In a controversial comments thread, one anonymous human resources professional told a writer with a creative writing master’s degree: “I work in HR and master’s degrees often HURT an application more than help, especially in entry level positions.”
Getting an MFA is creative writing or English is an impressive accomplishment, but it’s not always going to be an asset in the real world job hunt. Unless you are looking for a job in teaching, writing or publishing, an MFA could actually be seen as an obstacle to getting an entry level job.
What do you think? Recent graduate Eric Auld decided to run a job-search experiment. He posted a fake entry level job on Craigslist to check out the competition and see how many higher learning folks were applying to these jobs. He received 653 responses in one day. continued…
New Career Opportunities Daily: The best jobs in media.
Writers complain on occasion about not being taken seriously by those close to them. There are lines like “My parents just don’t get it. This is what I intend to do with my life!” Or, “Why can’t people just accept that I’m a writer and leave off trying to get me into another kind of work? I don’t want to teach!”
If you’ve ever made a complaint like either of those above, you’re not alone. One of the problems with becoming a writer in this country is that creative expression isn’t seriously encouraged.
Those who want to pursue such fields and careers aren’t cheered on as they struggle to gain the necessary skills to “make it” in an ever-increasingly competitive arena.
Comparably, those who pursue sports of any kind get so much encouragement and financial help along the way that milk on the table of a would-be writer would curdle from the mere thought of said athletic enthusiasm. You don’t see business sponsors lining up at the high school or college to grant financial aid to those who excel in literature.
When was the last time you saw a poet praised in the local paper? You don’t see entire newspaper sections devoted to academic achievement or creative honors, either.
With an MFA a person can legitimize their calling, but only up to a point. Unless they’re uniquely talented and begin the publishing process early in life, that degree may get them a teaching position, but it won’t guarantee success as a writer.
Perhaps it would help if the public knew what the writing process is, what work is involved, and how long the publishing phase can be. Not many to consider how much effort and man hours goes into a simple news story. They don’t see all the time spent in research to verify sources and information.
After all, it isn’t a regular feature on television. In fact, the creative arts list will be a short one when you count TV channels. On national channels other than PBS—which has lost most of its federal funding—you won’t find much that smacks of the arts or creativity. Given some of the series remakes in the past few years, you won’t find much creativity in prime-time programing either.
That leaves one impression. Writers seem to have little value to American society– sad commentary, to be sure. If you look at all the written material out there, you begin to get a taste of how many writers of different types there are putting words to paper every day.
That doesn’t insure that the reader will notice. The truth is, one of the biggest uses of writers in this country is bulk mailings—junk mail. Not even other writers like
Many struggle with the decision to pursue an MFA. Here are some
insider opinions from a guy who teaches in both a traditional and low-residency program.
Guest column by Benjamin Percy,
Wilding (Sept. 2010, Graywolf), a story about
a father and son hunting trip that goes awry. The
book received a starred review from Publishers Weekly
and was named "Best of the Northwest" for fall/winter
2010 by the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association.
website here. He is also the author of
short story collections, a national article freelancer,
award-winning fiction writer, and teaches in
the MFA program at Iowa State University
Many mistakenly believe that writing is an indulgence. Writing is not an indulgence:
You give up other indulgences to write. And the low-residency program trains you for
the long run as you learn to balance writing with your career and family life. I can’t
tell you how many classmates—and now students—I know who have graduated and let their
imaginations rust out, their fingers go arthritic from lack of use. For a few years,
post-MFA, they fiddle around with a novel—and then they give up.
Maybe they didn’t have the stubbornness it takes to make it in this trade. But maybe
they were also spoiled by the freedom of their traditional MFA program, immersed in
their work, surrounded by people who cared deeply about writing. Which is a wonderful
thing. A kind of Shan-gri-La. But re-entry to the real world can be disheartening.
Because the sad truth is, the world doesn’t care if you write or not. As Harry Crews
said, the world wants you to go to the beach and eat cotton candy, preferably seven
days a week. A low-res program better prepares you to fight the zoo.
