As I sit in my apartment and Google careers that involve writing (as per the advice of the Career Center), it becomes increasingly apparent to me that I should have done more internships.
Since declaring an English major my freshman year, I have generally felt comfortable with the fact that I will not be going to med school or working at an investment banking firm. I’ve always thought I would be a writer, or that I would work at a publishing house or magazine, and I’ve never doubted that this goal is completely attainable. And then I became a senior and started actually looking for relevant jobs, at which point I immediately started to panic. Every job listing that I’ve found in publishing/editing/writing boasts the phrase, “MUST have AT LEAST five years experience,” with some variation of capitalization, and these aren’t even the jobs that I want. These are the assistant-to-the-assistant-to-the-assistant jobs, the kind that, on a resume, earn vague bullet points like “facilitated office communication” or “improved office organization.” I never knew I needed five years’ experience to do an entry-level job, but apparently that’s the way it goes, and now I wonder if I should regret the summers I spent back home in Ohio happily ignorant of the holes in my resume.
Instead of doing an internship the summer after my first year at Duke, I took a minimum-wage job at a rural campground 45 minutes from my house. It wasn’t a summer camp and I wasn’t a counselor. It was a place where families drove their RVs and parked them next to a handmade mud hole/lake. I was hoping to work at the check-in desk or scan items at the camp store, whiling away the summer in a state of relative relaxation while making money for the school year. Instead, on my first day, I was asked to lifeguard at the swimming hole (it was called “the beach,” though I’m quite sure there was no sand) despite my complete lack of training, not to mention my inability to swim. At the time, it crossed my mind that this was probably frowned upon at other campgrounds, a lawsuit waiting to happen, but I went along with it. I told my boss I wasn’t a strong swimmer and she reassured me that I didn’t need to swim—she simply needed someone to sit at the top of the water slide and tell kids when they were allowed to go down.
As the sunburn-prone ginger that I am, I begrudgingly assumed my position at the top of the water slide, a beach towel wrapped around my head and shoulders, leaving only a small hole for my eyes through which to supervise my charges. As kid after kid went safely down the rickety old slide, I began to feel more confident that nothing could go wrong. Beneath the cover of my sun-warmed towel, I smiled at the ease of the job and the absurdity of the situation.
And then a woman went down the slide and surfaced from the muddy pit with a compound fracture, her bone protruding sharply out of her lower leg. Luckily another lifeguard (a trained one) happened to be near my area, so he went for help while more lifeguards rushed over to keep an eye on the victim. Meanwhile, I frantically tried to clear the water as small children splashed through the woman’s blood, at which point my boss reminded me that this was a lake, not a pool at the YMCA. Blood, shmud.
I didn’t quit the job, and as it turned out there were plenty of other things for me to do besides lifeguard. I also worked at a concession stand, where I gained a new appreciation for all people in the foodservice industry, and at the kiddie area go-carts, where I decided never to have children. I dealt with angry customers of every sort, perfected the art of spreading sauce on a pizza and memorized all the lyrics to Nicki Minaj’s “Your Love.” I discovered that rescuing adrift canoes is much more enjoyable while singing “Just Around the Riverbend” at top volume. I read The Color Purple while sitting under a makeshift shelter at the empty putt-putt golf course during a ten-hour rainstorm, and I cleaned up countless concession-stand rat droppings even though, as I was informed by other employees, “the health inspector never usually comes until July.”
I will put none of these things on my resume. No one cares about my summer job as a “Recreational Employee” at a campground in southern Ohio. Judging by the book-related job postings I’ve found online, I should have been doing unpaid publishing internships all along. Now, graduation is fast approaching like a small child on an out-of-control kiddie go-cart, and I only have one relevant position to tell employers about, one six-month internship at a literary magazine. While that experience was an amazing one, it definitely doesn’t constitute five years’ experience.
Even so, I want to believe that my job at the campground was actually beneficial to me, perhaps even more beneficial than a publishing internship would have been. Not only did I have to learn some serious people skills, but it also gave me hands-on life experience. And if I want to be a writer, isn’t life experience more important than internship experience? The two don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but I think, in my case, I learned more at the campground than I would have learned opening mail or doing data entry or making copies. While an internship might have passed in a haze of menial office tasks, my summer job remains vivid in my mind; each day brought with it a new, ridiculous story. Ultimately, isn’t that what I’m after, as a writer? A story, not an internship?
Next year, I might not get a job in publishing. I might not get a job where I get to write or work with books or do anything useful with my English degree. Maybe I’ll have to dance around in a lobster suit or water a neighbor’s ficuses or work as a Christmas elf at Macy’s. But, as my summer job reminds me, at least I’ll have good stories to tell.