Maximilian Werner is a Writing Instructor at the University of Utah
The Job Interview As Story by Maximilian Werner
I don’t suppose anyone would argue that our lives and perceptions are affected by how we talk about them. I was reminded of this fact when I returned from interviewing at the recent MLA Convention in San Francisco. Naturally, those close to me were curious about how things went. “Things” is the better word because it is more encompassing, but family and friends were more likely to cut right to the chase: “How did the interview go?” they asked, to the exclusion of all else. I don’t begrudge them their questions and concern, if only because it is biologically expedient to assess the outcome of the contest, especially when one of the contestants is a family member or loved one.
A recent episode of Nature showed how the top male in a pride of lions was ousted by a younger and stronger male. Knowing their lives were about to change or (for the nursing cubs) end, the pride looked on with an exclusive intensity that we might call tunnel vision. Thus, humans are not unlike other animals that fixate on high-stake situations. Notwithstanding their differences, a feline coup and a job interview are both stressful situations, and a natural reaction to stress is acute focus. Although we share this tendency to react, we are unlike lions insofar as we can discipline ourselves to resist genetic predispositions and transform our reactions into their thoughtful, measured counterpart: the response.
For those of us seeking positions in academe, I know it is sometimes difficult to view the interview as anything more than a costly gamble. We often spend weeks in preparation and pay out of pocket for travel and related expenses, which in the current economic environment is not small potatoes. Still, even though the odds are considerable, we embrace this friendly contest to win the interest of prospective colleagues and employers. But when things don’t go our way, we may feel we have lost much more than time and money. Bit by bit, the hope of realizing our professional goals is tested. This is a dangerous place to be, which is why I want to offer a more holistic and fulfilling way of looking at the interview experience; one that empowers the interviewee from the outset.
I will assume the reader shares my tendency to judge the interview’s success based largely on the interview itself: Did I remember to sit up straight? Did I answer all the interviewers’ questions? Were my answers short and concise? Was I friendly, thoughtful, and interested? These are clearly important questions, and answering “No” to any one of them is very distressing. Over the years, I have therefore had to devise any number of strategies for dealing with less-than-stellar interview performances.
Thoreau once said that some experiences left him no better than they found him. He seems to be referring to a kind of perceptual stasis, whereby he remains unaffected or unmoved by what would otherwise be a negative experience. More importantly, Thoreau implies he has a say in how his experiences affect him. The basic idea is to prevent experience from a creating a deficit in the individual psyche. One of the limitations of this attitude toward experience is that it allows only a single alternative direction, which--in keeping with my metaphor of movement—is down.
Until recently, I told this story after each interview. If I could convince myself that I hadn’t lost anything, it was easier for me to live with the fact that I hadn’t gained anything, either. Or so I thought. I saw myself as unmoved and the interview as a wash. As a rationalization, one function of this story is self-preservation (some might call it self-delusion), but as is true with so many of our narratives, its strength is also its weakness.
We think of a story as having a beginning, middle, and end. Somewhere along the way we expect a climax, which may or may not involve conflict resolution. If we think of the interview experience as a story, typically the interview itself is the climax, which is why we tend to give it special attention. If there is any truth to this parallel, it is a mistake to ignore the details of the larger narrative, those memorable moments that occur before and after the climax. In fact, I would argue that we need the before and after in order to really understand the professional and personal significance of the story of the interview.
I admit I was slow to fully realize this enlightened sensibility, this idea that we should honor the fullness of the interview experience and treat it as an adventure. I first came to it several years ago when interviewing at a small liberal arts college in Idaho. The school flew my wife and me into Seattle and from there we took a small, two-propeller plane into Lewiston where, in the midst of rigorous interviewing, we breathed in and breathed out three days of our lives.
The first night my wife and I joined three of the faculty for dinner in neighboring Moscow. We traveled north across the Palouse, which is an enormous swathe dedicated to the production of wheat. It was the end of the season and the wheat had already been harvested. In its place grew lush grass. A blanket of rolling hills rising up to the darkening sky, the expanse evokes an oceanic beauty and desolation. I was so lulled by its strange monotony, I struggled to pay attention to the English Department Chair as she made talk that, in the present context, was too small. Besides, it had been a long day of talk and travel. I was about to doze when there, just off the road, feeding on the carcass of a small deer, was a large canid. A wolf? A dog? A coyote? I couldn’t be sure. I had never seen anything like it.