I used to tell students not to apply to traditional programs where they didn’t
receive assistance. I received a full tuition waiver and a healthy stipend when I
was in grad school—the program I teach in right now does the same, full support for
all of its students—and I have a hard time wrapping my mind around people taking on
70 grand in debt to get an MFA. There are no guarantees: we’re not talking about med
school or law school here. But in these lean times, more and more programs are losing
funding, so it’s becoming a reality many students can’t avoid. If a potential applicant
is going to be markedly happier and more
Back in the dark ages when I was planning my wedding and moving to a new town, I mentioned to my then-fiance that I had always wanted to get my master's of fine arts in creative writing. Admittedly, I wanted to be a writer and an MFA seemed the requisite ticket I needed to get there. I applied and was thrilled to get in to the relatively new program at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.
During my time in the program, I met some legendary writers and compiled a lot of advice. I finished a draft of my novel. My sense of creativity was heightened.
In 2003, I received my diploma and was thrilled.
But wait, where were all the agents beating down my door? What happened to the flashing neon lights to be installed over my house that would blink (or subtly twinkle): WRITER.
Of course, none of that happened. Studying for my MFA gave me time to write. Mind you, as a newlywed and then new mother, I filled my time with life, as well. I made time to attend readings and workshops. I read books and poems and studied and spoke with people I never would have met, had it not been for the MFA program.
A lot of writing sites seem to be parsing whether the MFA is necessary or not. When I entered in 2000, I am not sure I was completely convinced that it was necessary to get an MFA. But I felt I needed one.
Spending 3 years studying and getting an opportunity to teach writing allowed me to feel more confident as a writer. For me, my process is not over. (Will it ever be?) My "dream-blood-sweat-and-tears" book is still not published. But I believe I'm still closer than if I hadn't taken the plunge. I believe that I learned more about my own process than if I had sat alone at my computer for those years: without an MFA, I might have read all the greatest novels in the world and never actually stuck my big toe into the water to finish my novel and start a second one.(Looming deadlines and grades helped!)
Since the MFA, I've let life get in the way of readings and studying, but reading all the buzz about MFA programs lately, I understood that I had been missing my IRL (in real life) community of writers.
I'm excitedly launching a few ventures offline that get me talking with writers and enjoying the amazing energy I get from those conversations.
So, whether you are deciding to take the plunge for an MFA or not, at the very least, search for a group within your community you can be with that will buoy you, your writing and your writing spirit. In the end, degree or no degree, a supportive community is something that every writer needs.
Elizabeth King Humphrey writes, coaches, and reads from her home in Wilmington, NC.
A lot of people stop by this site because they’re curious to learn what it takes to not only write a children’s book, but to write a successful one. Some authors appear at workshops where they charge hundreds of dollars to dispense such insider tips. Not me. Today, I’m giving the good stuff out for free. I only ask that you thank me in your acknowledgements and cut me in on any foreign rights. It’s a fair trade for this invaluable wisdom. Let’s get down to it.
First off, the old advice is often the best advice. Write what you know. Do you know a puppy that’s a bit poky? How about some teenagers who hunt each other for sport? Connecting with children is about connecting with the world around you. A few monkeys don’t hurt either. That’s right. Forget wizards, vampires and zombies. Monkeys are what distinguish great children’s books. Try to imagine The Secret Garden without Jose Fuzzbuttons, the wisecracking capuchin whose indelible catchphrase “Aye-yaye-yaye, Mami, hands off the yucca!” is still bandied about schoolyards today? I don’t think you can.
Of course, the magic that is artistic inspiration must find its way in there. So how do you grab hold of it? Christopher Paolini swears by peyote-fueled pilgrimages to the Atacama Desert. I’m more of a traditionalist. A pint of gin and a round of Russian Roulette with Maurice Sendak always gets my creative juices flowing. Have fun. Experiment. Handguns and hallucinogens need not be involved. Though I see no reason to rule them out. Find what works for you.
