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  • Sarah Elizabeth Schantz

To Fasten or Secure: Regarding the MFA & What to do with the Degree

In one of my first classes at Naropa back when I was still an MFA candidate at the Jack Kerouac School for Disembodied Poetics, the professor told us to look around at each other because allegedly, according to the statistics, only one of the ten us in that room would go on to publish a book within two years of graduating. He also provided the seemingly grim stats regarding how many of us would actually end up being professional writers (emphasis on the word "professional"). This blog post came from a lecture I gave for a panel (What To Do, How to Live) for the 2019 Summer Writing Program low res students hosted by my Alma Mater (that I then returned to this week when asked to talk to grad students at the Regis Mile High MFA about the same topic). As I prepared for the original panel, and drafted my lecture, I searched the oracle of academic online databases to see if this prediction was at all valid. To some extent what I found did prove this particular professor right, yet I also know that to some extent he was wrong (after all, F. Scott Fitzgerald said the true sign of intelligence is the ability to hold two or more conflicting ideas in your head at the same time).

According to a New York Times article titled "Why Writers Love to Hate the MFA" by Cecilia Capuzzi Simon, in 2015 there were a total of 229 MFA programs for creative writing in the United States, plus another 152 promising MA degrees. People are right to criticize these programs for preying upon artists and taking advantage of them by making an obscene profit off their dreams. This is made all the more evident when we examine the outrageous tuition involved (something the student loan companies determine more than the actual institutions), the incredibly limited financial aid (if any), and the less than desirable financial “pay-off” a graduate can anticipate once they earn a degree (especially when we compare such careers and salaries to those careers and salaries guaranteed to graduates from other programs with highly-specialized degrees that are just as expensive).

If you happen to be one of the “lucky” ones to publish a book in the two-year post-MFA window (the idea is you'll publish your creative thesis), you’ll be incredibly lucky to get an advance that actually pays a decent living wage or is consummate for all the hours (years) it took you to write, let alone make up for everything you sacrificed along the way. (My writing mentor Bobbie Louise Hawkins used to joke about the aspiring novelist who finally finishes her first book to go and share the great news with her significant only to find a note on the dining room table from the week, month, year before saying they've left her because she's always writing). You might even be lucky enough to get a decent advance only to be burdened by what you have to give to the IRS as there aren't a lot of write-offs for this particular type of independent contractor work. (The IRS doesn’t care that it took you seven years to write the damn thing because all they understand is that you received a check for whatever year you received the payment—I also wish MFAs talked more about how to prepare for taxes and whatnot.) Or perhaps you even get a big advance—one of those fairy tale six-figure scenarios—but then you either won’t see royalty checks for a long time (if ever), or worse you might get blacklisted because the book doesn’t sell as well as predicted for a whole crapshoot of reasons (just think about all the writers having to debut during COVID-19 right now and then go find them and support them immediately). Or you might not get an advance at all, but a small prize ($1000.00 is pretty standard) for winning a contest hosted by one of the thousands of lovely labor-of-love small (and medium) presses who are fighting tooth-and-nail not to go under in an Amazon economy and overall society where there are increasingly more writers than there are readers.

(Again, a pandemic economy doesn't help matters either, although hopefully more people are reading, yet I fear even more people are writing as evidenced by the sheer boom in clients all my writer coach friends have witnessed because safer-at-home has given folks the time to either finally write their memoirs or the next great American novel [whatever that is].)

