The Body (and Life) You Want without the Suffering

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Difference: Study Writing or Be a Writer

This blog was inspired by this post:

"WARNING: I'm a little bit buzzed right now, read at your own peril.

I got rejected from Hunter College this morning. In retaliation, I had a rum punch for breakfast, whined via text message, forgot why I was upset, ran errands, and signed up for a writing workshop. I think I may take rejection exceptionally well. Or it could be my short attention span at full mast."

That was me 5 months ago. Hunter was one of the last schools to reject me. I went on to hire an editor and to discover I was a terrible writer.

Humbling doesn't begin to cover it, but hey, it was $400 worth of Elance editing very well spent. I've thought a lot about school since then, my rash decision to apply, the editor (not from Elance) who soaked up $375 for services I have yet to understand, and I've talked to a number of MFA students who have profoundly mixed feelings about their programs.

I'm still undecided about trying a low-residency program, but leaning toward not bothering with a MFA altogether for a few distinct reasons:

1. Money. As in, I like to keep mine.

2. I majored in English undergrad and ended up a copy editor at a top newspaper, much to the surprise and chagrin of most of the journalism students. This was largely because I discussed fashion for 2 hours with an editor while sneaking a few brown bag lunches to take home since the fridge was empty. All that to say, I have pretty good people skills and I deploy them at will. I can network outside of a school program and probably get farther, faster.

3. I don't really see the point of going to a program, quitting my job, selling my assets just to go into big-time, serious, life-altering debt.

4. I can take 2 days from work to work on my craft, excluding weekends. I own a company, I hire people with brains who think just fine without my daily input.

5. Night school is more to my taste, I hate mornings and Emory University just created a Creative Writing Certificate program. I've taken my first class in the program and I love it. I'm focusing on Creative Nonfiction because I have nonfiction stories that keep interrupting or taking over my fiction. I'll get the Essays out of the way, then move on to the fiction. This actually limits MFA options as most programs do not have Creative Nonfiction concentrations, despite the popularity of the form.

6. This post from Tim Ferris, explaining how he created his Real World MBA. It worked very well for him.

This blog will be an exploration of writing for those of us not in full-time programs - whether we have not gone, we have graduated, we have dropped out, or we didn't know they existed. In the past 15 months, I was definitely in the last category.

Making a writer out of oneself isn't a new idea, quite the opposite. Iowa has the oldest program in the U.S., and it's reported to be a tough program to get in and even tougher to come out of. Writing programs are big money makers for schools - but less advantageous for participants. Last year I applied to Columbia University and during Open House the Financial Aid Director addressed tuition head on: "One year is $40,000."

I raised my hand at that point and asked for clarification, mostly because I was amused by the gasp the announcement elicited and wanted to hear it again. Columbia is a three-year program. Columbia is a lovely campus and the students who took time to speak at open house were interesting and fairly diverse, however $120,000 - 40K x 3 years - is a stiff bill. I was rejected, which meant I was only out the $120 application fee.

The major flaw in this design is that unlike other high-priced degree programs - your professional degrees in business, law, medicine - writing is almost guaranteed to result in marginal employment opportunities. A creative, determined person can and will make a good living, but it's rare to do it as a writer of one genre only. A doctor may invest 20 years and $200,000+ for a degree, but that doctor also has the opportunity to make that money back fairly quickly after medical school and residency, or work off the debt with the military or the health service.

Other programs are less expensive, but inundated with applicants. It's a recession, school is always a popular idea when jobs are scarce. Most programs are not transparent to applicants, so it's difficult to know what opportunities exist post-graduation. If you are a person who has found a niche in a creative field, moving into a writing program could be financial and professional suicide. Unlike MBA programs and other professional degrees, writing programs seldom specify where their graduates end up because it's not a well-defined industry.

It is my goal to see if a person can build a writing career outside of a MFA program. There is nothing in me that wants to be an impoverished student. I like my lifestyle, but want to increase my personal satisfaction and intellectual engagement in the world around me. I'm putting my money and my time where my heart is: into the writing. A little structure never hurt anyone, so I'm going to build my own learning lab for the writing career I would like to have. I invite others to go on this journey with me, we can be the class of 2013.

Writing into the night...



  1. So proud of you. It is going to be a long and hard road, but pace yourself, believe in yourself and I will see you at graduation 2013. And I can't wait to read your writing.

  2. I stumbled upon your two blogs by accident, when Googling Cartola! (Thanks Cartola). I am really looking forward to reading more & you have inspired me to write more too. So there you have it - a Brazilian has led an Australian to an American's blog!