Now, you’ll inevitably face a little writer’s block. There are two words that cure this problem and cure it quick. Public Domain. Dust off some literary dud and add spice to it. Kids dig this stuff. For instance, you could take some Edith Wharton and inject it with flatulence. The Age of Innocence and Farts. Done. Easy. Bestseller.
I give this last bit of advice with a caveat. Resist the temptation to write unauthorized sequels to beloved classics. I speak from experience. My manuscripts for You Heard What I Said Dog, Get Your Arse Outta Here! and God? Margaret Again…I’m Late have seen the bottom of more editors’ trash cans than I care to mention. Newbery bait? Sure. Immune to the unwritten rules of the biz? Hardly.
Okay, let’s jump forward. So now you’ve got your masterpiece, but how the heck are you going to sell the thing? Truth be told, you’re going to need an advanced degree first. As anyone will inform you, kid lit authors without PhDs or MFAs are rarely taken seriously. If you can’t work Derrida or Foucault into a pitch letter, then you certainly can’t survive a 30-minute writing workshop with Mrs. Sumner’s 5th period reading class. So invest 60-100K and 3-6 years of your life. Then let the bidding war begin.
In the off chance that your book isn’t going to sell for six figures, try blackmail. Sounds harsh, but the children’s book industry runs almost exclusively on hush money and broken kneecaps. I mean, Beverly Cleary doesn’t even own a car. So why is she always carrying a tire iron?
Money is now under the mattress and the editorial process begins. Don’t worry at all about this. Editors won’t even read your book. They’ll simply call in Quentin Blake for some illustrations and then run the whole thing through a binding machine they keep in the back of the o
May means graduation time, and New York City is filled with student exhibitions and senior work on display for the world to hire. So for the next few weeks, I’ll be snooping several art schools’ openings for new and inspiring illustrators, and bringing the best of the best right here to the blog.
I started with the School of Visual Arts’ MFA Thesis exhibition last night! I’d highly recommend trekking to Chelsea for both design and illustration. Details below:
Visual Arts Gallery / 601 W 26th Street, 15th floor
April 29-May 14, 2011 / Mon-Sat, 10 am – 6 pm
All the student work was of exceptional quality (they ARE MFAs, after all), but here were my Top 5:
1. Hye Su / Looking at Hye Su’s body of work is like stepping into a completely different universe. Her mastery of a range of mediums (from embroidery, to zines/books, to 3-dimensional objects) remain entirely consistent – everything is shown through her very unique lens. I couldn’t get enough of her wild and wonderful characters!
2. Lisa Anchin / Of anyone else at the show, it was Lisa who was made for children’s books. I was impressed how prolific and professional her work was – at least 4 or 5 book dummies ready to go, and full of adorable characters and dynamic compositions to boot. Lucky for me, guess which Penguin imprint she’ll be interning at this summer? That’s right… we’re very excited to have her!
3. Philip Cheaney / How excited was I to see someone who created a fully-formed eBook app?! I was really impressed with (read: jealous of) its smooth, polished look on the i
Tonight I had the honor of hearing best-selling author James McBride speak at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Though I had fully intended to write a piece about what it has been like to be a part of the birth of the college, that will have to wait for next week as I was so deeply affected by what Mr. McBride shared with us that I felt the need to write about it.
The event was scheduled to be a reading, but other than the first sentence of his best-selling memoir, The Color of Water, he didn’t actually read. Rather it became more of an informal talk about his writing process, his philosophies on life, and his advice to the group of MFA writing students. He began, not surprisingly, with what it was like for him and his brother Hunter to arrive that afternoon, two tall handsome black men on motorcycles in overly white Vermont. As mis hermanas and colleagues Lisa Alvarado and Jane Alberdeston Coralin can tell you from personal experience, this is not always an easy experience, and yet the McBrides seemed to find working class people to connect with. The woman and her son raising money for the boy scouts by selling bologna sandwiches at the rest stop on interstate 89, the laundry attendant with bad teeth in downtown Montpelier who flirted with them.
