Monday, April 25, 2011

A Writer's Education

By: Phoebe North

I'm a big fan of the Book Lantern blog. So when Vinaya shot me an email and asked me to write a guest post, I jumped at the chance. Then, I sat down to try writing on the suggested topic— the importance of a writing education for writers—and proceeded to chew my nails down to little stubs.

You see, Vinaya knows that I have a Masters of Fine Arts in writing. I graduated in 2009 from the University of Florida's well-regarded MFA program with a concentration in poetry. With the student loans to show for my commitment to a writerly education, and having guided undergraduate students in their own journeys to become educated, adept writers of both poetry and prose in the classroom, Vinaya hoped that I could speak on the topic of the impact and importance of education on writers.

But the truth is, I wouldn't recommend that most young writers—and probably not those who would be reading a blog focused on young adult literature—follow in my footsteps.

It's not that I deny the importance of education, in the broadest sense, for the aspiring novelist. I think that every writer has an obligation—perhaps even a duty—to be both widely read and committed to the constant improvement of one's skill set. I hate when a published work belies broad ignorance of a writer's genre, or is poorly edited, or makes rookie mistakes.

But I think that there are many ways to correct these problems, and many ways for a writer to develop her expertise. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of books on the subject of writing (my favorites are Nancy Kress's Beginnings, Middles & Ends and Lawrence Block's Telling Lies for Fun and Profit). There are internet forums like Absolute Write and the Blue Boards where young writers can get editing help and career advice. There are SCWBI critique groups and genre workshops like Clarion where writers can meet like-minded writers.

And there's always the notion of reading widely and voraciously. While book suggestions from an educator can be valuable, I wouldn't say that they're invaluable; within the academia, particularly, I strongly feel that any proposed canon be taken with an enormous grain of salt.

Here's what I didn't know when I started my journey in MFA-land at twenty three: the academic writing world caters to a specific type of writer, with specific interests. Though the particulars vary somewhat according to program, it is fairly unusual to find writing programs which celebrate genre writing; writing for children or teens; or commercial writing, defined in the broadest sense of the term. MFAs are as much about cultivating a certain standard of "good taste" as they are about developing craft skills.

It might seem self-evident to say all of that, that it's really mostly literary writers who are best-served by getting an MFA, and who will likely have the happiest time in an MFA program. But it wasn't self-evident when I was applying to graduate school. I'd done well in my workshops in college, and my professors encouraged me to enter the MFA world as the next step in my writerly development. This advice was given with absolutely the best intentions. In many ways, it was seen as the next natural step for a young, gifted writer: if you want to make an earnest study of writing, you go into an MFA program.

And within the last several years, there's been an explosion of MFA culture. More programs are developed with each passing year, some funded, some not. Often they are either sources of income for a university (if the programs aren't funded, they can be quite expensive) or sources of cheap labor (if they are, MFA students often act as TAs, teaching composition classes for very low wages). And spending several years focusing on writing can seem a very attractive prospect indeed for those fresh out of college and just entering the workforce amidst an economic depression.

I can't deny that there were good things about my time spent in my MFA program. I had a fairly relaxed schedule, wrote quite a bit, and made many good friends there. My professors were caring and dedicated and always well-intentioned. And I had the opportunity to take other classes at the University, including critical coursework in young adult literature and science fiction.

But I can't deny the conflict I felt as I became increasingly dedicated to both YA and genre, as I spent my  summers trying to learn how to write speculative fiction even as I was told that I wouldn't be able to take fiction workshops unless I refrained from embracing these speculative elements in my workshopped writing.

The truth was, I didn't know what kind of writer I was when I applied to MFA programs. I thought that all writers read like I did, very widely, exploring both literary and commercial fiction. I wasn't aware that some literary writers look down on commercial writers (and if you doubt that's true, just look at what Jennifer Egan recently had to say about Megan McCafferty). And I didn't realize that a writer's education within the academia would often incorporate a certain nudging—sometimes gentle, sometimes not—toward high-brow literature, the sort of literature that I don't often enjoy reading, much less writing.

So my advice on education for writers would be this: make a study of writing, most definitely. Read lots and lots of books, edit your writing, and be open to both criticism and improvement. But be wary of anyone who tells you that there's only one true path to becoming a writer. The truth is that there are as many paths as there are successful, published novelists. What worked for one person (even me!) might not necessarily work for you.

Phoebe North is a YA author, blogger and reviewer. And one of our favourite people on the internets! Check out her blog here; and don't forget to pay a visit to the awesome The Interrobangs, where Phoebe is a regular contributor.


