Friday, April 4, 2008

Freelancing and the MFA: Part II

Following up on Tuesday's post about my article at Mediabistro weighing MFA degrees for freelancers, I wanted to share the rest of the insights I gathered from interviews conducted while digging into this topic. This is an unusually long post for me. Hope you'll read it though, because the experts offer up some treasure.

Ann Hood, novelist, memoirist, essayist; on the MFA faculty at The New School and the Stonecoast program at the University of Southern Maine.

Q: What can writers expect from an MFA program in preparing them to write for major media outlets?

Ann: I don't see MFA programs as training ground for this kind of writing. I view them as programs to teach writers critical thinking, to hone their writing skills, to read and write in the luxury of an intellectual and challenging community. Good writing rises to the top. If you learn to think critically about your own work and the work of others, to write honestly, and to strive for fine writing then your work will make its way to publishers and find a home.
If you see an MFA program as a ticket to publication, I think you are in the wrong business.

Q: What is the value, for a currently working freelance writer, who is considering an MFA program? Connections? Career boost? Craft?

Ann: Honing your writing craft is the value of an MFA program. If that is not a student's goal then they should take up a different vocation. Write well. Write honestly. The faculty and other "connections" will recognize and support this. Perhaps I am still too starry eyed, too idealistic. But I, like every other writer I know, struggles every day to write something that matters, something that hits an emotional chord, to write prose that is strong and well crafted. We do it because we love it. The side benefit is that is the writing that also sells.

Harriet Brown, editor of the anthology Mr. Wrong; edits the regional magazine Wisconsin Trails; has written for Vogue, the New York Times science section, Elle, and other major magazines; has an MFA in poetry from Brooklyn College.

Q: Was the MFA degree helpful to you as a freelancer?

Harriet: I don't actually think it was helpful at all. I enjoyed working on the degree and it was a really good thing for me to do in terms of my writing, but in terms of getting writing assignments, it has definitely not helped me when querying.

Q: Are there any times it was helpful to have that credential on your resume?

Harriet: Only thing it's ever been good for has been when I apply for teaching jobs because it's a terminal degree and without the MFA I wouldn't even be considered. Other than that, it really hasn't been at all useful. Absolutely not

Q: When you look at queries in your job as magazine editor, what do you think when you see a writer has an MFA?

Harriet: As an editor, it means absolutely nothing. I look at every query pretty closely don't think it's ever changed my mind. All I care about is samples of what someone has written. If they can't put it on the page, I don't want them writing for me no matter how many degrees they have.

Q: Is it okay for a writer to mention the MFA in their query or poor form?

Harriet: It depends how it's put. Just mention it once, simply. When it comes to writing, you can talk about it or you can do it and credentials are part of talking about it. The proof is on the page. I've had queries from folks with no degrees at all and can tell right away from their query that they can do the job.

Eve Bridburg is a literary agent with Zachary, Shuster, Harmsworth, and the founder of Boston's Grub Street writing center; holds an MA in fiction from Boston University.

Q: I hear you're not a big fan of MFA programs.

Eve: Many have a lot of integrity and it can work for you. But writers should think about alternatives first and what will work in their own lives, really examine the decision. There are other ways; an MFA is not the only way. And it takes too much time – time that might be better spent joining writing groups and reading and networking. If you can afford an MFA without going into debt, then it's a great way to spend a long stretch of time writing. I got an MA and had a teaching fellowship. Most MFA programs are extremely expensive and don't offer funding, so when you are done, you end up behind in a way, not qualified to get a well paying job, bur really wanting to write, but needing to pay the debt.

Q: When a query or book proposal comes across your desk and the writer mentions they've earned an MFA, does it affect your interest level?

Eve: An MFA signals to an agent you are serious. But at then of the day, it doesn't matter what your credentials are if you can write. As an agent, the MFA might make a slight difference to me if you're writing narrative creative nonfiction, but still, it's all in the writing.

Q: What do you recommend then, instead of an MFA?

Eve: In most urban centers, you can get the same kind of rigor at a writers' center, at affordable prices. Places where you can have a really good instruction and meet other writers who will become your peer group and help you edit your work. There are major success stories coming out of places like Grub Street,
The Loft in Minneapolis, Hugo House in Seattle and The Writer's Studio in New York. It's the same level of rigor and intensity, among others with great writing skills, who are already published.