I guess we all have fantasies of what a famous writer’s life might be like. Reading The Color of Water changed my life in many ways as I too write about being half one culture and half another. I have followed his career and was somewhat intimated by the fact that he was also a professional jazz musician (just how much talent can one man have? ) and plays with Stephen King’s band The Rock Bottom Remainders. That he just finished working with Spike Lee on a film of his first novel. But the man who stood before us was a guy. Okay, so a good-looking, successful and overly talented guy, but just a guy nonetheless. One who did his laundry in a public laundromat and looks for stories by riding on a New York City bus. One who is more comfortable in the kitchen with the cooks and dishwashers than in a room full of writers and academics. He talked about how rather than identifying himself as a black writer he preferred to think he writes about the commonality of all people, and though I think many writers would like to think they do too, he actually lives it. The reality of his life was better than my fantasy: he is proof that you can be famous and still be real.
As I listened I was reminded of a prestigious writers’ residency that Lisa and I were accepted to a few years ago. We were part of a group that included successful and well-respected writers from all over the world. During the day we would all peck away at our work in our hives and gather for dinner in the main house at night. Night after night the dining room would be filled with discussion of some obscure Russian filmmaker or German poet, the strains of intellectual conversation hovering above the room with the scent of brandy, but Lisa and I would gravitate towards the kitchen to talk with the local woman who did the cooking. We would sit and watch her work a knife like a Stradivarius, the bright colors of fresh summer vegetables flashing beneath the quick moving steel edge. We talked of our mothers and what cooking meant to us growing up, what it meant to us now. About our children and our husbands. About life. Like James McBride, we found that the story was not in the salon, but rather in the heat of the kitchen or the angry guy in the laundromat, or perhaps with the woman who sat across from you on the number ten bus, cradling a grungy baby doll in her wool-covered arms.
But mostly what I learned from James McBride had to do with fearlessness. This was a man who doesn’t care what critics think of his work, who, when he finishes a book, promotes it and then moves on, never looking back. He doesn’t fear rejection and never checks his books’ rankings on amazon.com. His advice to his audience was to fail, and fail often. That we should remember that the only ones who succeed in the business of writing are those that quell their fear. That like the Native Americans, we should put our ears to the ground and listen for buffalo. Sometimes we get lucky and we hear hoof beats. All we have to do then is pick up our pens.
1. I'd really like to get my MFA in writing for children. One of the things that has held me back is that there doesn't seem to be any program that includes a certificate or even studio classes in illustration. (the other is money)
I've been looking into Simmons, Vermont and Hamline and I'm wondering if any of you graduates would be willing to talk a little about what you think is different about the programs. Certainly faculty is different and that must effect the culture of the program. If you'd like to comment that's great. If you have more to say and you'd prefer to write me directly contact me at anna at annajboll dot com. That is my website address. Thanks
2. I love snow, but ice storms not so much. I guess that is one benefit of living south this winter.
3. My freelance work may be over. The client says they love me but are cutting expenses. They might try to do it in house or they may hire me. We'll see.
4. My toe is healing from a nail-echtomy. It actually hurts less than it has for the last two weeks. I originally injured it on the surfing simulator at the Great Wolf Lodge. I know, I know... I didn't mention it before. What? I didn't want to be bother.
5. I'm heading into DC tomorrow to see Mom and Sister. I better get Chanukah candles while I'm there. I sure as heck won't find them around here.
6. I'm in the waiting room on a picture book manuscript. All fingers crossed.
There is nothing scarier to a writer than an empty page and an incessant, blinking cursor. Well, except maybe one-upping yourself.
You're only as good as your last book, after all.
Yet, how far will a writer go to improve? We all go to conferences, sign up for workshops, even take online courses to refresh, renew and reinvigorate. But what about the mother of all honing exercises. What about (gulp) school?
You might be a writer if...you go back to school to become a better writer.
Now this probably gets at what kind of writer you want to be. Do you want to earn a million bucks for your work (popular), or do you want to be read in one hundred years (literary)? It seems like, although by no means is this an all-or-nothing scenario, but it seems like those who are more literary in focus are the ones who end up in school. I mean, it's not the best place to practice or win popularity, at least it wasn't for me, which really outs me, but then I'm 40 and I'm going back to school. Maybe the second time around I'll be popular? I've lost the glasses, but I still play violin. I'm doomed, aren't I?
