MFA vs. NYC

college

MFA vs NYCHave you read this yet?

There was a lot of tittering about this anthology of essays this winter. Opinions were raised in a variety of newspapers, literary blogs and magazines. The gist of the book is, there are two ways to make a living as a writer in America: 1) by getting an MFA, probably going into debt, and then hoping to get a position as a creative writing professor, or 2) by living in or near the heart of the American publishing industry, schmoozing with agents, editors, and publicists, hoping to get a book published and to have it be popular enough to sell for an advance that you hope will pay the rent.

I saw the book — and the debate — cross my Facebook page a few times, but I resisted reading any of the buzz. When asked my opinion about the topic, I often shrugged. I'm in Canada, I'd say. This doesn't affect me. But while it's true that Canadians might have a different perspective on the MFA/NYC binary, it's disingenuous to claim that what happens in the American literary landscape doesn't affect us. It does.

My dear friend Frances finally pressed the book into my hands and told me that I really needed to join the discussion.

The dilemma the book describes: In 2014, how can a writer live a creatively gratifying and financially solvent life? Can a writer avoid going into debt? Can a writer study writing without the damaging effects of comparison and competition? Can a writer get published without moving to NYC and schmoozing it up at all the publishing parties?

I warn you: this book is depressing. The answers are unsatisfactory on both sides of the debate.

I felt some of the effects of this dilemma when I graduated from my MFA program. I wrote about that here.

My escape hatch? In 2011, I made my own creative writing program.

I have strong opinions about creative writing practice and creative writing pedagogy. I care about what it really means to be a good writer. I don't think writers should live in debt and feel broke all the time. For me, the writing process is so enchanted, so fundamental to my mental and emotional well-being, and such a primary way for me to feel love and faith on a daily basis, it feels like a spiritual connection. Writing is important. It is non-negotiable. And I adore the process.

I'm going to bring in some of my trusted friends and colleagues to weigh in on this with me.

Alan Watt: All writing is connected to the need to evolve.

Sherwood Anderson: The point of being an artist is that you may live. You won't arrive. It is an endless search.

Cheryl Strayed: I know it's not easy being an artist. I know the gulf between creation and commerce is so tremendously wide that it's sometimes impossible not to feel annihilated by it. A lot of artists give up because it's just too damn hard to go on making art in a culture that by and large does not support its artists. But the people who don't give up are the people who find a way to believe in abundance rather than scarcity. They've taken into their hearts the idea that there is enough for all of us, that success will manifest itself in different ways for different sorts of artists, that keeping the faith is more important than cashing the check, that being genuinely happy for someone else who got something you hope to get makes you genuinely happy too.

Rainer Maria Rilke: Works of art are of an infinite solitude, and no means of approach is so useless as criticism. Only love can touch and hold them and be fair to them.

Anne Truitt: The most demanding part of living a lifetime as an artist is the strict discipline of forcing oneself to work steadfastly along the nerve of one's own most intimate sensitivity.


I share a philosophy with these writers and thinkers. That is why I made The Story Course, and why I run The Story Intensive once a year. I care about writing, and I care about writers. My writing programs are a way out of the MFA/NYC debate.  


Here's what I think:

If we take care of our writers and teach writing in a compassionate way, we'll have way more interesting books to read. And more inspired things will happen to the way we read and write! It's 2014: everything in publishing is in flux. I want to make a safe place for writers to really engage with their writing, to learn and to connect without fear of failure. Or insolvency! Artists shouldn't be gouged by such a hefty tuition that they have to carry debt to afford it. I also want to connect new writers to established writers without triggering insecurities, egos and competition.

When I'm writing, I'm working with uncertainty every day, and this pushes me to my limits. I learn more about myself and the human condition the more I write, but it's not easy. It's exhilarating and scary and beautiful. The feeling of being a successful writer only comes when I'm in the midst of that process. It didn't come from my MFA. It didn't come from publishing my first book.

Every writer is in a deep and intimate relationship with his or her own creative process. Showing up to write is meaningful and real and full of risk: if anything new is going to be written, there must be space for surrender and curiosity.

The binary posed by the MFA vs. NYC anthology doesn't leave a lot of space for that. But take heart! The binary isn't true.  


There are more than two rivers that lead to writing and publishing.

The Story Intensive is one alternative tributary.

After reading MFA vs. NYC, I had a case of the thick and gooey doldrums. Ugh. You know what brought me back? Reading the letters and comments that my Intensive teachers wrote about why they were excited to teach the program this fall. I spent an afternoon reading their letters and crying. I was so relieved by their generous words: their joy and intelligence, the beautiful community they create, and their profound respect for the mystery of the creative process. Reading my teacher's letters felt like coming home. These writers inspire me so much: and they remind me that the writing life does not have to be suffused by scarcity, jealousy and fear.

I want to excerpt their beautiful thoughts on writing and teaching with you, too, but this post has already gone on long enough! I'm putting a letter together to share about my teachers, so anyone who is interested in the Intensive can see the calibre of the people leading the workshops.

