By Derek Askey, Colorado Review Editorial Assistant
On March 18, 2012, memoirist and short-story author Cathy Day posted “Should we make it our business to teach the business of being a writer?”, a blog entry in which Day shares the results of a survey of 3oo+ MFA students and 36 MFA faculty. In it, a staggering majority (85% of students and 75% of faculty) answered false to the statement “MFA programs should avoid ‘professionalization’ and ‘business’ issues related to the writing life, such as discussions of the market and what sells.”
Though Colorado Review is not associated solely with the MFA program at Colorado State University—it is part of CSU’s English Department—much cross-pollination routinely occurs between the MFA program and the Review. Our fiction, poetry, and book review editors, with the exception of Donald Revell, are all members of CSU’s creative writing faculty, and a number of associate editors and editorial assistants (myself included) at the Review are current students in the MFA program. Plus, it’s not unreasonable to assume that a large number of our readers (both in print and here on the blog) are in some way involved in the world of MFA programs—to be sure, many of our contributors have been or are part of MFAs. As such, it seems sensible to explore here the issues that Day raises, given that much of my experience of the “professionalization” of writing has come directly from my time at the magazine.
Idling away in an ivory tower; or, getting an MFA
In her post (certainly worth reading in full), Day describes her trepidations at making space for business issues in MFA programs: “Isn’t it hard enough to teach someone to read and write well in 2 or 3 years? Are MFA programs responsible for equipping graduates for all professional outcomes?” My pithy answers to both: yes, and yes (the second yes here requires the caveat that they are responsible for equipping graduates for the most likely professional outcomes).
Granted, there is something disagreeably MBA-ish to be so concerned about professional considerations when you’re in an MFA program, which has traditionally been seen as time spent on honing your craft. Immersing myself in reading and writing for three years was precisely the reason I chose to pursue an MFA in the first place, with no illusions that the program would provide anything beyond those things as a matter of course.
Business meeting or MFA workshop? You decide.
But a program runs the risk of becoming cloistered if “craft” is the only measure by which students and faculty judge its effectiveness, and it does a disservice to students by not taking into account employability following graduation. Very few (zero?) post-graduate degrees would eschew professionalization, or treat it as a curse word, in the way that post-grad degrees in the arts do. And with only a few exceptions, namely those schools you see loftily resting atop the Poets & Writers rankings or the students with trust funds, writing and reading deeply/widely occur alongside doing something to pay the bills and/or offset the tuition: teaching for some and, for many others, working part-time at a job that may or may not have anything to do with writing. And the chances of full-time teaching or working in a job related to writing (those most likely professional outcomes I referenced earlier) don’t improve drastically once you’ve finished with your degree.
Again, this is where my time at the Review has become so pivotal. A small amount of my in-class experiences, both here at CSU and as an undergrad at the University of Pittsburgh, have been spent on things like how to write a cover letter, how to decide on journals to which you would like to submit, and the staggeringly depressing chances you have of making a living exclusively as a creative writer.
But most of my professional development has taken place during my (albeit short) tenure at the Review. It’s one thing to hear from an instructor how to write a cover letter for a journal submission, and yet another thing entirely to read one that breaks all of the rules. Beyond that, desktop publishing, graphic design, copyediting, and proofreading are all professional skills that interns at CR have the opportunity to develop. I’ve been learning Adobe InDesign CS5, and will be moving on to Photoshop next week. As someone who’s tried to find a suit-and-a-tie nine-to-five job outside of the academy, these skills are invaluable. And there’s no reason I can discern that you can’t gain them while honing your writing craft.
Room for both, right?
In her post, Day describes the difference between academic and non-academic professionalization, with the former being characterized as creating a CV, giving a job talk, etc. (quite commonly covered in most MFAs, Day claims), and the latter involving resumes, book synopses, query letters, and so on. And it’s the non-academic stuff that Day is cautious of including in MFA programs, even though she does include these aspects in her grad and advanced undergrad classes.
Day’s caution here seems sensible, of course, and she owns up to the fact that her personal experiences have much to do with why she is resistant to automatically include these lessons: an MFA graduate in 1995, Day’s program spent no time on finding an agent, applying for grants and fellowships, or even how to submit work to magazines.
With all due respect to Day’s alma mater, why the hell would an MFA program not cover these things? Granted, I’ve never designed a core curriculum or chaired a committee that studied the success of sharing these facets of the writing life with students, but it seems preposterous that a program might ignore these matters for the sake of . . . what? Spending those two or three years dedicated exclusively to developing students’ craft? Two or three years isn’t the longest time in the world, but there is ample space for both professional and craft elements to be taught to graduate students. The this-is-how-you-submit-to-journals talk should take no more than an hour or two, and can potentially do more for a burgeoning writer than forcing him or her to slog through an experimentally cumbersome piece of fiction from 1914.
But I like the ivory tower . . .
Despite this, I still share Day’s disdain at the fact that professionalization has become de rigueur in the academy. (She shares an anecdote about how attendance at her panels on craft were ill-attended compared to ones that pushed writer professionalization.) I also work as an instructor and find myself mildly heartbroken when all of my students, when I ask why they’ve decided to go to college, answer, “To get a job.” What’s wrong with just learning something? If the space for this unencumbered learning-for-the-sake-of-learning doesn’t take place in an MFA, where are we expecting it to take place?
Outside of the classroom, I suppose. Which is an aspect that such learning shares with professional development. A post-graduate degree, of course, is in many ways self-directed. You choose (or should be choosing) the bulk of what you’re reading; your writing is, for the most part, on your own schedule. And since this is an integral part of the MFA experience, there’s no reason that professionalization should not be a part of this outside-the-classroom stuff as well. For most people, of course, it already is. I argue only that the programs make this type of development available to students, and that they encourage it, in the same way that the courses be designed so that a student can have some agency over his or her studies.
For me, that’s been my time at Colorado Review, for which I am grateful. Just because a feature of a program isn’t part of its core requirements (CSU MFAs are required to have internship credits, but work at the Review is only one of many options) doesn’t mean that its inclusion or availability should be ignored. My colleague, CR associate editor and blog-contributor Lauren Gullion, for instance, has taken web-presence and self-marketing courses outside of the core MFA curriculum. But what’s important here is that those classes, much like the skills learned at the Review, are available here for those students who wish to develop them.
Graduating MFA students throwing hats as a means of angering the writing gods, who convinced them to pursue the degree in the first place.
As Day acknowledges in her thoughtful and thorough post, there’s no easy solution to this problem. My make-it-available-but-not-compulsory solution described above is far from unorthodox, and many of the best programs already allow for these skills to be developed in this in-but-not-of fashion.
I would argue, however, that making those professional skills a priority over craft is a recipe for disaster; the cart leads the horse, and everything topples. Craft is, and needs to remain, at the forefront. All of the knowledge you might have about how to submit to a journal is not going to matter a whit if what you’re submitting is lousy, of course. But if an MFA program has taught you how to write a tremendous piece of writing, you should 1) (shameless plug) Submit it to Colorado Review, and 2) Expect that program to help you do something with it.