Nonetheless, I applied to the Vermont College MFA in Writing for Children and got in!! Very exciting. I know, I know, not very exciting for everybody. I mean, I'm going back to homework, reading assignments, deadlines for papers, papers!, lectures, etc, etc, etc. Then again, I really did love college. A lot.
My reasons for going back to school to get this MFA are pretty simple. I want to be the best writer I can be. I'm intent, driven - maybe even a little obsessed - with getting better. This is the first thing I've worked at where I don't feel like there's a limit on "better." As a runner, I know my legs are only so long. My lungs can only process so much oxygen. My muscles can only contract and expand so much. (And I'm not getting any younger, but let's not talk about that) I'm limited physically in what I can do as a runner.
But as a writer? We apparently only use 10% of our brains. That means, 90% is just languishing there, waiting for someone to find the key and unlock it. 90% Think about that. Could be lots and lots and lots of brainpower just waiting to be harnessed and put to good work. I know, I know, I could be way off. Nobody really knows what that 90% is all about. I may only be unlocking, say, defunct, primitive programming that has to be stored somewhere, or storage space, or gobbly gook, but I'm being optimistic and hoping it's extra brain power.
I'll find out come, July 9, when I'm off to Montpelier, Vermont, to start an MFA in Writing for Children. I'm still very bright-eyed and bushy-tailed about it. Excited to say the least. After that 8th think piece, I may be singing a different tune, but growing is hard work. Nobody said it would be fun. Then again, I'm going to be hanging out with authors, talking books, dissecting and understanding how some of the great pieces of literature were put together, and then using that knowledge to bring my own ideas to life. Just thinking about it makes me want to rub my hands together and break out into deep, effusive, Mad Scientist laughter.
Me thinks, I'm going to have fun...but what about my teachers???
The past month I've spent reading and preparing for my first Vermont College Residency. Some of the reading is required, some suggested, and some is my own desire to read the books of faculty members so I know them better as I am placed with a faculty advisor for my first semester. I've also been reading and enjoying the worksheets (manuscripts) of my workshop group. I'm very excited to meet everyone and can't wait to hear the conversation of fellow students or the guidance of our instructors.
Tender Morsels, Margo Lanagan
Impossible, Nancy Werlin
The Postcards, Tony Abbott
Runt, Marion Dane Bauer
The Underneath, Kathi Appelt
...and because the movie Harry Potter and The Half Blood Prince comes out in theatres this month, I read it aloud to I. who has finished books 2-5 on his own.
There are a few more that I am trying to finish up this week:
Red Butterfly, Deborah Noyes
Criss Cross, Lynn Rae Perkins
Brendan Buckley's Universe and Everything In It, Sundee Frazier
Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, Maryanne Wolf (non-fiction on how we read and how our brains change as humans have learned to read)
I have been thinking long and hard about what happens after I finish grad school in writing. What is the expectation? I'm already published, so it's not getting published per se, although I would like to move out of the minor, small press houses and up to the major, bigger houses. Is grad school a surefire method of doing that?
How I wish.
Still, there is a certain level of expectation that grad school will help me figure out how to make my writing better.
So I was kind of surprised to read a rant on MFA writers the other day by an anonymous editor
. God knows, we writers have enough paranoia about the world of publication, but now to read that educating ourselves in writing is a waste of time? Yeesh.
As a university educator in an entirely different field, political science, please let me say that I wish, wish, wish, it were required that politicians have a degree in political science, rather than law--as most do--or maybe even both. Perhaps then, they might have a deeper understanding of the history of interaction among nations and how best not to repeat past failures, rather than repeatedly making them.
Clearly, I'm all for educating yourself, which is probably why I'm in a writing MFA program. What I'm not for, and probably what an anonymous editor has against those with MFAs in writing, is attitude. I've had students who believe that just because they sat in my classroom, they had a right to a passing grade. Maybe that's what the anonymous editor has seen, writers who feel that since they have the MFA they deserve to be published.
