August 5, 2019 § 7 Comments
By Victoria Buitron
Over the past week, my Twitter feed has been embroiled in yet another “Is an MFA really worth it?” discussion. I’ve read Tweets about how real authors would never get an MFA, posts from graduates upset that they didn’t get the teaching position they wholeheartedly expected, a few lukewarm “NO regrets!” posts, and Kelly Link’s thread detailing the staggering amount of debt people have acquired for an MFA. The figures are shocking and disheartening. But I am one of those individuals who is going into debt for an MFA program with my eyes wide open, and I’d like to share my debt story.
Think of it as a Money Diaries post except it’s only about grad school and it’s not anonymous.
I would have begun an MFA program as soon as I graduated with a BA in 2015, but I didn’t have any savings or the work experience I wanted. That year I landed a position I love as a translator and editor and began saving for grad school. Thanks to social media interest trackers, the Fairfield University MFA website would regularly appear on my browser over the following three years. I googled all the teachers and fell in love with their work. It’s a low-residency program, based in my state, and there was a list of a few graduate assistant positions. Although the opportunity didn’t mean I would get an assistantship, I wanted the option to be available.
It was important for me to know I would have a shot at additional funds. I’m an immigrant who has lived between two countries, the United States and Ecuador, for most of my life and I’ve only put down official roots in the U.S. since 2012. The only way I can save money is by doing gigs on the side: house-sitting, dog-sitting, babysitting, editing, translating, and tutoring in English and Spanish. There have been times I’ve put kids to sleep at 8:00 p.m. and then written until the parents arrived at 1 a.m. I put all those savings away for MFA application day.
I had $3,000 in student loans when I graduated with my Bachelor’s (shout out to Hunter College–CUNY) and I felt I could afford a maximum of $15,000 in student loan debt with accruing interest for an MFA program. Nonetheless, I wanted to do anything legally possible not to take out that amount.
In early 2018, once I chose three low-residency MFA grad programs, with Fairfield University as my #1 choice, before sending out my applications I requested a meeting with my boss. There was nothing in the employee handbook that indicated tuition reimbursement existed, but I had to ask. I’m a confident woman, I know what I’m worth, and if you don’t ask, you’ll never get anything.
My employer informed me they would pay up to 50% of my tuition, with stipulations regarding my grades, the type of degree I would get, and the amount of years I’d work for the company. I accepted. Afterwards, I applied to Fairfield University’s MFA in Writing and was accepted.
In the first year, my employer paid half of my tuition, leaving me with around $10,000 to pay off. I had $5,000 in savings ready to use, leaving the need for $5,000 in student loans. Towards the end of my second semester, I was informed that a new graduate student position became available to serve on the staff of Brevity. I had read the magazine religiously even before I entered my program, was a submissions reader for the magazine during my first two MFA semesters, and had been in a workshop with the founding editor. I applied and got the position, which comes with a 50% stipend for tuition.
For my last year of grad school, I won’t have to pay tuition at all. I will be working my ass off, but I thoroughly enjoy working for Brevity, and I won’t need any additional loans. I haven’t graduated yet, but my writing has already improved, I love my MFA community, and many doors have opened up for me. It’s all been worth it.
I have had many privileges that led me to low student debt. I am an able-bodied Latina who has a secure job, lives in a two-income home, no children, and I have time on my side to save money. It’s important to acknowledge there are structural economic factors that prevent many people from saving through side gigs like I do. People can’t pull themselves up by the bootstraps if they can’t afford boots. In certain cases, saving money is just not feasible and loans are the only option.
Are you considering an MFA but worry about the debt? Here are my tips for tentative grad students:
- Look up grad schools with fully-funded programs, partially-funded programs, and graduate student positions. Unless you can pay for grad school out of pocket, there should be no reason why you’re attending a school that doesn’t provide these sorts of opportunities to their students.
- Plan ahead. Years ahead.
- Figure in the loan principal and interest whether or not you will get that teaching and/or tenure track job.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for money. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you deserve. The worst people can say is no. But always, always ask.
- Apply for grants and scholarships. You’ll have a better shot at local ones than national ones.
- Google the teachers and the directors of the grad programs you’re interested in. They will be your community, and you have to determine whether you’re ready to pay to be in that community. Once you are seriously considering a program, e-mail the director or administrator and ask if you can be in touch with some current students.
