Writing: The hardest job West of the Pecos

Memories.

As much as I am a writer, I don’t want to write at all lately. Of course when I get lazy or uninspired, I judge myself and get sad that I won’t reach my self-imposed goals of finishing my own book. I will admit–I have wanted to quit writing this book since September and feel like life would be easier if I would. But it won’t. I know myself–if I were to quit, I would feel so guilty and not be able to sleep at night.

Instead of continually suffering, I decided to enroll in a few memoir writing classes this semester along with finishing the final two classes I need to graduate. I should’ve graduated long ago, and would have, but that’s a novel so I’ll refrain from telling the story here.

For years, I have debated with myself over whether I need an MFA to complete my book (an explanation for non-writers: an MFA is a two year graduate program focused solely on producing a book-worthy manuscript that’s been peer reviewed and reviewed by professors and mentors. The chances of getting your manuscript published after an MFA program seems to be higher than doing it the good old fashioned way, judging from my observations, although it’s not a certainty and the more I’m observing I realize many writers don’t publish immediately after their MFA is complete) and whether I could afford an MFA. An MFA (Master of Fine Arts) degree is an expensive one and they are often located in areas of the U.S. that I don’t want to live and where my job is not located.

Meanwhile, until my inner debate is finished, I’ve decided to take a few classes locally. I’ve heard a lot of good things about the UCLA Extension writing classes (UCLA does not have a traditional creative writing program) and there aren’t many options when it comes to creative writing (it’s not as popular as science or business, so classes are limited). A few friends have had great professors and gotten a lot of good writing and instruction from full courses or weekend courses. I’ve signed up for one weekend course and one full course, although I’m not sure how I’m going to balance it all this semester (with work, plus two traditional courses, plus these). If all else fails, I’ll put them off until this summer or next fall, but knowing that they are there and very close makes me feel good.

Speaking of next fall, I’ve started my application process to two graduate writing programs despite not being entirely sure if I can afford it. I’ve decided to apply and see if I’m accepted (first) but since almost all of the application deadlines for Fall 2013 have passed, I have to act now to actually reserve a place in these two programs who are still accepting applicants.

My main deterrents to applying to MFA programs prior to this were two things: 1) Most MFA programs are very impractical (teaching mostly theory and very little on how to actually make money or how to get published) and 2) I would likely have to give up my job and move which would make it financially impossible for me to attend. MFA programs typically frown upon genre writing (or writing that is commercially successful).

I was supposed to apply to one program last November and it was a program I wanted to attend years prior, but the more I started looking at the theory-heavy coursework I started dreading the idea of getting my master’s there and getting into that much debt. I knew I would clash with some professors (because of my non-traditional view of what the MFA should be) and didn’t want to spend two years and a hell of a lot of money doing just that. So, I didn’t apply and stopped researching programs for the time being until I figured out what to do. After all, I couldn’t attend a graduate program until my classes were finished and it didn’t look like I would get all the paperwork in in time. (As it turns out, I did!)

 

Only a few months have passed but the writing has not gotten any easier. I have written some pages I am very proud of and I feel like I’ve found the voice and am framing my story very well, but I’m back in the same spot again, wondering if I should go back to school to finish this damn manuscript and knowing that I did really well writing in a workshop environment. (Again, for non-writers, a workshop is where you share your written work with fellow peers and they go page-by-page pointing out strengths and weaknesses. It’s the standard way writers get their work edited before we have agents and publishers and all that.)

Why are MFA programs so impractical? I don’t know. I think professors build their classes upon what their professors before them did and a lot of that means degrading genre writing and focusing largely on theory and art rather than becoming a professional writer. They do have a point in much of their tradition: great writers are born from studying great writers. Mediocre writing can be born just about any way. Also, most writers want to teach writing so the MFA is suitable for teaching after the program is over. I do think great writers are made partly by focusing on the art of writing and devoting hours of study to great masters before us, BUT no MFA program should be entirely focused on this especially to the point of neglecting the real world, the publishing industry and industry trends toward commercial work.