  1. I wonder if this advice would even stretch over to a BA in English. A long time ago my dad was majoring in Computer Science at University of Illinois in Urbana, but his adviser convinced him to switch to English. If he hadn't done that, he would probably have been a part of the huge computer boom in the early nineties. Instead, he has an English degree with a concentration on Creative Writing.

    There isn't really anything you can do with an English degree unless you go into editing, law, or journalism. You could teach, but teachers don't get payed much anymore. And like you said, you don't really need one to become a writer. I wanted to major in English or Graphic Design, but he advised against it because a degree in either of those doesn't really guarantee a job or even a publishing credit. Of course, nothing guarantees success.

    You've pretty much cemented my thoughts on the matter. Especially since literary fiction doesn't interest me that much. Great post.

  2. I chose Management to put food on the table, in the hopes that if I ever get over myself and try to publish, I would have something to fall back on. One year into it, I don't regret my decision, but I'm still not really passionate about it. Kinda sad.

  3. I actually feel a bit more positive about BAs in English--they tend to be focused on a broader sort of literary education, often inculcating students in the classics as well as developing basic writing skills (not just in any particular genre, but generally).

    I don't think English is unique in the liberal arts that it gives no job security at all, really. I'm not wild about undergraduate degrees that aren't practical, but at the same time, I realize that I would have been deeply unhappy majoring in anything that wasn't writing or philosophy (which I minored in)--and either would have been completely useless for the job market, beyond the fact that you can get the same kind of jobs with those degrees that you can with any BA.

    But oddly, an MFA in writing only improves marketability slightly. You should be able to get teaching jobs in college with an MFA, but for anything besides very low-paying, non-benefited adjunct work, you really need to have had a book published. And an MFA doesn't guarantee that will happen at all.

  4. No undergraduate degree gives any degree of success towards any particular career path, and a BA in English is just as good as BA in Biology for getting your next job. Any job you enter into next is going to be training you on the job for the job.

    In many ways, this is true for graduate school as well. People who've gone to MFA programs (or Ph.D. programs) end up getting a wide variety of jobs that aren't tied to editing, law, or journalism. Ideally, what a degree in English teaches you to do is to communicate well and to read critically, skills which are applicable (and necessary) in almost every business.

    Which is all just me saying that you should study what you want to study, not study something because you think it'll be good for your career.

    Also, sadly, I'm pretty sure teachers were never paid well.

  5. I found both my MFA and Ph.D. useful, but I was pretty sure what I wanted to write (though I went in poetry, I knew that a large part of my heart was in genre-fiction land, and got some flack for writing such stuff in the one fiction workshop I took at UF).

    But the reason I went to both my MFA and my Ph.D. was to have dedicated time to write. Everything else -- teaching, classes, whatever -- I minimized so that I'd be able to focus on writing.

    When people have asked me about whether or not to get a graduate degree for writing, I tell them two things. They should have an idea of what they want out of the program before they go into it (though I ended up learning a lot more in both programs than I expected to). And they should only apply to programs that will give them money (because, in general, an MFA or a Ph.D. isn't going to get you a large paycheck).

  6. I'm with you on the funding issues--only fully, or very nearly fully-funded programs, are worth applying to. However, I also know that a good number of people making very little money as TAs still take out student loans to live cushier lives (I probably took out a total of 3k for my MFA; I had other loans from undergrad). Plus, there's the issue of forgone income from the years spent in graduate school, to the tune of 40-60k, depending on your entry-level salary and how long your MFA is. I sometimes think the monetary concerns are therefore a little thornier than they're made out to be on MFA applicant message boards and the like.

    I often hear the "time to write" adage repeated about MFAs. The thing is--and I'm curious as to whether you saw this at UF in your time there--plenty of MFA students don't use that free time any better than the time they spent in the workforce for writing. I was very productive during my MFA, but I was also very productive in the years before it and since, even when I was working full time. I knew people who wrote little besides their thesis requirements (which I found very low at UF--24 poems in 2 years?! 120 pages of fiction?!). They weren't particularly productive during times they weren't in the MFA program either, though. My feeling is that those who are logomaniacs will find a way to write write write and edit edit edit no matter what the structure of their daily lives. Would I be right in guessing that you focus pretty strongly on writing all the days of your life, and not just the MFA days of your life alone?

