The Body (and Life) You Want without the Suffering

Friday, October 8, 2010

Ms. Cleo & the Pursuit of Mfappyness

I don’t see a lot of reason to go to school other than to hang out with writers I admire. I did enjoy meeting Colum McCann at Hunter and was impressed at the thought of hanging out, drinking in a pub in the Village with this GREAT WRITER. However, hanging out with great writers does not ensure one will become a great writer, that’s more private, often terrible, labor.

To whit: I have harbored Toni Morrison dreams, but I’m not at all convinced I have that much talent. I have to hack this craft with what’s on hand – nearly debilitating insecurity, strong survival instincts, a penchant for hard work and a very thick thesaurus. I dig away at the obstacles until they crumble. Or I do.

I’ve not been convinced a Masters of Fine Arts means more money for work in the Arts and no one at the Open Houses I attended had good answers to my main questions.

1. How does a writer build a career? Most careers now follow the school-training-feet on the ground and experience trajectory, is writing the same thing?
2. Is there career counseling at MFA programs or job placement?

Question #2 is probably more wishful thinking on my part than anything, but I’m a girl who loves a good plan.

Among the professions listed in post #1, there aren’t too many that require an advanced degree. In fact, most of them are undergraduate degrees at best and it’s not uncommon to find someone with a high school diploma and a little chutzpah working as a blogger, editorial assistant, copywriter, or reporter. I asked a good friend who heads an advertising firm about the necessity of an advanced degree for creative work as a copywriter.

"No MFA. Writers come from eclectic backgrounds. They are amazingly creative in their ability to make the complex simple, understand how people think, what motivates and usually vey strategic thinkers. They will do a year at Creative Circus or the Portfolio Center- schools where they can build a book of writing and ads to show they have promise."

An aside, quite a few bestselling writers came out of the ranks of advertising, one of the most popular of the moment is James Patterson (who does have a master’s degree, though I’m not sure in what). Advertising has its own hierarchy and a recent development is similar to the push to drive applications to MFA programs – Advertising professional schools such as Creative Circus charge considerable fees to help students develop a portfolio for employment.

The Difference: Ms. Cleo and the MFA

Does anyone else remember the Ms. Cleo Psychic Hotline commercials? They were hilarious and on every 20 minutes. Ms. Cleo had a crazy Jamaican accent, gave out fabulous advice that was entirely predictable using tarot cards and eye rolls.

Ms. Cleo, it was revealed, was just an actress with a shitty accent, but she did quite well for herself, I thought. And it is in her honor that I’m naming my Masters of Fine Arts the Ms. Cleo – or Fake MFA.

The Challenge

To take the $10,000 - $40,000 per year I would spend for graduate school and commit it to my development as a writer.

That’s already enough to make me a little crazy, I don’t make that much extra scrilla, but if I take time from work to write, at least one day per week, then I’m taking a pay cut and I start making some numbers.

I had to inch my way up to this project, it’s been on my mind for years, but I couldn’t see myself giving up health insurance (which I need because I have chronic health issues) or a steady paycheck (which I also need because I have chronic health issues).

My first significant step came in Spring 2010 when I had an innocuous exchange with my great-Godfather Abner. He tossed a copy of The Teaching Company’s catalogue at me, asking if I’d ever seen it. An octogenarian, he was appalled by the prices for the audio and DVD courses.

“$60 for a class?” he said, snapping and yanking his red suspenders as we sat at the kitchen table, big band jazz playing in the background of the breakfast conversation.

I was astounded. “Do you know how much this course would cost at The University of Iowa, where the instructor is an…instructor?” I thumbed the pages, scanning the course description and brimming with incredulity at the bargain – 12 hours of instruction for $60 on my iPod, accessible whenever I wanted it, what a deal!

Abner stared at me a bit, then said, “School must be expensive now.” He lives in Menlo Park, people, home to Stanford University and bungalows priced in the high six figures.

Learning to Read Like a Writer

I purchased two courses from the catalogue that day, $130 bucks very well spent as far as I was concerned, and downloaded my first course in audio form. The first two “lectures” were difficult, it’s been at least a decade since I dealt with academia. I muddled through and by the sixth lecture (I did one a day) I was feeling something akin to epiphany.

I was learning. I was learning about reading fiction and I felt as though my brain had turned on for the very first time. It was awesome!

That pretty much opened the flood gates. I’d hacked every other area of my life and failed profoundly at my attempt to go to school for writing. So, I thought, “what if I hack this writing career thing? I’m in good company riiiiight?”


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