When I'm rubbing elbows with writer types at conferences and the like, sometimes the breakdown feels like 80% "full time writers" and 20% "other." The full-time writers include no one who writes full time (as only the James Pattersons and Stephen Kings of the world actually sell enough to do this.) More likely, these are typically MFA or PhD students; people who teach creative writing full time or part time as adjuncts; people who work in publishing in one form or another; or people who are writers but are more or less subsidized by family wealth. The 20% "other"--of which I am a part of--is a motley crew--some are people who hate their "day jobs" and are just doing them to pay their bills, some are people who have a career that they like or love but who also write. I'm in this last category.
I lean pretty strongly towards the "Don't get an MFA" camp. It's not that I don't think writing can be taught--I definitely learned a lot from the workshops I've taken. But generally speaking, I think such classes can make a good writer better, but not make a bad writer good. I also think there are diminishing returns from workshopping. After you've done it enough, I'm not sure how much you're gaining from it. For me, going to a workshop/conference/retreat is more about making connections, reading and critiquing others' work, shoptalk, etc. But mostly where I'm learning at this point is by reading a ton, consuming media in all forms, and writing, of course. I also find that sometimes people take workshop (or the advice of their mentors/teachers) too seriously: at some point you have to be able to send a story out without workshopping, at some point you have to be able to completely disregard something someone smart said after reading your work because there's a voice inside you that just knows they're wrong. Don't keep going to workshops because you don't trust your own judgment and need some validation.
People who are smarter and more well read and a whole variety of other things have already written about attending an MFA program while being a minority, so I will skip over that. But some of those arguments tie in to things I'm about to say about money.
There are two main arguments (other "I want to be a better writer") for people who are considering getting an MFA. One is that they are imagining a career track in academia, and the other is that they are specifically not imagining a career in academia but just want the time to focus solely on their craft/writing. Let's take this conversation away from the arts to the sciences for a sec: I finished my doctorate pretty close to when the Global Financial Crisis reared its ugly head. Tenure-track jobs that had been listed started getting pulled. People were panicking. At the risk of sounding like an asshole, I went to a top-rated doctoral program for my field. This is how it shook out for my cohort, and I can tell you with hindsight now that a good number of years have passed. None of my friends from my program are unemployed and destitute. All of them found something one way or another. But what happened was that the hierarchy of candidates shifted down and was spread more broadly across time. Golden students who normally would have gotten tenure track positions--maybe even a choice of them--ended up postdoc-ing, then looking for a job afterwards. Postdocs sometimes did more than one postdoc. Then the freshly graduating PhDs couldn't really compete for the tenure track jobs because they were being compared against people who had been postdoc-ing for a while and therefore had better publications and connections. So everything got shifted back, timewise. What also happened is that tenure track positions that wouldn't have been appealing to top candidates a decade ago were now desirable. If this was happening at a top-rated program, imagine what was happening far down the line at programs that weren't as competitive, didn't provide funding, and didn't have as good connections. What I told undergraduates who were thinking about getting a PhD in psychology was this: If you can get into a well-rated program that's very competitive and has good funding, go for it. There won't be a pot-of-gold/ tenure track position waiting for you at the end, necessarily, but your prospects are reasonable for something if you're going to a competitive program. Sadly, academia has continued along the path of offering fewer tenure track jobs and just hiring adjuncts and lecturers that they don't have to provide benefits for or who sometimes do not even have the right to unionize. I've seen people in both the arts and sciences struggle to piece together their finances with adjuncting and no health insurance. I feel for them.