You might graduate to be one of the lucky ones to land a job teaching in yet another highly competitive field. That said, in 2018 there were only 45 tenure track faculty positions open in creative writing in the U.S. (which is actually a lot more than usual), but these are positions almost no one fresh out of grad school is even remotely qualified to apply for. Generally speaking such applicants will need to have taught X-amount of whatever number of years or credit hours that particular university arbitrarily requires. They will also need to have published at least one book already, usually two, sometimes more. Realistically, you’ll be lucky to land a job as an adjunct teaching in the trenches otherwise known as freshman composition at a community college for wages that are seriously going to add up to way less than what you'd make at McDonalds flipping burgers, especially if you do what is expected of a teacher such as lesson planning and grading (otherwise known as caring about your students and the language arts you're been hired to teach). With the exception of PERA (a retirement plan), you won't have any benefits or job security, and the English department might not even let you attend departmental meetings so you can feel a sense of belonging or just know what's going on (some schools are better than others, but there is always a division between the faculty and the part-timers—I think it's due to how absolutely criminal the entire system is; approximately 70% of instructors at all colleges and universities are adjunct, and the other 30% used to be so they know just how bad it is; while no one thinks it's fair (at least I hope not), everyone is too afraid to make a stink about it because the adjuncts can't risk not being asked back next semester and the faculty worry they'd be the ones to sacrifice what they have to right these wrongs even though it's really the administrators who make all the money).

Whether or not you're part-time or full-time, you’ll be lucky if you can find (make) the time to still write. Either way you'll be buried alive with grading (and other busy work like making sure your syllabus is ADA, which don't get me wrong, I REALLY want it be, but without proper training it's just more work I'm not paid to do, and one semester alone I swear it took me 10 plus hours to figure out). If you're adjunct and teaching from the trenches mentioned above, you'll be surrounded by stacks upon stacks of never-ending argumentative essays (usually about exciting topics such as lowering the drinking age to eighteen which only confirms that all those more seasoned teachers who told you to forbid certain thesis statements actually know what they're talking about and not censoring the students as you first judged them for doing). More than likely, you'll also be driving from one school to another to teach more than one version of ENG 221 to try and get the rent paid (which means you've turned the trunk of your car into a portable office because you won't have an office at any of these colleges, and sadly no, you won't get reimbursed for gas). If you're faculty, unless you're at a community college, you will get sabbaticals, and then there are summers to write, but generally speaking you will be expected to teach five classes (or the equivalent in committee work or other stuff most artists aren't that into doing). Maybe you'll have a TA. And maybe you'll get to teach courses that feed your soul and your own writing. But it's still a lot of work. Especially when you're giving your creative energy to your students.

Or you might get lucky at one of the other “hustles” your MFA has now awarded you—job titles known as writing coach (I sell myself as a writing midwife to try and stand out from all the others), ghost writer, freelancer, literary agent, or editor, but like teaching, these other hustles mean you still have to find a way to carve out time for your own writing rather than exhausting yourself by helping others with their words instead of your own. Furthermore, I now know people getting "certified" to book coach and that worries me (while I understand such courses were likely developed by a writer or writers doing the "hustle," it means less people might hire me if they can get someone "certified" instead; I worry they won't consider my MFA or publications enough, not to mention the fact that the MFA degree used to be terminal, but now that more and more creative writing PhDs are popping up, it's not and folks like me are only further demoted). I had a professor who used to advise her students to get certified in professions such as massage therapy because such jobs pay well and tend to have flexible hours allowing you the time and the energy to write, plus the financial security to do so (and the life experience that comes from encountering clients might even give you something to write about). I would also like to note the very real reality that a lot of the jobs listed in this paragraph often require working as an unpaid intern just to get your foot in the door. If you look through my past blog entries you will find one titled "Catalpa Trees, The Writing Life, & Privilege" which explores the fact it's really difficult to make it as a writer in this day and age if you don't come from class privilege (and as intersectionality teaches us, even harder for People of Color, and other marginalized groups). This is a problem because if we only have white wealthy people working in the publishing industry, we're only going to see books written by other white wealthy people.

While you might already be well-versed in everything I’m saying, have you noticed how I keep referring to the idea of “luck.”

