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Zen and The Art of Cover Letter Writing

The best insight I received about job applications came from a mentor who had led many search committees, who had seen the best candidates “on paper” simply bomb interviews, while others with far less stellar CVs out-shined their competitors. My mentor said, “What the search committee really wants to know is not simply that you can do the job, but do you want to work here? They know you want a job, some job, but do you want this job, in this city, in this department? They want to know that they won’t need to do another search 18 months from now because you’ve spent your entire first year applying to other places.”

She then helped me develop a cover letter, a statement of teaching philosophy, a research summary, all of those documents that must be meticulously crafted to be effective, that will never be published or read by more than a few people who have just read one hundred other similar letters and statements. What emerged from this process was unexpected. While she made clear the importance of being compelling in describing my experience, achievements, and goals, she strongly emphasized being honest. This resonated with a few of the many texts I’d read on preparing for the job market, especially posts on Karen Kelsky’s blog, The Professor Is In. But it also resonated with the best insight I received about writing poems, fiction, personal essays, namely, that I will find my power as a writer in my ability to be honest.

What if I were to be honest in my cover letters? The term cover letter already seems to imply subterfuge, superficiality, packaging. What it really should be is a hook, a transparent piece of writing with points of interest that invite the reader further into the story. Like the great advice from Robert McKee in Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting and John Gardner in The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, a certain amount of artifice is required in order to communicate truths about being human, or truths about the “course of your life” (the meaning of “curriculum vitae”). If we were to only write the details, moment by moment, of the action and settings of a person’s life, it would not capture something essential about that person the way that the masterful selection of details offered about the home, clothing, mannerisms, and obsessions of José Arcadio Buendía make him seem as alive as the person sitting next to us in the cafe. I’m sure there is plenty of fiction that simply says this happened, and then this happened, and then he thought this, and then he said this, fiction that thinks itself clever for having done so, but I’m not familiar with it because I’m not interesting in reading a life as a list. In the same way, I can see how search committees wouldn’t be interested in reading two documents–cover letter, then CV–that basically say: this is what I did, then I did this, then I did this, please hire me?

There is a job that I really want, and I spent more time on the cover letter than I had planned, more time than I spent on any of the others, as much time as I spent writing my most recent poem. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, I’d compare the process to shedding skin. When I finished my first description of the courses I would teach if I were hired, I asked myself, “Is this really what I would do?” No. Again, I wrote descriptions, and again I questioned what I’d written. No. This went on for several more passes, and while I might dismiss this as a mundane manifestation of perfectionism, as well as procrastination in the evasion of writing other cover letters, I know that something else, something more significant occurred. The drafting of the cover letter morphed into a process more similar to the drafting of a poem then I ever thought it could be. I engaged the task with an openness, a sense of waiting, the mode of effort that effects results because it is a kind of not trying, of ceasing to force phrases and distort inspiration with impatience.

In Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, Zen practitioner Natalie Goldberg instructs the reader in “using writing as your practice, as a way to help you penetrate your life and become sane. What is said here about writing can be applied to running, painting, anything you love and have chosen to work with in your life.” Can it apply to writing cover letters? I’ve found that it can. As I wrote the cover letter for the job I truly, deeply want, it provoked me to examine my goals, hopes, fears, how my past experience truly has prepared me for this opportunity, equipped me to at least attempt to do well the work of teaching, what Jonathan Kozol calls “the beautiful profession.” If I can write these cover letters as a form of practice, then the entire process will feel worthwhile, no matter what happens. Already I have learned more about what I thought I wanted but truly do not want, and about what I want but thought would not be enough.

I am learning that there is no perfect cover letter, just as there is no perfect poem (though Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays” comes pretty close). But there are poems that wake up the reader as they’re read, poems that refine the writer as they’re written. For me, such poems are those that contain a choice, where the writer chose exposure over the familiar retreat, honesty over the safety of exquisite, startling, yet empty, artifice. The challenge of writing one cover letter after another, not unlike that of Daniel performing “wax on, wax off,” has helped to simplify and clarify my vision of writing. In his “Autobiographical Notes” that open his devastating essay collection, Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin concludes with the sentence: “I want to be an honest man and a good writer.” Years ago, upon reading that sentence, I also adopted those two life goals as my own. Only recently did I learn that the two goals are actually one.