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Writing Advice: The World Doesn’t Give a Rat’s Ass About Your MFA

Dear Nancy,

I completed my MFA in writing just over a year ago. I went to a good school – one of the well-known ones – and I was a diligent student. My teachers and peers gave me encouraging feedback. I worked hard while I was there and completed my novel. I got an agent. But no one bought the book. Now I don’t know what to do. I need to earn money but I feel like a regular 9-5 job will suck any remaining enthusiasm right out of me. I’ve been looking for teaching jobs but they either pay terribly or require publication. I’m starting to think that the entire MFA experience was a waste of time and money. What do you think?

In-a-funk, Iowa

Dear In-a-funk,

It was only a waste of time and money if you pursued your MFA thinking that when you graduated, the world would owe you a living. I’m sorry to be the one to break this to you, but the world doesn’t give a rat’s ass about your MFA. What did you think it would buy you? Exclusive entry into a super-elite cohort of writers who spend their days swapping stories about the size of their advances? A cushy six-figure teaching job that requires only four contact hours a week so you can spend the rest of the time writing the Great American Novel? A job, period? No, no, and, I’m afraid, no.

In terms of actual, quantitative remuneration in the world, an MFA gets you diddlysquat. It doesn’t even really open doors. Good work does that. Connections do that. Yes, an MFA can help you develop good work and connections, but what you do with them next is up to you and without those things, an MFA is just three little old meaningless letters.

I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be harsh. Well, OK, maybe I do mean to be a bit harsh because no one likes a writer with an over-developed sense of entitlement.

On the other hand, I believe in the value of getting an MFA. Yes, that’s right, despite what might, at first glance, come across as a little touch of cynicism, I think a higher degree in writing has great worth – if you pursue it for the right reasons.

Some of the things you are almost guaranteed to get in an MFA – any MFA really, never mind one of the “good ones”:

* Time to write.
* Deadlines.
* Structure.
* A group of people who read your work closely and give you feedback.
* A group of people who take you seriously as a writer.
* Lists of great books and the obligation to read them.

Things you are likely to find during your MFA:

* A voice.
* A reality check.
* Confidence.
* One amazing writing mentor.
* One really, really flaky professor.
* Annoying workshop mates.
* Doubt.
* Certainty.
* Doubt again.
* Friends.
* Debt.
* The ability to take yourself seriously as a writer.

If you come out with all this, plus a manuscript good enough to attract the attention of an agent, you are doing pretty well, In-a-funk. You’re probably ahead of the game. Now, keep writing, keep producing good work, and keep struggling to find a way to pay the bills. Welcome to your life as a writer! This is what you signed up for, I’m afraid. To risk stating the obvious, for most people writing is not a career choice that comes with a high paycheck or much security. But I get the impression you are already figuring that out. Good luck.

Today’s Wordbird: POLTERGUY

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