Here's my bit about the "I just want the time" argument. After leaving your MFA program, you are never going to have "the time" in your life for writing--you might as well start learning how to write without the time right now. Having the time to focus solely on your writing is romantic and lovely, like taking a gap year to travel the globe. It also exists on an economic plane of existence that does not make sense to me. Worst case scenario: you go to a program that doesn't fund you and rack up 30-60k a year for 2 to 3 years. Teaching afterwards will be super- competitive (if that's what you want to do) and you'll be competing for jobs against people who went to programs that funded them. Best case scenario: you got funded--great. Most people think of this in terms of gained benefits-- you gained "the time" for free and got 2 to 3 years of time to focus on your craft and the connections you make there. ***
**slight tangent. Notice that the benefit of going to the program is the time to improve your craft, but one thing I did not mention is anything related to the business side of writing. Yes, there are grad degrees in publishing, but I'm talking about MFAs in writing. Not a single person I know with an MFA says that they received decent training or guidance in submitting or selling their work, getting or dealing with agents, business networking, marketing, or paying taxes and the financial side of the publishing world. In fact, several of them have complained that they wanted their program to cover these topics and were annoyed that they didn't. I guess this is based on the idea that one does not want to sully one's art by thinking of how one will pay the bills. Here's the reality: we all have fucking bills. For some reason, the artistic world likes to pretend that money does not exist. Female writers do not want to acknowledge their corporate income husbands. No one talks about money management. There's a lot of hullaboo about the small percentage of writers who get six-figure advances, but not much about the cost of being one of the people who don't. end tangent ***
So let's say you got funded and went away for 2 to 3 years and had a great experience. But there's an opportunity cost associated with that time. My incredibly unsexy proposal: you could have spent those two or three years getting a degree in something else that would result in stable (or at least more stable) work in another field, one that would get you jumpstarted into a career in a way that an MFA might not. (hold on a sec before I get to the "artist as a singular sole-focused thing" argument).
An adjunct lecturer could have a 2-year masters or a 6 to 8 year doctorate (and may or may not have 5- or 6-figure debt) and make about 24 k, likely with no health insurance. An editor at a New York publishing house is probably someone with a BA, but possibly a Masters as well. According to this article, the average salary for an editor at a a New York publishing house can be about 55 k-- the editor in chief positions are in the mid-70s. Here are some other salaries for people with Masters-level education (these are medians): Electrical engineering 121 k, Economics 114k, Com Sci 109k. All my degrees are in psychology, which people think of as a "soft" science (maybe it is, but I've done well for myself and minored in quant.)
You can hope to be James Patterson, but, statistically speaking, you probably won't be. It would be nice to get a tenure-track teaching job, but are the odds in your favor? (they might be! they might not be.) If you're going to teach piecemeal, or freelance, or work in the publishing industry, you had better really really love the work. The people who do it, do it because they love books, and from the sounds of it editors and agents are taking home stacks of manuscripts with them at home at night and working long hours. Editing and agenting aren't writing though--you would be working in a related field, but one that is demanding of a lot of your "free time" outside of work to catch up on reading.
When I first started getting interested in speculative and science fiction, several people told me I had to check out the Clarion workshop. It sounded like a great opportunity... except it costs 5 thousand in change (not including travel). They offer scholarships, but they average at 1,500. Beyond that IT'S SIX WEEKS LONG. Yes, I love the dream world were you could go off on a six-week eat, pray, love, sci fi thing, but who the hell has six weeks off work to spare? People who don't work but have a lot of money I guess from being independently wealthy? People who are being financially supported by a loved one? People with unstable work who can squeeze the workshop in between one contract or gig? But very few people with a standard 9-to-5 in a country where we don't even get maternity leave are going to be able to swing six weeks away from work to write sci fi. It's a dream. Thus, you end up with a really specific population of people who can attend.
Like many second-generation Asians, I was pressured by my immigrant parents to pick a career which would involve a graduate degree followed by relatively high income work. I didn't fit into the standard doctor/lawyer/computer science mold, but I did make my way to getting the Asian parent stamp of approval. This did not result at me toiling away at some soulless job that I hate. It didn't result in my giving up my hopes and dreams of becoming a writer--I have a genuine love of psychology and methods and there is a certain satisfaction I get from solving high-level problems that, as much as I love writing, I do not get from anywhere else. I've noticed that when I'm at writer's conferences there's very little conversation about people's "day jobs." I get the sense that this is because the "day job" is not considered a career, and the thing that truly defines you is your identity as an artist/ writer. There's an unstated feeling--at least in my opinion--that the art is the higher thing, and the other thing is just the unseemly thing you do to pay the bills. Work is what takes away from your ability to be a writer. I really strongly, ardently disagree with this idea.
