Jill Talbot’s ‘The Way We Weren’t’ Describes Single Parenting and Privation in Academia

“Money is at the forefront of my consciousness at all times,” Jill Talbot, author of the newly-released The Way We Weren’t, told me. “When you don’t have money, it dictates every choice — and you learn what you can live without.”

As we learn from The Way We Weren’t, which describes Talbot’s long journey through various academic adjunct positions throughout the country (with her young daughter Indie in tow), “living without” means going without a kitchen or a bedroom or the ability to know where you’ll be living next year.

Talbot’s journey is complicated by the fact that she is the sole provider for her daughter (Indie’s absent father is not contributing to the household, nor is he paying child support even after being ordered to do so by a judge) and that she is a recovering alcoholic. This makes her memoir difficult to read at times, because from the distance provided by the page — a distance Talbot heightens by alternating first and third person perspectives — it is easy to think “Don’t trust that man. Don’t have that drink. Don’t make those mistakes.” But mistakes don’t feel like mistakes at the time. Often, they feel like love.

I received an advance copy of The Way We Weren’t as well as the opportunity to talk to Talbot afterwards about her book and her career. Talbot has been on the academic market for 10 years and has yet to land a long-term tenure track job. “I’ve been an adjunct, been a visiting professor, been a writer in residence. My salary is always low, lower than my colleagues’, and it’s the only salary.”

Throughout Talbot’s memoir, she shares her various adjunct salaries compared to the cost of living.

Two weeks went by before I received a letter from the state regretting to inform me that I made too much money to qualify [for assistance]. With the letter still in hand, I called their offices to learn that they judged on gross, not net, and that my salary, as it were, the one that paid me for teaching three classes, and the one that was supposed to cover over $400 in daycare and food and $350 in rent (we lived in a one-bedroom apartment) was thirty dollars beyond the state limit.

This is while Talbot is teaching at Boise State and earning $1,200 a month (or roughly $400 per class, per month).

“Every time I get paid,” Talbot said, “and pay the things we have to pay, we just hold our breath for two weeks.” She told me that even now she and her daughter live “with what we need and nothing more.”

When I asked Talbot if she had any advice to share for Billfold readers considering a career in academia, she laughed for a very long time and then asked me to quote her as “laughing for a very long time.”

“If teaching is really what you want to do, then you need courage, patience, and fortitude,” she told me. Talbot also advised would-be academics to prepare for a “private struggle.” This year, Talbot’s private struggle includes trying to find a way to stay in the same place for the next four years; her daughter will be entering high school, and Talbot would like to provide her with four years of stability.

The Way We Weren’t reads in many ways like a cautionary tale about life itself. Life will hurt you. Life will make bad decisions look like good options. Life might mean sleeping on the floor of a basement apartment and counting the days until you get out.

But life is also a daughter’s smile and a friend’s kitchen and hope. Talbot and Indie, throughout the book, never lose hope. And there, with the grace of god, go we all.

Editor’s note: We received a clarification request; the quote “If teaching is really what you want to do, then you need courage, patience, and fortitude” refers to the academic job market, not to teaching itself.

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