Harrison talk about going through the same things they’re going through now was a much-needed boost of motivation.