Whidbey MFA

On MFA Programs: Live-Blogging Jane Friedman’s _The Business of Being a Writer_

This is Part 3 of a multiple-part live-blog of Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer. Parts 1 and 2, on networking and the concept of “Good luck,” respectively, are here.

Writer and editor Jane Friedman believes writing can be a career, and her latest book, The Business of Being a Writer, lays out just what components go into writing as a business. It should resonate with everyone out there who writes or would like to write for a living. It’s my hope that teachers of writing, especially at the MFA level, will also take up this refrain. 

I’m working through Friedman’s book right now, and I am finding places where my own experience either bolsters or informs Friedman’s neat summation and gentle advice. For the duration of my time through this first read of The Business of Being a Writer, I will be posting these experiences for you. I invite you to share widely, and add your own experiences to the comments. Each post will begin with a quote from Friedman’s book, and end with some actionable tips that you can put to work in your own writing career.

…”Third, it can be worthwhile to enroll in an MFA program based solely on its faculty and networking opportunities…Don’t take it on faith that you’ll love any program or faculty sight unseen–get as much exposure as possible beforehand.” (The Business of Being a Writer, pg. 37)

Up until the moment I got accepted, selecting MFA programs had been easy. I wanted a low-residency program, so I could continue on with my day job and stay near my husband, and I wanted something that felt new. I didn’t much feel like taking graduate school exams, but I wanted something that would allow me to teach at the college level if that’s what I wanted. I wanted a faculty that comprised working writers, and an alumni pool that was also working as writers. I knew, too, what I wanted out of an MFA, so that made things even easier.

It came down to two low-res programs. One was much more established, and I knew people who had graduated from it. The other was new. Scrappy. So scrappy that it had sprung from a writer’s organization, and wasn’t affiliated with a college or university. Its facility boasted a live otter cam, and it was based out of a place I’d never really visited. The facility it hosted its classes out of boasted a live otter cam.

(not that kind of ottercam, you guys.)

They each had things to recommend them. Program B’s faculty looked as if they were all steadily working writers, and they said they only ever wanted to produce working writers. Program A, the more established one, had some faculty I had heard of, and they were renowned for their work in the young adult genre, a field I was pretty sure I wanted to work in. But in the end, it came down to the student body. Program A had both graduates I knew and had heard of. Program B had neither of these things.

But program B offered to put me in touch with their students. Program A took a few days to get back to me. I was very clear about who I wanted to talk to: I wanted to talk to working writers who were in the fiction genre. Writers who were working on long fiction, preferably. Within a few minutes of my sending a query to the program director, the e-mails from students and alumni of program B started rolling in. Four…five…six…seven and more students all had things to say, and all were willing to talk to me. All were working in fiction; all were able to address my specific questions and concerns, and if they didn’t know the answer, they pointed me to another student.

By contrast, program A sent me to a playwright, a guy who was in jail, and a graduate who said she wasn’t quite sure why Program A still had her on the list of people to talk to about their experience at Program A, since she was still doing the exact same thing she was doing before her degree and didn’t see a future in writing. I did not get to talk to the guy in jail, but the playwright was interesting, and completely not useful.

Friedman’s right: you should get to know the faculty. And I’ll never know what it’s like to have gone to that other institution. But, as I’ve previously mentioned, I leaned and still lean so heavily on my co-hort from my MFA and the huge number of guest faculty that I met while I was in school there. I think a good set of peers is at least as important, for many reasons, and maybe even more important, for another set of reasons.

I also want to point out the following, which has been thrown into sharp light now that I’m running a writer’s retreat of my own: the best faculty members are not necessarily those who are the biggest and brightest stars of literature. In fact, we had a few guest faculty lecturers at program B who were bigger names and who were, frankly, terrible instructors. Finding people who are talented, giving, generous educators and great writers isn’t always the obvious equation you think it’ll be.

Nope, for me, I’m happy I chose my MFA program based on the students who were there and who had graduated from the program.

Some takeaways:

  • Always ask to speak to students at whatever MFA program you’re considering.
  • Be intentional about why you want to get an MFA.
  • Be open: Although I wasn’t interested in making friends when I enrolled in my MFA, it happened despite me, and now those friends are colleagues, and I couldn’t be happier.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for exactly what you want. It’ll save time on both ends.
  • Have a look at the faculty member’s teaching resumes, or look for information about their teaching backgrounds otherwise.

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Brain Flotsam 6

Welcome to Brain Flotsam, the weekly digest of things I read, saw, or otherwise encountered that made my week more interesting. This week I saw five friends in person and got to interact with so many more in real time. What a great, packed week. And, the following:

  • One night this week I dreamed I had tried out for and made the high school cheerleading squad. We had to go to a tournament soon after. And I spent all of my time F-R-E-A-K-I-N-G O-U-T. Like, “I can’t do this! I have never been in a TOURNAMENT before!” And then part of me said, “Ridiculous. Why do you think they picked you for the squad? You have been training for this all your life! A tournament is just a bigger tryout! You can do this!” I like to think it was my conscious, slowly realizing I was dreaming, or do I like to think that? Wouldn’t I rather think that my subconscious, telling me that I can do whatever it is that’s coming my way? (NB: I have never wanted to try out for cheerleading, although I did rather envy the little pleated skirts and tiny sweaters.)
  • Sometime last week I stopped hitting “like” on facebook posts. (I borrowed the idea from this guy.) I think, honestly, it was because the introduction of the new “react” options tipped me over the edge into decision fatigue. Now I react only using comments. I think it’s made me a more thoughtful person. (Don’t laugh.)
  • A new museum! It’s of broken hearts!
  • I made this fish stew this week. It was delicious, and then I left it out on the counter after we’d had our second meal from it. Sad. Oh well.
  • The MFA program I graduated from is closing its doors this semester. I don’t have anything coherent to say about this yet, except this: I am sad that I won’t be able to give back to the community that gave me so much, now that I’ll be a published author soon. Lesson learned: contribute whenever you can. Don’t wait.
  • I am still reading Stephen King’s It. I would like it to end sometime soon, and it looks like it will. After this, I think I should read something rather less gothic. And shorter. The last time it took me this long to read something, it was Moby-Dick (chapter 18! Still no whale!) and I was on deployment in Malawi, and I never finished it.
_It_ feels about as big as this whale.

Stephen King’s _It_ feels about as big as this whale.

I think that’s it for this week. Hopefully by the next time we check in together, I will have finished reading _It_ and moved onto something comforting and fluffy. What did you see this past week? Tell me in the comments below.

P.S. My MFA program’s mascot is the orca whale. I think I won’t be able to look at Orcas for a long time without feeling a little bit sad.

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.