Alicia Miller is the senior editor of
Hemispheres, the inflight magazine of United Airlines.

Q: If a writer mentions their MFA in a query, does it matter?

Alicia: If we’re looking for a fiction piece or an essay for our First Person department, that detail may catch our eye. But even in those cases, we’re paying much more attention to where a writer has published, his or her relevant clips and expertise, and above all the quality and the fit of the pitch or submission itself.

Q: Does it bother you when a querying writer mentions this credential?

Alicia: Not at all, in the context of a quick run-through of the writer’s qualifications at the beginning or end of a query. But it seems that it would follow the same path as a resume: When you’ve just graduated from college, your education info is going to be at or near the top of your list of achievements, whereas it likely will get bumped down the line of things to highlight as work experience increases.

Q: Have you found that writers with MFA degrees have a better (or perhaps I should say, different) grasp on the craft aspects of writing?

Alicia: Honestly, I couldn’t tell you which of our regular writers have MFA degrees and which don’t, though I’m sure some probably do. MFA courses and workshops can be really valuable in helping a writer learn to research, produce, and polish his or her copy. But just telling me you have that degree isn’t going to help get an assignment; show me the strong ideas, critical thinking, thorough research, and the artful execution the degree helped you build.

Matthew Quick, a 2007 graduate of the Goddard MFA program, has a novel forthcoming, and has been on the editorial staffs of several literary journals.

Q: How has completing an MFA helped you in your writing career thus far?

Matthew: I don't think that my possessing an MFA degree—in and of itself—had much to do with landing any of my publications; in fact, I've never published anything significant that I worked on with a Goddard advisor and no one in the publishing industry has ever asked if I have earned an MFA degree.

Q: Did you make any valuable contacts?

Matthew: While one of my advisors was very generous regarding publishing advice, no one at Goddard offered up any references or contacts of any kind—but I'm not sure that's the MFA advisor's role anyway, nor should it be. It's a Master of Fine Arts, and not a Master of How-To-Get-Published degree, after all. The MFA was an enriching experience for me, as a writer and as an artist. MFA programs are good places to practice writing and to be a part of a writing community, whether you will ever publish or not, and while my MFA experience was far from practical—regarding publishing—it still molded me and I’m glad I did it. Can the 'art' end of writing ever be practical?

Patsy Sims is director of the MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Goucher College in Baltimore, the only program in the U.S. which concentrates only in nonfiction.

Q: How, if at all, does the nonfiction program benefit the writer who wishes to establish a freelance career?

Patsy: We are able to put together a large nonfiction faculty, and during the residency, the whole 2 weeks, 16 hours a day is all nonfiction that's a real advantage. We have an increasing number of established journalists as students and I think it's due to what's happening in newspapers – more literary journalism, long narrative series, more creative forms of journalism.

Q: What about contacts made during the program?

Patsy: We work at familiarizing writers with how the publishing world works – yes, there are opportunities to meet agents and editors from publishing houses; to talk about book proposals, queries, nuts and bolts advice, so the student can learn first hand about the publishing world and begin making contacts for later.

While I wouldn't choose a program because of what contacts it could give me, I do think networking in writing is very helpful and very important. Even if the contacts you make can't "hook you up" they can help you figure out how to make other contacts.

Alumni are also an opportunity to share experience, get advice and offer contacts.
There's nothing wrong with having contacts: a person w/contacts is ahead of a person who doesn't have contacts. But that would not be a primary reason for choosing a program. The faculty to me is the most import part in choosing a program.

Q: How is your program helpful to already-working writers?

Patsy: If you are coming in say, from newspapers, I think getting an MFA and learning to write in a more creative and in depth way could be a huge help. We have a woman in the program now, been at a top newspaper for 25 years and is in a really good position there. Yet, she says we've introduced her to literature and reading she would not have done otherwise and it has really broadened her writing. I was surprised to hear her say that because she's an accomplished writer already, but here, she learned about reading like a writer.

That's what an MFA program can do – reading is a terribly important way to learn to write well and it's an advantage to be exposed to a broader range of writing than you might find on your own, and to work with faculty to read more analytically. It's sort of like having a good editor looking over your shoulder – having a different mentor each semester.

