Become a Famous Writer!

If you’re a writer, and you think you’re going to live off your writings. . .well, you’re not alone. And since you’re not alone, that means you’re a marketing target. And since you’re a marketing target, people will come along and make shitloads of money off your dreams.

Again, I’m going to write about MFA in Creative Writing programs, and the roll many play in the business of selling empty promises.

We’re hard-wired in this country to think capitalistically. This has infected the Humanities—Colleges sell their liberal arts programs like used car salesmen. MFA programs have fallen in line with this capitalistic fervor. They promise so many opportunities for a young, budding writer.

Before choosing an MFA program, I’d suggest looking at the brutal truth: writers are not nurses. Right now there’s a scarcity of nurses and thus lots of job opportunities. But poets? Novelists? Essayists? No one asked us to write our book; we’re not on consignment. I have no idea if the manuscript I’m working on now will see the light of day. Though I’ve enjoyed some publication successes, I don’t share the same accountant with Stephen King. I keep my day job.

There is absolutely no guarantee that anyone outside of your mother or your spouse will read your work. To go beyond them takes marketing, which is not our subject here; here, I want to talk about MFA promises that cannot be kept.

A Masters in Fine Arts isn’t exactly a Ph.D., well, it’s nothing like a Ph.D. Each has its own particular rigors and academic demands. Both are terminal degrees, which is the highest you can get in any particular field of study. As with a doctorate, you can teach college with an MFA.

But nowadays, an MFA in creative writing is worth snake shit unless you’ve got some publications under your belt. This could be a few poems or shorts stories in literary magazines; better if it’s a collection of work, or a novel; but even then, there are no promises on the job market.

The Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which I’ve written about here, was the first MFA in Creative Writing in the country. It started in the thirties and proposed something most radical: one could get an academic degree for her literary work.

Through the years, other universities created their own programs. Now, MFA’s pop up like daisies. There’s a democratization going on, of more people having the opportunity to study writing. But this is happening during one of the most capitalistic times in U.S. history, when students feel a backbreaking pressure to get a career after college, when the liberal arts are being stripped out of our universities, which turns a university into a vocational technical school. The Humanities programs that survive end up playing the money-market, quantifiable game in order to argue for their existence.

MFA programs feel this capitalistic pinch: every department on a college campus has to make the school money, or at least stay even. So some promise things that they just shouldn’t promise.

Iowa promised only two things: two years of full-time writing, with the guidance of brilliant writer mentors who help you find your voice. That, I believe, is all a program should promise. If any MFA program says that you can get a great job with the degree, that you’ll make money as a novelist, or can become famous with your poems, or that yes, you’ll land a terrific tenure-track teaching job—run.

            You don’t need an MFA to be a writer. You do need an MFA to teach creative writing at a college. But you probably won’t get a full time, tenured teaching job if you don’t have publications.

If you’re ready to put down a shitload of money to go to an MFA program, really check it out. See who’s teaching there; you should always read the professors’ works before going to their schools. I mean, what if they suck? You want to learn from them? 

There are a lot of great writers working in terrific MFA programs of all shapes and sizes. But please, I beg you, don’t fall for a song-and-dance about becoming famous and living the life of John Grisham. Go to a place that will nurture your work, critique it, where the professors and students speak with candor, honesty and human kindness—people who are as obsessed with the written word as are you.

The person who goes to an MFA with the sole idea of becoming a famous writer isn’t a writer; he’s looking for fame, probably to make up for the love he didn’t get from his mother. But the person who joins one in order to delve more deeply into her writing and the writing of others, who wants to be challenged and pushed to compose the best she can, who is blind to the necessities of life—a good job, health benefits, retirement—because her words are all she can see. . .Bully! That’s the reason to pursue an artistic degree. All the rest is a quantifiable lie.

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