I found the following great interview with Tod Goldberg the other day while searching for a low-residency MFA program and what Tod says here is what I have been saying for years. Of course, that means I’ll be applying to his program. If his words here are any indication of his classes, I have to admit, I will feel it worthwhile to attend.

Caleb J Ross: You said something at last year’s AWP which stuck with me. Paraphrased, of course, you said that you teach your MFA classes like an instructor of any trade program might, with the end goal of providing financial opportunities for the students. This seems like a radically different approach than most MFAs which may instead focus on non-definable, creative signposts to gauge student success. First, am I expressing your idea correctly? Second, how is this goal compromised by a low-residency program, if it even is?

Tod Goldberg: Pretty close. Essentially my philosophy is that if you’re in an MFA program, your goal isn’t to become the most well-read person on earth with a handful of literary quotes at your disposal at all times, it’s to be published. It’s to be produced. Graduate programs in creative writing are some of the few that seem entirely esoteric because they don’t seem to be training you for anything tangible, apart from maybe being a particularly enlightened barista, because, well, that’s frequently the case. But I think that has to change. Being a professional writer is a job. And if you want to write books, or write screenplays, or write poetry, simply for personal edification, you certainly don’t need an MFA program to do that. But if you want to become a professional writer, I think an MFA program can and should be a clear stepping stone in that direction. Most aren’t. Most entirely eschew the idea of life after the MFA — in fact, most programs tend to herald your acceptance into the program as the “making it” part of your writing career, which is silly. It’s school. It’s what you do afterward that makes a difference. So in that light we talk about publishing and production a great deal in the program I run at UCR, about the difference between being workshop-good and publication or production good. We have agents and editors and film producers and studio heads that come in an read our students work and give them a real world idea of where they stand. And our professors are doing it, too (no one works in the program in the professor who isn’t still publishing or producing).

I got my MFA late in the game — I’d already published 5 books, countless short stories, sold several projects to Hollywood, written hundreds of pieces of journalism and was actually directing two MFA programs at the time (before going to strictly a low residency MFA, UCR Palm Desert also had a part-time traditional MFA program, too) — when I went to get my MFA from Bennington, so I feel that I have a unique perspective on this. Clearly, I didn’t need an MFA to be successful. But my experience with one particular professor at Bennington, Lynne Sharon Schwartz, opened my eyes regarding how to become a better writer, how to build on what I did well already, and that alone was worth the price of admission, and I believe that comes from that mentor/mentee relationship that low residency programs foster.

So I don’t think this philosophy of mine is hampered in the least by low residency program; in fact, I believe it is the best avenue to pursue this line of thinking. Being in a low residency program mimics the life of the professional writer. You’re probably balancing your writing with another job, you’re probably also writing some stuff like book reviews on top of your creative work (or doing coverage if you’re a screenwriter) and you’re probably at home on the weekends, up until late in night, in your underwear, typing.

(Excerpt from Caleb J Ross/AWP Blog. Read the rest of the interview here. I highly recommend it.)

 

 

Information from around the web on MFA programs: 

Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) (I’ve always found their information useful.)

Bennington College (A low-residency program I’ve heard great things about.)

Vermont College of Fine Arts (Another low-residency program I have heard good things about.)

The Atlantic’s Five Top Low-Residency M.F.A. Programs (Take it for what it’s worth. I don’t know that I would rank Antioch very high, at all.)

2012 MFA Rankings: The Top Fifty (Poets & Writers Magazine) (I use this as a guide to what programs exist, not for their ranking system)

Why the Poets & Writers MFA rankings are a sham (a Columbia graduate scolds P & W for ranking his alma mater lower each year due to their very high tuition)

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Lisa Kerr

Lisa is a writer, editor and humorist who has been featured on the Huffington Post, Philly.com, New York magazine, and BreakThru Radio. Find more of her at: thelisakerr.com.

2 Comments

  1. Writing professionally is tough, particularly because there is no clear pathway to become an author. I love how Tod describes his journey and the MFA program. Good luck with your classes. Even if you’re unsure of the writing and your path, it sounds like you are going in the right direction!

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