Traveling at 60 miles an hour, I saw only a single moment in this animal’s life: He lifted his head as we passed and I saw the calm, black pools of his eyes and the thick gold fur above his shoulders wafting in the scouring wind. Against the night, the animal appeared luminous and apparitional. I knew I had seen something special. That evening, inside the restaurant with the big red door, I mentioned the sighting. A junior faculty member who had said very little since I met him earlier that day sat up: You may have seen a golden coyote. He wore a heavy beard and round glasses, so it took me a moment to see past the glare. I’ve been looking for those animals since I’ve lived here, he continued. I’ve been here for what, five years? I haven’t seen a one. Then, as if in resignation, he raised his eyebrows and cocked one side of his mouth. You’re very fortunate. Well, I said, I feel very fortunate. And I did.
The poet Charles Wright once said that the more luminous something is, the more it subtracts from what is around it. Of everything that happened over those three days, nothing could compare with seeing that golden coyote out there on the Palouse. I was therefore pleasantly surprised when I had a similar encounter just before my interview in San Francisco. My interview was on Sunday, so I flew in early Saturday morning and drove north to Marin to stay with my aunt and uncle, whom I had not seen in many years.
That evening, while a chicken, fresh carrots, squash, and wild onions roasted in the oven, my uncle invited me to join him on a walk to the old quarry above his house. We took the road through his neighborhood, which had retained much of its original flora, including several magnificent red woods. At times my uncle would pause and point to a certain house whose design or garden he admired. The homes in the area were indeed beautiful, but I was more interested in the landscape, which I found exhilarating and refreshing after spending hours traveling on a plane and in a car. Eventually the paved road ended and became a path that spiraled up through the trees toward the quarry.
At my feet was a forest of tiny sprouts that covered much of the ground and whose beauty and delicacy inspired careful steps. Rain had recently fallen. Some of the trees still dripped with it and the soil was dark and spongy with water. The vegetation on either side of the path was loaded with mist and birds and their songs, some of which I had never seen or heard. I stopped and sought the identity of one such bird, but it flew deeper into the woods. By then my uncle had rounded a bend and he would have disappeared like that bird were it not for his electric-white hair that floated among the flora like an errant cloud.
This walk might have seemed like a good time to mentally prepare for the interview, to rehearse it, to attempt to know the unknowable events about to take place, but ultimately I decided it was a better time to attend to the moment and its sensorial pleasures. It wasn’t hard. As we neared the quarry, the path widened, the trees opened, and late day sunlight warmed the red hillside. Beyond this point is all National Forest, my uncle said, with the sweep of his hand. I scanned the hills above us and was just about to look away when a robust coyote--still until this moment--walked into view. He had been there the whole time, watching and listening to us. He was so perfectly encrypted in that landscape, had he not moved, I would not have seen him. Look! I said, pointing. The coyote traversed the hillside and then minced down to a small knoll where he stood for a moment, watching us, his ears working the sound waves. A few moments later, he laid atop the knoll and turned his face into the sun. I took his advice and looked at the quiet, green hills and the rills of low-laying clouds. I took his advice and stood there, breathing.
Over dinner that night I recounted the details of my walk for my aunt, a minister, who had been busy preparing a sermon for Sunday. She listened with interest as I described the birds and the coyote and how wonderful it was to be there with them. My aunt nodded and smiled warmly. What is also wonderful is to hear you say these things, she mused, sipping her wine. I’m afraid we’ve forgotten to notice what makes this place so special. We’ve become used to it. My uncle cleared his throat and then laid his fork and knife across his plate. Then he took a drink of wine. How are you feeling about tomorrow? he asked. I said I felt very relaxed and that taking our walk helped me to find my center. I also confessed that, because of my past experiences, part of me questioned the wisdom of spending my time, money, and energy on such a crap shoot. But what choice did I have, really, except to try? My aunt leaned forward a little and looked at me with her knowing eyes: We silence the cynic when we attend to the good and the beautiful.
A couple of weeks later, I learned that I would not be invited to campus. The old story: I counted my loses and then went walking down the dark road. And I would have gone on like that for a long while were it not for my memories of California: the air’s cool sweetness; the damp light; and lying awake and listening to the coyotes call to each other across the night. The good and the beautiful. Pay attention. It could be anything.