    Sadly, I think your first point, about knowing the desired outcome of an MFA program is really apt. But when it comes down to it, I was really too young to know what kind of writer I was. I began to discover that during my tenure there, but I suspect I would have eventually reached the conclusion that I'm a big ol' genre nerd who just wants to write about spaceships for teens eventually, anyway.

  7. I don't know that all bachelor's degrees are created equal. An accounting degree surely has more marketability than an English degree, with a greater realistic expectation of income.

    And, hell, even certain types of teachers are in higher demand. Being a math teacher will get you far more job offers than a certification in English will.

    But I'd agree with you if we're talking about the liberal arts and the humanities specifically.

  8. I think it's hard to balance practicality with passions. But I'd keep in mind that plenty of writers had day jobs to pay the bills historically. William Carlos Williams delivered babies and poems. Bukowski was a mailman. Having income and food is important, too.

  9. Granted, feel free to undercut all my statements as being an accumulation of second-hand knowledge seeped into my skull over decades. And, yes, if students take their classes seriously, certain degrees will prepare you for certain careers better (i.e. Physics leading you more gently into a Physics job).

    But I guess I'm taking into account two things: One is my memory of people planning to go into Med school or Law school and feeling free to take whatever they want in undergrad -- once they've boned up for the MCATs and LSATs of course. Two is that with an English degree (and good writing/communication skills) you can get into almost any business. Sure, being an accountant is specific to accounting skill, and that's a job that can be a single-person business, but most businesses need people who can communicate.

    Obviously, I'm failing at doing that now, which is why I work in a bar rather than in a business. Grrr.

  10. TBH, my times working in bars were happier than my times working in business anyway. But I'm a Bob-Blackian "Abolish work!" anarchist at heart.

    (Ironically, for the first time in my life I have a job that requires a masters degree, and was not advertised as courting anyone with an associate's in whatever. And that's working part time grading GRE essays. So I'm a cog in the system I'm criticizing, too. But whatever, it gets me out of wearing khakis.)

  11. I don't believe in forgone income. I'll just put that out there.

    But, then again, money hasn't been really important to me.

    But, then and then again, I've been lucky enough to come from a middle-class family who were able to pay for my undergraduate education completely (with some scholarships on my part). I managed to survive in Gainesville without a car -- which takes a large load off regarding monies. In Houston, for my first four years of the Ph.D., I had a second job working as a writing tutor for the local community college. I only worked eight hours a week, but I was paid $20 an hour of which only about half that time was spent with a student. By this time I had a car, so that money was probably eaten by my vehicle.

    Yes, depending on what you're money situation is before you enter, and how much you're willing to forgo in order to not take out loans, money can be a problem. Hell, one of the people I went to school with in Houston spent his entire student loan on a complete (at the time) Criterion collection. Nearly $3000. I knew people in Florida who took out loans specifically to be able to go out and eat and drink. Money is a thorny issue, yes, but not an impossible hurdle.

    However, the more important point I think you right on the money for is what people will do with their time. Honestly, I didn't go to either my MFA or my Ph.D. because of the people who were teaching there. I didn't expect to learn anything from my teachers (though in both cases I did). And, yes, I try to spend time every day writing. Again, I'm lucky at the moment to have writing be, essentially, my real job (even though I don't get paid for it).

    But I knew people in both graduate programs who didn't write at all. Or who found that they loved teaching more than writing and spent all their energy on that. Or discovered the temptations of unrestricted time, and lots of it, and fell into party mode. Or discovered they didn't really want to spend their lives writing after all.

    I guess what I want to say is that, for me, graduate school worked. And that I think it can definitely work for others. And it's true, and graduate school assured this for me, that I would find a way to work my life around writing no matter what I was doing, so I may not be the best test subject for this experiment.

    And now I'll apologize for this overly long post.


  12. I'm totally for abolishing work! I can't believe the US hasn't totally adopted the French-style 30-hour work week. What's to complain about?

  13. Ha! Why apologize? Diverse opinions are awesome. I know that the Book Lanterners believe that as surely as I do.

    My feeling is this: I'm glad you acknowledge the privilege inherent in an attitude that forgone income doesn't matter, because it definitely is an attitude that belies a certain degree of financial security. And I think that financial security has been traditionally a very important component of academic society generally, at least until our current climate of student loan and debt came into existence. I think, in some ways, the academic writing world still reveals these biases--it's part of what allows it to celebrate "literary" writing (which often is all about white middle- or upper-class values), because commercial writing entails a certain concern with marketability and income--the concerns of people who want to make money off their words.

