This is a guest post by Nadia Jones
Since the day some scribe set his stylus to clay to record the epic of Gilgamesh, the literary landscape has been revolutionized many times over. For most of history, hardly anyone could read. Among great writers, talented amateurs did exist, but they were always the exception rather than the rule.
Between, say, the time of Shakespeare (who was mocked for his “small Latin and less Greek”) and today, education has gone from a privileged luxury to a societal imperative for all. And in just the past generation, technology has radically expanded this egalitarian access to the means of literary production so that truly anyone can be an “author” (meaning someone who can hand you a stack of paper with their byline on it).
But I skipped a step. By the early- to mid-twentieth century, the reading public was vast. Thanks to public education and magazines and newspapers, and book publishers needed content. They would actually pay you a wage, although not always a great one, but the very lack of worldly compensation only added to the romantic image of “the author” in the public imagination. Institutions began to spring up (most conspicuously the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1936) that purported to teach the process of creative writing as opposed merely to studying the works of the past. A simple idea, but a game-changer. Dewy-eyed youngsters like Wallace Stegner and Flannery O’Connor came from all over the country to hone their crafts.
In the decades that followed, workshop-style instruction proliferated. There are now nearly 400 graduate programs all over the country. Nor, despite this being a questionable economic choice in today’s uneasy environment. Is there any shortage of aspiring writers to fill them when the top colleges admit maybe one or two percent of applicants?
Even as the self-publishing boom has truly come to fruition (and landed a resounding blow with the success of Fifty Shades of Grey, a rather dubious point of pride for amateurs everywhere), for anyone trying to get a deal for (especially non-genre) fiction with one of the big houses, an MFA is practically an entry-level requirement, a driver’s license for those wanting to operate the heavy machinery of Literature.
Perhaps you’ve been considering entering this world of the creatively credentialed. What’s holding you back?
1. “It’s a waste of money.”
Possibly. But you may be surprised. MFA programs are judged and ranked in large part by their generosity in subsidizing students’ writing. Teaching opportunities, fellowships, grants, and awards can often be patched together in such a way that, while you won’t be saving for retirement in those two or three years of grad student life, you can just about break even.
2. “You can’t teach writing.”
This one is a cop-out. What you really mean is that you want to insulate yourself from others’ opinions and that the possibility that what you’re doing is not good enough already. Sorry, but it’s probably not. Absent the above practical considerations, no time spent honing your craft is wasted, even if everybody really is a total jerk and doesn’t get you.
3. “They won’t have any appreciation for my kind of work.”
Here you may well be right. Though tastes are becoming more democratic (many MFA types love and even write science fiction, detective novels, and comic books), submitting a portfolio of all genre-based material is likely to doom your chances. Make sure you show that you can write realistic fiction with compelling characters, unpredictable plotting, judicious detail and rich language. And once you’re inside the academy, there will be some degree of resistance if it seems like your work is overly reliant on popular tropes. You should welcome this. Originality isn’t everything but you may never find your voice if you stay inside a cozy online echo chamber of fellow fans.
I won’t suggest to you that the answers to all your dreams lie inside the Emerald City of graduate-level creative writing workshops. It’s a rough, uncertain path through life, and nothing is guaranteed. It differs in this way from professional degrees, where you go to dental school, get a dentist job, work on teeth, ba-da-bing. You’ll still have to blaze your own trail in some sense. But I urge you not to dismiss the possibility out of hand. It may be just what you need to take your authorial aspirations to the next level.