If only it were that easy. Like any job, writing takes lots of hard work. In my experience so far, getting an MFA in the field means putting in more hours in a shorter time period and thus shortening the time spent figuring out how to write publishable stuff. Do you need an MFA to write? Absolutely not. A person can teach herself any craft. ANY. Thomas Jefferson was a self-taught architect and his home, Monticello, is still standing. But I wouldn't hire an architect today who went only to the school of hard knocks (unless, maybe, he were Thomas Jefferson).
So what does an MFA get you if it's not a pass-go-and-head-straight-for-publication card? A lot of experience in a condensed period of time. It's another option in the learning-the-craft scenario. In the end, it might-like any degree-get you a little more notice from editors and agents (say, 5 seconds instead of 3), but really, it's for me, the writer, not them, the outside world. Unless I figure out how to improve my craft, and then everybody wins. I'm guessing a lot of writers see it this way. I hope more and more will as we continue to educate ourselves. I hope, too, that the anonymous editor runs across some of them and changes her position on MFAs in writing. Education isn't a bad thing. It's what we do with it that measures what we've learned.
By: Heather J. Cuthbertson,
I haven’t posted anything in quite awhile … obviously.
But the good news is that I finally applied to graduate school for an MFA in Creative Writing! I’m very excited to hear if I’ve been accepted and even more excited to get started in the program (assuming I’m accepted). I took a lot of time writing my essays so I haven’t been reading as much. I did finish one of the books on my list and I am nearly done with another.
I’m looking forward to getting back to my YA bestsellers and posting why I think they’re awesome!
Here's Tara Cowie, one of the runners-up for the Spring 2010 Flash Fiction Contest. If you haven't read her winning story, Confirmation, you can check it out here.
Tara lives and works in New York City. She received her BA in English from Colgate University and her MFA in fiction from New York University. Tara is passionate about words and writing and is currently at work on her first novel. In addition to writing, she enjoys riding her horse, reading, traveling, and exploring the world.
WOW: Hi Tara, welcome to The Muffin, and congratulations on your win. Where did you get the idea for Confirmation?
Tara: I was wandering around the city one day and noticed a particularly beautiful church on Broadway. I sat on the steps for a while and just watched the people come in and out of the heavy wooden doors. The comfort offered by this massive edifice intrigued me, particularly the comfort that seemed possible regardless of religious affiliation. The night wore on, and I delighted in the dichotomy the dark created--the peaceful space inside and the hustling city street just steps away.
WOW: What a great image to spark a story idea! Why did you choose Confirmation as the title?
Tara: I wanted to relate the religious setting to the change taking place within the girl. While a traditional religious confirmation involves taking full communion with the church, I wanted to show that the girl was beginning to take full communion of herself. It is a moment of maturation and understanding of her body and her self.
WOW: The amazing thing is you did all that in a few words, too! What are the themes you are exploring in your flash fiction piece?
Tara: I wanted to explore the burgeoning sexuality of the young girl and the dual nature of this sexuality--how it at once empowers and victimizes her.
WOW: You received your MFA from New York University. How do you feel this degree prepares you as a writer?
Tara: Most importantly, my graduate study at NYU convinced me that I must write and imbued my task with a bit more urgency. The school celebrated the beauty of stories and encouraged me to reach for that beauty within my own writing. The school also prepared me in practical ways, and the workshops served as a perfect testing ground while finding my particular voice within my stories.
WOW: WOW! What an awesome educational experience. I know many writers search for a community such as you described, and it's so wonderful you had that while pursuing a degree. Can you tell us about the novel you are currently working on? What genre is it?
Tara: I am currently working on a fictional novel exploring the relationship between art and the artist.
WOW: Good luck with your project. What are your career goals as a writer?
My newest ATC, I got the Valentine's Bug and started with something pink and it all fell into place...though the idea and theme isn't really romantic or anything!
Richard Cardona has chosen the winner for "Favorite Book"...
Candace Trew Camling [link]
Richard says, "the charm, color, moment make the illustration very nicely done."