If you've been considering an MFA, I invite you to consider The Story Intensive as another option. This program happens every fall.

There's a reason I've chosen these people to facilitate my writing program: they care about writing and care about writers. They believe there is enough for all of us. They believe that only love can touch art and be fair to it, that living a creative life is an endless search, and that all writing is connected to the need to evolve.

xo,  

Sarah Selecky

ps. Please share this post widely with writers you know. And join the discussion: how/why did you study creative writing? What fiction "culture" do you live in?


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23 comments

Beth Barany

I love your passion, Sarah, but I couldn't read this whole article. I've just met you (via your newsletters), but don't feel a part of the debate. Sorry. My path to fiction is pen to paper and joining first a critique group and then a few years later joining RWA national and my local chapter. There I learned from experienced and published authors. I studied creative writing by reading, by reading how to books, and mostly by writing a lot and getting lots of feedback. I know lots of writers who have day jobs and write. In fact, I do too -- running an author coaching business and helping primarily genre novelists. I think the way out of the MFA vs. NYC debate is to side-step it entirely. There is so much awesome information and support in today's world. All writers need community, supportive and instructive feedback, lots of pen to paper, and mentors. That's my 2-cents!
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Dorryce Smelts

Thanks for the words of wisdom, Sarah, and for bringing us back down to earth. Binaries make me suspicious when they are used as arguments to sway me one way or the other. In real life, it's much more complex than that. In fiction however, binaries are cool devices, but I'm straying off topic :) I have signed up for the Story Intensive wait list. Can't wait to hear more!
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Angie Gallop

As someone who was often putting my writing on hold to meet the demands of running a freelance writing business, your advice, Sarah, has been gold to me. "Get writing. Your energy will shift. The other stuff will become more clear." Thanks so much for that little piece of mentorship. I may not publish big, but my life and the work that feeds my financial bottom-line is incredibly enriched by the fact I am writing more often than not these days. Good on you for taking up the myths created by such a narrow definition of what it means to have a successful writing life.
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Tammy Milne

Interesting topic and it does bring a lot of emotion to the surface. It reminds of the question I hear so often - When will your book be done? The question has forced me to explain to others (and myself) that I live inside the experience of writing. When I call myself a writer, I'm talking about how I spend my time and where I find joy, struggles and the beauty of creating life through my stories. Yes, I want it to go out into the world, but that isn't the driving force. Thank you for taking on that topic and for always pulling us back to the center of the experience! Your words are so powerful.
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I read a review of MFA vs NYC in the Huffington Post...and had no interest in reading the actual book. I did go through a low-residency MFA program, for which I do now have some debt. It was the right choice for me at the time and my writing grew tremendously over the course of the program. Most importantly, my program taught me how to revise--a skill I employ in my writing practice daily. I still feel conflicted about my road sometimes, though, especially when I'm paying my student loans. :) Your words are a great reminder that even when I do publish my first novel--which is SO CLOSE to being finished--my writing practice is the thing I thrive on.
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Emily Ursuliak

The first thing I thought when I started to read this article is that it does kind of apply to Canadians because I've been told Toronto is our NYC, that if I actually want to be successful as a fiction writer I have to move to Toronto. I live in Calgary and I've been told that the publishing industry won't take a writer from western Canada seriously because we're not able to go to the "right" parties and meet the "right" people. There have been times when I've felt a bit of mild anxiety about this. I look around at all the writers I admire and a lot of them live in Toronto, you included Sarah. And I think, "Maybe I am missing out? Maybe I'll never actually be able to become successful out here." And then I wonder what I might mean by successful. I did choose the academic approach and got an MA instead of an MFA in creative writing because I planned to go on to get my PhD and become a professor. I learned a lot during my degree, I got to work with writers I really admired, I had a lot of unique, amazing experiences, but I also realized at the end of it that I didn't want to continue on, that I didn't really fit into the academic world and that that was ok. I agree with Dorryce that we should be suspicious of binaries, because the world isn't really like that. If someone were to ask me how I'm continuing my education as a writer, and where my opportunities come from that answer would be complex. I go to lots of readings and events and meet writers passing through town and find out about their work. I have a volunteer position as the fiction editor for Filling Station which has given me lots of opportunities, but has also taught me a hell of a lot about effective writing. I'm very involved with my writing family here in Calgary; I meet them in pubs for our writing club and do manuscript swaps with them. Certainly moving to a larger city has be beneficial for me, but I think what helps you develop and grow as a writer is very personal, and complex. I think the only commonality to be found is maybe a willingness to engage with other writers sincerely, to be open to new experiences, and also to trust your gut about what is working for you.
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Elle Flythe

Why make money writing at all? The MFA-NYC talk hasn’t convinced me. Having a non-writing day job seems a great way to guard my writing from extrinsic motivators (money, awards, tenure). As for publishing, with the internet, it’s easy. Write a book. Copyright it. Put the pdf on a blog. Tada, I'm published and people can read my work. I love that new tech and programs like SSMind and Story Intensive are allowing more writers to flow without the hustle!
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I especially loved what Cheryl Strayed had to say. Really spoke to me today. Thanks so much for sharing!
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Shaquana Gardner