I am one of the so-called “lucky” ones. When I sat in that classroom back in 2011 looking around at my cohort-to-be, I already had two literary agents interested in my work—two agents who’d reached out to me after they’d read a short story I’d written in a class I was lucky enough to have gotten to take from the late and ever-so-great Bobbie Louise Hawkins who was wrapping up her last semester before retiring while I was still a nontraditional undergraduate (also at the Jack Kerouac School for Disembodied Poetics). The story, which had coincidentally been dismissed by everyone in the workshop but Bobbie, had just been named a finalist for a contest hosted by New Letters when the first agent reached out asking if it was part of a novel I might be writing. I took Bobbie’s expert advice and promptly lied to the agent, saying, “Why yes, of course.”

While I honestly didn’t fully understand what an agent did, or why I might want one, I adored the attention and the idea of writing my first novel, and was still somehow smart enough to ask for six weeks to "polish the manuscript up" before she could see it (in which time I tried to actually write the book which meant I was writing as fast as I could). I was lucky to be in grad school by then where I was actually afforded the time, space, and guidance to do just that, and for this reason alone I can't tell you an MFA isn't worth it as this opportunity is indeed precious. I was also lucky to receive the full Kerouac scholarship, and many others, which meant I didn’t have to take out quite as much in loans while my husband and I struggled to raise two kids in Boulder County on his then annual income of $22,000 a year which we supplemented with food stamps and food banks. I was also lucky that the nature of the novel was one where the majority of the chapters happened to work as stand-alone short stories (or could easily be revised to do so) which meant I had the extra advantage of having short work I could send out in the meantime to the smorgasbord of literary journals out there, but particularly to the contests where I personally had a lot more luck than I did standard submissions; while I had to squirrel away money for these entry fees, I generally won this bet more than I lost which meant I received several monetary awards ranging from $500 to $3000 a pop (this is also how I ended up with Interested Agents Number One and Number Two). In the end neither of these two agents ended up representing me or my book, but I was nevertheless discovered by another agent when I won one of these fore-mentioned contests again, and once more I was lucky when she not only sold my first book to Simon & Schuster, but also because she has a fabulous editorial eye that continuously helps me improve my craft. Unfortunately, due to circumstances that would make a great country song (as is true with so much of my life), I did run into trouble with the IRS as I was also "lucky" enough to get a decent advance, and while I knew I should just send the 30% right away, I couldn't afford to at the time. In retrospect, if this happens to you, it's probably not at all worth it as the penalty fees and interest are so outrageous you're better off starving and living on the streets.

I was also lucky because I literally grew up in a bookstore with parents who worshipped at the altar of literature, and who never discouraged me from writing the way so many of my writer friend’s parents do. Furthermore, I literally exist today because of an MFA program. I exist because a thirty-year-old version of my mother decided to start over after battling a two-year stint with severe agoraphobia and a failed first marriage. She applied to and was accepted into the esteemed Iowa Writer’s Workshop where she met my then twenty-four-year old father who was doing his best to avoid the Vietnam draft having just returned from the Peace Corps where he’d worked as a school teacher in a tiny village in Ankara Turkey surrounded by opium poppies. Because the first digits in their social security numbers happened to match, they ended up with the same advisor, Professor Richard Yates who was still basking in the afterglow success of his 1961 novel, Revolutionary Road. My parents fell in love as they simultaneously took classes from writers such as Robert Coover and Kurt-Freaking-Vonnegut; they studied the rough drafts of Flannery O’Connor’s infamous short stories (who had also gotten her MFA at Iowa) and attended some wild-sounding parties with fellow classmates Alice Notley (world famous poet) and James Alan McPherson (first African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize). But the threat of Uncle Sam sending my dad a “come-and-see-me-real-soon” letter loomed large and they didn’t finish their MFAs, choosing instead to move to upstate New York where they could easily escape across the border into Canada if need be.

I mention my parents' experience at Iowa to show how much the world of writing has changed (not to mention the academy itself and the economy). I won't even go into the fact my dad benefitted from the New Deal, and was able to pay for college by working part-time at an A&W, his tuition only being 15% of his earnings.