First let's talk about the thing that's terrible. We live in a country that does not have a good social safety net and what little safety net we have is increasingly being taken away. Like the adjuncts I mentioned above, more and more stable work is being transformed into contracting work that's less stable and offers few if any benefits. For some reason millions of people in this country don't think that health care is a basic human right. The cost of this lack of safety net is debilitating. Do the thing you love and the money will come?? The people writing those inspirational articles have apparently never had to pay for cancer treatment. They are, I guess, unlike the average American, who is one $2,000 emergency away from serious financial problems.
So when I hear someone contemplating whether or not to get an MFA, or whether or not to "follow their dream," I can't help thinking, no, do the thing that puts you in a place where you are financially secure, and you'll be all the closer to that dream. You are not a lesser artist because you decided to become an accountant. Consider the financial cost of "taking the time." The longer you delay being at the point where you can save for retirement, or for that $2,000 emergency, the more of a bind you might find yourself in down the road when that social safety net is increasingly eroded.
Here's the part about "the time" I find mystifying. There's this notion of your day job taking away from your life as an artist. In terms of time and/or energy or, I don't know, artistic street cred. I would argue that it isn't an issue of time so much as efficiency, and the very fact that you even have a day job adds to the richness of someone's writing, rather than taking it away. Say you work a 9-to-5. This means you more or less have from 5 pm to 10 or 11 pm to find some time to write. Okay, take some time away to take care of the dog, cook dinner, go to the gym, whatever. Writing does not actually take that much time. I write pretty quickly. I'm not on drugs and I don't really drink coffee. I don't wake up before the sun rises, I don't write during lunch breaks or stay up until 1 am. Generally speaking, when I'm working on a project I finish my work that day, watch about an hour of the crappiest TV possible (The Bachelorette, for example), then I write for an hour or two before heading out to the gym or to social engagements. I write some on the weekends-- ranging from half an hour to maybe 4 hours total, but definitely not more than that.
How long does it take to write a novel? Say you type 50 words a minute. If you wrote for half an hour every day, you'd have 1,500 words a day--that adds up. How much physical strength does it take to write a novel? You know, because you're exhausted when you get home from work. It's sitting down at a table.. It's not as exhausting as cleaning the house, cooking, or lifting weights or any variety of things one does after one comes home from work. Toni Morrison was a single mother. Stephen King wrote Carrie while working full time as a teacher in addition to doing laundry at an apparently disgusting hotel. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly guy wrote a motherfucking book by blinking. Might it be a reasonable argument that having a separate career might help you manage time more efficiently? (Let alone, in the case of literary fiction, if more of us had jobs there would be fewer books about English professors having affairs with sexy manic pixie undergrads, because we would have a broader world to write about.)
Wendy J Fox, in an article in The Millions, writes:
We all know it’s hard to make a living as a writer, yet when I received the largest sum I’d ever been paid for a single essay or story, I didn’t share about this, because it was a kill fee. That’s something other writers should know. Again, it’s an unpredictable business. Any of us who have been doing it for a while have pages of anecdotes like this, though as authors in the contemporary landscape, we’re told to develop our platform, to promote ourselves, to broadcast our wins, not announce our letdowns.
I'm a weightlifter and oftentimes I hear people say something like it's 10% lifting and 90% what you eat. Maybe writing is like 10% writing and 90% dealing with rejection. All I know is that I don't think there are frank, open discussions about money amongst writers, and that I'm eternally grateful that I'm not doing this to put food on my table. Being rejected over and over can be disheartening to the point of depression--imagine if your next meal depended on it.
wow that was kind of a downer.. Next week: a primer on puppies!