When I first got here in 2001, students were all about memoir, but that's changed a great deal. Far more now are working on literary journalism projects.

Shonna Milliken Humphrey received her MFA from Bennington in 2004, writes for regional magazines and is the executive director of the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance.

Q: Has your MFA degree been helpful in any way when securing freelance assignments?

Shonna: The are sort of two schools of thought on that idea. The first being that an MFA offers both space to fine-tune your craft and the contacts to help market work, and the second is that writers are there just to write. I think it's a mix of both. For freelance projects, it usually comes down to your contacts and relationships because an editor is more likely to assign to someone he/she knows can do the project. Did my MFA increase my contacts? Yes. But did I eventually have to knock on doors and do the work? Absolutely. I think an MFA is a badge of accomplishment, but writers need work experience to land the gigs.

The MFA program opened my eyes to the discipline involved with being a professional writer and also showed me that there is a lot of solid competition, too.

Q: A lot is made about contacts one makes during the program with fellow students and faculty, who may be helpful in future career endeavors. Any thoughts?

Shonna: This is a tricky one. Being surrounded by people in the writing life is important, but so is having an idea or quick pitch ready to market. When a professor or visiting industry professional asks what you are working on, be ready to describe your project in a quick and interesting way. I think MFA students make the mistake of thinking "I'm not ready" or "I'm not there yet." If you can establish yourself with a unique identity early on in an MFA program (the guy who is writing the memoir about China, the woman who researches bees, the haiku poet) and put yourself and your project in front of as many industry people as possible while you are there, that's only going to help. Of course, you need to have the talent to back it up, too.

Vince Passaro is a novelist, short story writer, critic and essayist, whose magazine work has been published in Esquire, GQ, the New York Times Magazine and Harper's. He has an MFA from Columbia and is also director of special projects for Yaddo, the writer's colony.
Q: How much has the MFA helped your freelance writing career?

Vince: It was through one of the faculty at my program that I met the magazine editor who gave me my start. So, in an academic way, the MFA had no influence; but in terms of professional contacts, for me it was central. That said, I don't think the aspiring magazine writer -- as opposed to the aspiring poet, dramatist, memoirist, or fiction writer -- is well advised pursuing an MFA. If one wants an academic program with the hopes of professional contacts, certain journalism grad programs are far more appropriate.

Q: When querying editors for work, do you mention the MFA? Do you think it helped you get taken more seriously?

Vince: Generally, once you're being published, the whole issue of your provenance doesn't matter anymore.

Q: What advice might you have for students currently enrolled in an MFA program who want to work as freelancers for mainstream media?

Vince: I don't think the MFA program does in fact support that particular goal. I just happened to be very lucky, that the director of my program was married to an editor at a good start-up magazine. The 'FA' of MFA stands for Fine Arts. If that's not what you're going for, then look elsewhere.

Q: Do you think there is, or that there is going to be, a backlash against the proliferation of MFA programs which are churning out more graduates every few months?

Vince: I think the publishing of serious fiction and poetry will eventually become so financially unrewarding that people who want to write it will eventually abandon expensive academic credentialing programs. But that's still a good many years down the road.

Q: In terms of your writing craft, how much of a boost was your MFA experience?

Vince: Ah, this is the most important question of all. I think, looking back, that I was pretty shrewd. I went to the MFA program a bit late -- I was 29. I'd been writing and studying writing on my own for almost ten years. I believed that I needed professional contacts, and whatever extra credibility was to be found in that program; I was not seeking help in craft, and I would say that only one of my four workshop teachers had much to offer on the issue of craft, though what he offered was immense. The two years or more of intense work under the scrutiny of their colleagues and in competition with them will do a lot for writers' craft, and this is the appeal of the MFA programs. But in the end, in our struggles with language and form, we're on our own.

1 comment:

B.A. Goodjohn said...

Lisa, thanks for this. I've been discussing the very question with a freelance writer pal of mine. My view was that the MFA was a great treat for me and that I made some good friends and contacts. But that's about it. For me, it's doing the writing, marketing it, and celebrating my successes and chalking up my failures. It DID help with securing teaching jobs but I don't think it would have been enough, to reach the level I wanted within my timeframe, without the publications.

So bottom line I think is that we need to write and we need to write well and often. And submit. And read and research.