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 It’s this pious, holier-than-thou attitude that makes aspiring, talented writers go unpublished.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.