My dad remembers seeing graduate students at Iowa recruited before they’d even finished the program to teach at universities where the workload actually allowed room for them to write because those same schools wanted them to write so their work would attract more students—jobs that provided these writers with a sense of security because the salaries were decent, and on top of the benefits, there were sabbaticals too). Furthermore, my mother, with just a BFA from UCLA, started teaching at Cornell (an Ivy League school!) while they lived in Ithaca, and my dad, with just a BA from CU in history and journalism, landed a job teaching at a private high school for troubled, but talented teens. That would be unheard of today. My father wasn’t drafted, the conflict overseas came to an end, and somewhere along the line they opened up a small press and bookstore. They’d discovered a niche for a particular genre, and long story short they became as world famous as Alice Notley for what they created and contributed to the literary land of murder mysteries and Who Dunnit? I’ll take this opportunity to also point out that Bobbie Louise Hawkins, my writing mentor, who was Naropa faculty never had an MFA because she didn’t even have a bachelor’s degree. She was a self-taught outsider artist who figured the craft out on her own because she'd been born to write, and that alone, plus her publications, made her more than qualified.

I’m lucky not just because I sold a book within a year of finishing my MFA, but because I started a successful creative writing workshop series I teach out of my house titled (W)rites of Passage (I also work with clients one-on-one). I’m lucky because I only had to teach one semester of Composition 1. I’m lucky that I got hired as an adjunct at this college because I’m lucky that a friend of a friend hooked me up (and there’s probably also the fact I too once was a student at Front Range Community College so me teaching there makes them look good). I’m lucky that the lead of creative writing had gone to the same MFA as me, and while we weren’t there at the same time, and didn’t actually know each other yet, I think this is partly why he gave me a creative writing class so quickly (that, and maybe because I had a book coming out that semester). I'm lucky because for a long time I was given two shifts per week in the college's Writing Center where I was paid $30.00 an hour (for a grand total of $120.00 a week to cushion the $100.00 or so I made in the actual classroom for one class). I’m lucky because when I mentioned to a friend recently that I needed more work, I ended up being asked to teach for Lighthouse because of the recommendations she made. I’m lucky that everyone at Lighthouse has been so lovely to work with, and I’m lucky that people still want to take writing classes during a pandemic (and apparently can also still afford to do so). And I’m lucky because I’ve won some awards here and there and that sort of thing helps.

(By the way, with that decent advance I got, five years since the book debuted, I still haven't seen a single royalty check, not even the super tiny ones so many of my writer friends receive that allow you to maybe go out for dinner or buy a new pair of good boots for the winter.)

(By the way, it is a major faux pas to be as candid as I am about advances or salaries or royalties or any of that, almost more so than the societal faux pas that keeps most people from talking about money in general, but I don't care, and I talk about it deliberately because it's the only way to make it more transparent so we can hopefully all work together to make the needed changes).

But I think you can see how it’s also not all luck. I do the work. I work really hard to try and make my own writing the number one priority in my life, then family and friends, then the writing of others (although, if I’m being absolutely honest, especially when it comes to trying to be financially secure, I often put the writing of others first to get the bills paid, and then it’s a real toss up between the other two if I even have the energy left to attend to either one).

I put myself out there again and again because I know the role luck plays and this increases my chances of “winning” for lack of a better word and to try and keep this whole analogy going.

The truth is I’ve had a hard life, one where it seems the only real luck I have is bad luck. I’ve battled chronic pain for fifteen years. Money is always a problem. When I was writing my first book I was also caring for my mother who was dying from pancreatic cancer. Around the time the book sold a flood devastated what was left of my dad’s bookstore which is where my husband worked at the time. In 2018 my oldest daughter died unexpectedly, followed by my mentor Bobbie (who’d been in hospice, and while it was expected, it was still just a lot of loss to deal with in less than a month). Then the universe decided to really test my strength via a brutal roll-over car accident that almost took my youngest daughter’s leg. And let me repeat: money is always a problem. But here’s the thing. As much as I hate the way these MFA programs prey upon dreamers and dreams, you still have to be good enough to get in, and then good enough to walk away with a diploma, and then committed enough to keep writing, and the process does generally validate the fact you are all of these things and that you are doing/have done the work.