    And I suppose that was a big part of my point of my post in the first place: the MFA is simply one of many models of writerly education. However, if you visit forums or message boards where people are discussing it, it's not treated like one of many options. It's often, instead, treated as requisite, and inherent in this attitude is a rejection of other, more commercial venues for education. I tried to present my discussion without anecdote, though I have plenty I could share, because it's gossipy and weird, but I can relate one story. I was recently glancing through one of these MFA message boards, and someone posted their statement of purpose, and included editing suggestions made by an expensive consulting service. In their original statement, they discussed how influential Chuck Palahniuk was on their writing. The consultant advised them to lessen the focus on good ol' Chuck, because he's not exactly a celebrated figure among literary writers.

    And in a way, that was sensible advice, because the consultant was correct. In another way, I can't help but wonder why this writer wasn't exploring options of education that would celebrate his affection for Palahniuk, rather than challenge it. Palahniuk himself would, I'd imagine, be unlikely to advise his fans get MFAs.

    And this is in part because the commercial genre of writing of which he's a part has a strong focus on earning money from writing. I know we've discussed this before, but in speculative circles particularly, there's a strong emphasis on the adage, "Money flows TOWARD the writer." Inherent in this is the belief that writing can be financially viable, that writing has a monetary value, that you deserve to get paid for what you write.

    A lot of this is implicitly denied by MFA culture, where, instead, writers make their wages off teaching, and their prestige off writing (and perhaps some money, but that's largely incidental). It creates a very different environment. And for the readers of the book lantern blog, specifically, a group that's likely to be concerned firstly with young adult writing and secondly with commercial aspects of it (see: Jillian's recent post on book covers) even as they discuss political aspects of it, I think it's important to discuss things like genre prejudice and financial concerns within the MFA world.

    Because I hadn't known about these things. Yes, I learned things during the time I was an MFA, but I also spent a significant amount of time either defending my tastes or biting my tongue as other people held forth about what was wrong with them, and it detracted from the overall value of the experience for me.

  14. (In specific instances, I should say, when asked if someone should apply to MFA programs, my answer would be, "What kind of writing do you do?" "What do you read?" and "What are your goals as a writer?" Blanket advice is probably not useful here!)

  15. Sorry to interject here, but your post has been seriously helpful for me,
    since I'm an undergrad freshman starting this summer. I always wondered if I
    would need an MFA to become a good writer. But it's nice to know that it
    isn't a prerequisite. I'm majoring in Architecture by the way. It was that,
    or film.

  16. Of course. Glad I could help, Cory. If you have any other questions about MFAs and stuff, I'm always happy to answer.

  17. I suppose I always feel the need to balance because in the message boards (commercial? genre?) I've been frequenting for the past two years (and in other places) I often see the MFA denigrated and writing that comes from it -- from Academic origins -- denigrated, too, often the same way that you describe genre/commercial writing being put-down: often, it seems, by people who have no real experience with the other side of the equation (to make this needlessly binary).

    But to offer another view of how not all MFA programs are the same, the fiction side at UH seems to be much more open to commercial writing and genre recently, though that's due to an influx of new professors (Mat Johnson, specifically) and also due to the tendency of the poets here to publish non-fiction that breaks into commercial territory in that it makes money (i.e. Another Bullshit Night in Suck City).

    For whatever reason, I tended to ignore people who were biased against genre writing (since, well, literary fiction is just another genre) though I also tend to be biased against people who write purely for commercial reasons (i.e. They'll write anything as long as they're paid for it).

    Since graduating I've been trying to live more and more within the Yog's Law dictum, and have managed to slide in that direction. And I don't believe that MFA culture is implicitly anti-money. Partly, that sounds like you're blaming the professors for not making a living off of their writing -- though most teachers don't make a living off of what they teach but on the quality (ideally) of their teaching. Admittedly, I went to grad school for poetry, and poetry is pretty well a non-entity in the money-making scheme of the world.

    Man, I always lose myself in my own arguments.

  18. Partly, that sounds like you're blaming the professors for not making a living off of their writing -- though most teachers don't make a living off of what they teach but on the quality (ideally) of their teaching.