This conversation and the debate surrounding the topic of the article, the definition of the two cultures defining what it means to be a writer in today's society, has challenged my thoughts and understandings of my own self and where I lie, on the whole, in the community of professional writers. In all, I am most troubled by the very surface layer of conversation this debate seems to consistently be perpetuated through, as it leaves very little room for the expansive ideas of the real life writers to truly add ideas for real discourse on what could easily be considered a relatively, important discussion, as mentioned by you Sarah. In any regard, I wrote my own thought provoking analysis of the debate and overarching theory. Check it out on my blog EverythingShaquana.com: MFA vs. NYC? Or Something Else. Thanks sincerely for the inspiration and reinvigorating this conversation, Sarah!
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Rebecca Villarreal

I ADORE this post. Story State of Mind is on my 2015 list. My writing partner and I are planning to take it. Thank you for showing up the way you do! xo
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Deborah Sword

I moved from the prairies to Toronto for graduate school, which is where I had the great good fortune to meet and spend time with the late Jane Jacobs. As you know, she changed how we think about cities and, in fact, she dedicated her seminal book to NYC. She formed her theories of great cities' death and life from walking around and observing. But she learned her craft of writing from writing. Education is everywhere, formal and informal.
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Sarah Selecky

Oh, Tammy - I love this: "I live inside the experience of writing." People have been gently asking me lately, "What stage of your book are you writing now?" which is of course another way of saying, "When will your book be done?" I would love to bite your phrase here, if I may. It's the perfect answer to that question.
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Sarah Selecky

Thank you, Angie. I'm so glad to hear that you're making a creatively rich life, and that you're feeding your writing *and* your economy.
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Sarah Selecky

Hi Dorryce! Long live the binary-busters. They do make cool devices, though, which is probably why this anthology jumped on this for a title. People are grabbed by the X vs Y thing (myself included). A good binary set-up is hard to resist. But unless we're talking about World Cup games -- they're usually just not true! :)
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Sarah Selecky

Thank you for this, Beth! Your path to fiction sounds SOLID. More solid than most, in fact. I know lots of writers who have day jobs in different fields, too. It makes sense in many ways. How would you have anything to write about, if you weren't living in the world and meeting non-writers? I just read a great essay by Ann Patchett about a summer she spent trying out for the LAPD. For instance! So, yeah: here's to side-stepping the debate. xo S
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Sarah Selecky

Hi Brooke! I went into some debt for my low-residency MFA too. For me, it was a good decision (I also learned about revision - whoa) - and eventually I DID pay it off, which felt great. Good luck with your novel (!) and if you ever need a reminder about writing practice being the thing that keeps writers thriving... ping me. :)
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Sarah Selecky

Hi Emily! You know, I did move to Toronto in part because I thought it was where serious writers in Canada had to go. And I noticed right away how stratified it was, compared to BC (where I'd been living and writing before). In Victoria, published and award-winning writers and first-timers and everyone in between would all meet at readings and events. There was a lot of discussion about craft, and most often, as an emerging writer, I felt a lovely, open, generous meeting of minds in the culture there. In Toronto, probably necessarily because of the size of the writer population and the amount of events hosted here, readings felt grouped by clique. So I felt a distinct loss when I moved here, and I actually stopped going to readings and launches, because they stressed me out so much - and that was supposed to be the point of being here! I agree with you: what helps you develop as a writer is personal and complex. I would add that it can also change, as we continue to grow. What's best is to follow the energy: what makes you curious? What lights you up? That's the most important thing.
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Sarah Selecky

Well said, Elle. Everything you said pops. Yes to flow without the hustle! Thank you. xo S
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Sarah Selecky

You're so welcome, Charlene. Pick up her book, Tiny Beautiful Things, when you have the chance. It's one of those books you can just pick up and flip through and read at any point - and get an important message that you really needed to hear that day. She's magic that way.
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Sarah Selecky

Hi Shaquana! I love your passion + I totally hear your frustration (on your blog). Thank you for sharing! xo S ps - I had to laugh out loud when I read this line: " I decided my journey spearheading my creative writing career would be best started in Los Angeles, where the weather was beautiful and the people are not so damn mean!" HELL YEAH!
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Sarah Selecky

Hi Rebecca! Yay! I'm so so glad you'll be joining us in 2015. Yes! Meanwhile, thank YOU for showing up. xo S
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I enjoyed your article a lot Sarah. I agree with you that the career of writer shouldn't be framed in such a binary way. Writing is something you ought to be passionate about if you want to succeed and there isn't really an end to it. It is a career that you can have complete control over, but that doesn't mean you'll be rich and famous. It shouldn't be about that anyway. Writing is amazing because it is creation. I don't make any money from writing but I've been writing everyday for some time now. One day someone will notice. Oh by the way, I love those writing prompts you send out, great way to start the day!
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Sarah Selecky

Thank you so much, Jon! Well said. And I'm so glad you like the prompts!
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