I wish I could go back to my MFA to have the luxury again to just focus all that time on my own writing, but more importantly to also have those mentors all focused on my words again. As for the student loans, I always manage to make arrangements where I pay nothing (or next to nothing) and the IRS only garnished my wages once (which meant they got next to nothing because they were only allowed to take a very small percentage of my paycheck which was also very, very, very small). Since then we’ve just sold our souls to the feds in the way of payment plans with ugly interest and penalty fees as the sour cherry on top.

I won’t lie. I’m awfully tired. The grief of losing my child is almost too much to bear, but writing is my medicine, and I trust that it will start working to heal me again as it did when I lost my mother.

If you look at the etymology of the word “luck” you’ll find it shares roots with the word “lock” and then the word “luc” which may have been a shortening of the word “gheluc” from early Middle Dutch meaning “good fortune,” but more importantly, also meaning “happiness.” I knew what I was signing up for even if I also couldn’t possibly really know what the writing life would be like, or what my specific writing life would resemble. The dictionary defines “lock” as “to fasten or secure, to join, mesh, engage, link, unite, and connect.” Getting my MFA has been one of the keys for me to lock myself into the joy I ultimately do find when I honor myself first and foremost as the writer I am. Quite frankly I don’t know what I would do if I wasn’t writing. I can’t do anything else, and at least teaching means I get to talk about the craft all the time, to discuss and examine literature, and this does cause me to grow as a writer too. While I do see value in some competition (as controversial as that is), I still see more value in community. When the professor rattled off those statistics back in 2011, I held my breath and crossed my fingers that I would be the lucky one—yet I also wished the same for my peers, and to this day I do everything I can to promote the writing of the writers whose work I respect whether they are up-and-coming or already established.

We live in a capitalist society that tells us we need to pump out products at factory-line conveyor belt speed, but this frequently results in mediocre results, and some of us need a little more time to write, to revise, to submit, and to sell a book, just as some books take more time than others (the sophomore slump is a thing by the way, not just a myth). I know you hear about the importance of networking all the time, especially in light of the whole MFA situation, but I want you to know it’s not only real, it’s far more precious than that phrasing makes it sound.

The reasons I had so much "luck" stemmed from who I knew, where I was at the right time, and how I presented myself and my work (especially when I was still just a MFA candidate). The community I found and contributed to are the same people who reviewed my book, who recommended it to friends and family, who bought it (sometimes multiple copies). They're the ones who had their libraries order it and they were even the actual librarians who made sure the book was ordered. They’re the ones who teach it in their classes and give it to everyone they know as a gift; and this led to more opportunities, to a larger community, and even to a few awards, and while that is all so important, what is even more important are the ways these same folks held my family up when Kaya died, who cooked meals for us, who hugged me when I couldn’t stop weeping. They are the ones (along with other friends and family too) who raised the money we needed not to lose everything we had when Story totaled my car a few months after Kaya's death and was in the hospital, and all that new debt piled onto prior debt almost did us in.

So what I’m really saying is MFA or no MFA, if you want to be a successful writer, find a way to lock yourself into your writing, but to also secure a writing community for yourself because it is a kind of church, and finally I want to return to my parents as a way to close: While the threat of the draft played a part in them leaving Iowa, they have also explained to me that being in the midst of so many "master" writers (all pun intended), made them realize they didn't have what it takes. But that didn’t mean they had to abandon the sanctuary of the writing world—in fact, they chose instead to keep building the temple by creating a business that quite literally helped build the successful writing careers of hundreds upon hundreds of mystery writers.

What I wish my professor had added that day back in 2011 is how much we need people like my parents too. I wish we romanticized the work of being a bookseller, a literary agent, and an editor the way we do writers because without those people, writers (and the literature they compose) can’t exist. And believe it or not, their work is also an art form, is also magic, is also sacred, and there should be no shame, only honor, if some of you choose to take that route instead.