    Nah, not especially, though I think those likely to have the option to really do this probably come from more comfortable financial backgrounds, and so implicit in the ability to choose a writing path that's not financially viable in-and-of-itself is a certain degree of financial comfort. I don't know that MFA culture is actively anti-money so much as that, for those who have been within the academy for a long time, the idea that money would be a concern is sort of . . . puzzling. I do think there are some weird feelings floating around about writers who are very commercially successful--the assumption there is that, I think, there's no accounting for the tastes of the masses or something like that. Almost as if it's a forgone conclusion that writers like Stephen King are "bad" writers. Or something. It's nebulous, which is why I think it's implicit, rather than an explicit attitude.

    This manifests itself in many little ways. Everything I've learned about the financial side of writing--advances and query letters and all of that--I learned through the internet. Granted, as you say, there's not much to learn on the poetry side of things, but the feeling I got from my fiction cohort was that the focus on these aspects of the biz were fairly light. I could be wrong, though.

    I agree that it's needlessly binary, on both sides, but I've seen quite a bit of celebration of works with literary clout on the speculative side of things (if not necessarily the YA side of things, though blogs like this one are a start at lending a serious, critical eye to YA), and very little celebration of the rest of it on the literary side. I am glad to hear, though, that UH is diversifying in that way. I have gotten the feeling sometimes that the MFA world bristles quite a bit at the various criticisms of it--I mean, look at the comments to this Sandra Cisneros interview. I think what she's saying certainly deserves consideration, but those who agree with her are "bitter and biased and were probably denied by Iowa."

    Granted, those are youtube comments. But still, you know?

  19. "But oddly, an MFA in writing only improves marketability slightly. You should be able to get teaching jobs in college with an MFA, but for anything besides very low-paying, non-benefited adjunct work, you really need to have had a book published. And an MFA doesn't guarantee that will happen at all."
    Just wanted to chime in and say that if you want to move to the middle of nowhere, you'll do fine with an MFA. I made about $40k before taxes and have health insurance. In my area, with a very low cost of living, I find that my job is rewarding and pays more than enough. I do teach 6-7 classes per semester, every semester, though, and have written about four poems in the two years after the MFA. So, if you value your time, your mileage might vary. I find teaching rewarding, and though I miss writing, that's what the summer is for. ;)

  20. Oops, meant to say I MAKE $40k.
    Enjoying your discussion with Andrew below. I was one of those MFAs who did not write voluminously during the MFA. I composed many more poems as an undergrad and then felt that they were no good once I started the MFA. It was a shame, really.

  21. Damn, and one more comment. I am also full-time and theoretically tenure-track (no one is; profs just apply for tenure after seven years and most get it). I sign an annual contract and am not considered an adjunct.
    Jobs are out there for MFAs, but they might not be in Manhattan.

  22. I'll be honest: I would never, ever write if I were teaching 6 or 7 classes. Like a lot of teaching, that seems to be a VERY low wage for the time spent, particularly when course prep is taken into account.

    Of course, though I enjoyed aspects of teaching, I was really "in it" for the writing. The amount of dedication you need to be a really awesome teaching was, I found, almost inevitably a drain on my writing. Still, I'm glad you found your path. :)

  23. This is the sort of thing I wish I'd read before I chose to studying writing at university - it would have saved me a lot of frustration. I had no idea that I'd come away from BA with a completely different attitude towards writing. Even now, several years on, I still can't quite remind myself that I used to write because I loved it, not because I had to do it.

    You're so write about the genre hatred, too. At one point, a friend and I went and asked our lecturer if we could write YA stories for a particular assignment and she responded by saying it wouldn't be worth her time. As though we were going to put less effort into writing a YA (and possibly genre) story than we would into writing a more "literary" piece.

    This is also why I'm glad blogs like this exist: they remind me that writing can be fun and that genre (and YA) writing is worthy and very much worthwhile.

  24. Oh thank you so much for this post. I got my BA in Creative Writing (with a double in psychology) and I was thinking that an MFA program would be the way to go, but I'm a little hesitant since the types of stories because that's a lot of money to put down for something you're not sure about. Though I do see MFAs as being invaluable, the problem is that they don't guarantee a book deal, but it does help you get one step closer.

  25. Sorry you went through that, Katie! :( As someone who has taught undergrads, that makes me so frustrated for you. Wish your teachers had seen your enthusiasm for what it was: AWESOME.

  26. Well, I can tell you, Najela, that I'm fairly certain my MFA hasn't helped my own quest to getting a book deal! In fact, some agents seem to feel a bit neutral-to-negative about MFAs (often complaining that MFA-holders write the worst query letters!). Anyway, feel free to shoot me an email (phoebeATphoebenorthDOTcom) if you want to talk MFA stuff. I'd be happy to help.