MFA (Master of Fine Arts) students often joke about how the degree they are attaining is at the opposite end of the spectrum from the MBA (Master of Business Administration). They joke about how MFA and MBA students have different morals – one pursues the craft and love of an art regardless of the money it may bring in. The other, they say, is in pure pursuit of what typical MFA students couldn’t care less about – money.
I’m not laughing. It’s this pious, holier-than-thou attitude that makes aspiring, talented writers go unpublished. In fact, I’ve been told by one professor, “Do not attempt to publish anything during graduate school – not even a single poem here or there in a literary magazine. Your entire focus should be on becoming a better writer.”
Bull. Part of becoming a better writer is becoming a better representative of your writing. The field of writing is every bit as competitive (maybe even more so) than any other field. The audience for literary writers is so small – any MFA graduate trying to find a credible publisher or a decent non-adjunct teaching job will readily admit this – yet the number of MFA graduates is so large. Since graduating with my MFA in May 2009, I’ve been one of the fortunate few – two book deals, requests to write for various magazines and opportunities to teach. To get these opportunities, I had to wade doggedly and alone through an unfamiliar world – the business world of writing. A vast majority of recent MFA grads are now trying to become border patrol agents or are filing tax forms or working at coffee shops. These jobs are fine, of course. What isn’t fine is that the writers working them are miserable. What isn’t fine is that these jobs have left the writers with little time or energy to actually write. These writers have stacks of manuscripts, but most aren’t professionally edited, most have only been read by friends, most are and will continue to sit under the job section of the local newspaper.
I’ve met many high school teachers in their forties, fifties and sixties who graduated with an MFA and pursued teaching right out of school (to make money). They are now bitter about their lack of writing successes. Regret drips from their wrinkled faces. It’s sad and I’m saddened and I’d like to do something about it.
MFA programs need a splash of the MBA. I loved how the MFA taught me how to distinguish good writing from bad, how to spark my own creativity, how to study and learn from the masters. But I’m upset that it taught me these things and didn’t teach me at all about how to get the work I spent years crafting, read. Creative writing teachers teach students to rid clichés from their writing. Let’s also rid our lives of the “I’ll be the typical struggling artist” cliché.
MFA instructors are often fabulous writers, but they are also experienced veterans in regards to the publishing business. Why aren’t these skills part of the MFA curriculum?
I want all MFA programs in the country to have one all-inclusive 3-credit class that discusses some of the following:
When should I and how do I write a Query Letter?
What does a literary agent do and do I need one?
What does a standard book contract look like in my genre?
What type of emotions might I feel when I’m published?
Should I hire an editor or will my publisher grant me one? How do editors edit creative writing? Will they take away my style?
Where do I find literary agents and outlets for my writing?
How can social media and personal websites be used to attract readers?
What is my niche? Do I have one? What sets me apart from other writers?
Great writing changes the world for the better. From it grows peace. Peace should not remain in the attic.
Cameron Conaway, NSCA-CPT, was the 2007-2009 Poet-in-Residence at the University of Arizona’s MFA Creative Writing Program. He is the author of “Until You Make the Shore,” (forthcoming January 2012 from Salmon Poetry) and “Caged: Memoir of a Cage-Fighting Poet,” (forthcoming Fall 2011 from Tuttle Publishing) which has received endorsements from UFC Hall of Famer Ken Shamrock and renowned writer Dinty W. Moore. Visit www.CameronConaway.com for more information.
>“Do not attempt to publish anything during graduate school – not even a single poem here or there in a literary magazine."
A recent graduate of a creative writing program told me that he was told the same thing.
I was hoping it was an isolated case of bad advice.
Is there a sort of shame in Academia that goes along with getting paid to write? Is the act of writing less pure if you are rewarded with readers and money?
This divide between the business of writing and Academia needs to be bridged. Both ways. Commercial writers can learn a lot from Academia as well.
Thanks for the great post.
>I don't think the advice–which I agree is bad–is about art vs. money. I suspect that "they" don't think the work will be good before graduation–and that inferior work might harm one's career. I think that's "bull," to quote Cameron, but I understand it.
>I seem to be in the middle here. On one hand, I believe Kelsey is right on – it really is this ultra idea of purity – that struggling means the writing is better than if it's rewarded with readers and money.
On the other hand, I think several professors do have the idea that MFA student writing might not be good enough for publication. However, when is it ever good enough? Even Norman Mailer looks back in disgust at his earlier works, but he realized they were part of his artistic growth, he realized that those works still have merit. MFA students aren't typically 22-year olds. Many are between 30 and 40 and already have a published book or a few renowned awards under their belt.
I think students of any age need to learn the value of rejection and acceptance. In both cases, it can help give the writer a new energy to become better. Without either, sometimes the writing process can stagnate, writers can feel incredibly alone and like their pursuit is self-indulgent and worthless. There's a certain act in sharing (or trying to share) that has the potential to light some good fires.
>There is a good deal of information out there about the business of writing. Many, if not most, MFA programs have panels on publishing; local-area organizations (e.g. Grub Street in Boston, the Writers Center near D.C.) run frequent panels and courses on the topic; lit mags and publishers are thorough in terms of providing information on the submissions process; many agents give out free advice online. In short, you have to be pretty lazy or unimaginative to not find this information — and then discuss it with your MFA peers and profs.
To some degree, I agree that professional programs — whether in the fine arts, law, business, medicine, etc. — have a responsibility to instruct their students in the business of being a professional in their field. But the primary focus is still on instructing students in becoming good enough to have a chance of operating in that field at all. When MFA students are told that they should hold off on publishing, it's probably tough to hear: but it's also sound professional advice.
>"Do not attempt to publish anything during graduate school" is precisely the opposite of the advice we had drilled at us in my Ph.D. program in rhetoric. Maybe the creative-writing folks should talk to their colleagues elsewhere in the English department. 😉
In all seriousness, though, being professionally edited while still a young grad student was invaluable. I would imagine that the experience would translate across disciplines.
>My MFA program promoted submitting and there were panel discussions which addressed "the biz."
It was encouraging for me to submit and feel a part of the wider literary community. I even had a few things published in online journals. This put me ahead of my fellow students who often were paralyzed by fear of rejection or a sense of hyper-perfectionism.
Those first two publications of mine were total stinkers to my view nowadays. But, they kept me going and gave me valuable experience.
Bottom line: submit, submit, submit. Grow a thick skin while still in the womb of academia.
>just a note on the advice given to not publish while in school — I think there is indeed good advice nestled in there. The idea behind it is that life/publishing, etc is a rat race. Graduate school provides the one, rare opportunity afforded to yourself as an artist to hone your craft, write without an eye to the audience, unselfconsciously. Once we start thinking about presenting ourselves, our words, thoughts, art all change.
Once the program is over, theoretically, that moment of sanctuary has been lost and rarely ever again does one get the chance to strip everything back down to naked, bare bones.
Now, on the other hand — the art of Professional Practice are skills that should be introduced as part of a master's program as well. But there has to be something sacred about the work you are producing otherwise you risk never having scratched the surface.