- Low-residency or full-residency. Determine the pros and cons and what would be best for you.
- Go to a local library writing workshop or join a writers’ group before shelling out thousands of dollars for an MFA. Maybe you’ll realize that’s all you needed.
- Don’t compare your financial situation with the person next to you in workshop. No one else but you knows what you can afford, save and pay back in loans.
- Please don’t get into $100,000 debt for an MFA. No matter what the name of the school is.
Victoria Buitron is a writer and translator based in Connecticut. She is currently an MFA candidate at Fairfield University’s low-residency program. Find her at atravelingtranslator.com and on Twitter at @kikitraveler30.
July 16, 2019 § 34 Comments
By Sarah Anne Strickley
I recently read a piece online about how the Internet is like the industrial revolution in that we won’t understand its impact until we’ve gained significant distance. But, as an editor with more than twenty years of experience and as the current faculty editor of a bi-annual journal, I think I can say right now that the Internet has transformed the business of literary journals into a system that actively works against the practice of reading for pleasure.
For more than two decades, writers have argued the various advantages and disadvantages of digital media. Digital journals are more portable, accessible, cheaper, and more easily transmitted than print journals. They have, for all intents and purposes, won the war. Case in point: the idea of starting a new print magazine now sounds insane; only the bold, the idealistic, and the angry endeavor to do it. Shout-out to my good friends at Oversound!
The comparatively smaller monetary investment required to start an online journal means that a broader range of literary tastes are serviced in a digital publishing landscape. It also means that traditionally marginalized voices have a greater chance of circumventing those old, fusty gatekeepers. But the massive proliferation of literary journals online has, among other things, diluted the meaning of publication to the degree that we’ve clung to pre-digital hierarchies as a defense against chaos.
Despite our market-expressed preference for disruptive digital technologies, we still trust The New Yorker, Ploughshares, The Paris Review, Granta and handful of other top-tier publications to tell us who is writing the most important, must-read work today. (There are notable all-digital exceptions to this rule, of course. You’re reading this diatribe on the Brevity blog, after all.) The important difference now, though, is that we don’t want to pay for access to that information, which is one of the reasons why journals like Tin House, Glimmer Train, and The Normal School, to name only a few recent (and painful) examples, are closing up the print-issue shop.
As many avid readers are quick to note, the experience of reading physical books is different enough from the experience of reading digital books to retain its value. That’s why indie bookstores are in the midst of an exciting resurgence. But there is a broader audience for books than there is for literary journals. The audience for literary journals is predominantly made up of writers. We can quibble over the reasons, but the cold, hard truth is that writers have decided that they don’t want to pay for access to literary journals. The medium has not retained its value; it is, therefore, unlikely to experience an approximate resurgence. But does that necessarily mean that it’s dead?
Only publications with established, dynamic, and diversified funding structures—and a heaping helping of straight-up grit and luck—will survive the current extinction event ravaging the literary publishing planet. I won’t sentimentalize the days of yore (journals have always been propped up by generous donors, selfless editors, and affiliate institutions), but I will say that I deeply regret the disappearance of so many wonderful and daring publications. It is my sincere belief that the world will be less interesting for the loss of them.
Like many writers who are also editors, I have the very clear sense that we are reaching a highly regrettable inflection point. As a writer myself, I know the frustration of paying journals to spend a year (or more!) not reading my work only to fire off a form rejection, but I also know what the back end of a literary journal looks like: a tiny budget, a reliance upon an unpaid editorial staff, a fraught relationship with costly digital submission managers, a shrinking audience, and an unwieldy fire hose of digital submissions aimed directly at our heads.
My experience is anecdotal, but it’s also common enough among literary editors as to be depressingly representative of the state of affairs. We know that a substantial percentage of the writers who submit to our journals do not read our journals; many of us have long-since abandoned the hope that a readership of writers would be willing to pay to sustain our literary journals; and we’re also often the targets of some writerly hostility. (Ask me about the writer who began e-mailing one of my undergraduate editors when he didn’t like the response he’d heard from me, or the writer who decided her best poems were too good for us post-acceptance and sent us three others instead.)
It’s easy to become apathetic in the face of apathy, to throw up your hands and say: what’s the point of all this? Two recent trends have convinced me that the meaning may have fallen out of the endeavor: It’s not at all uncommon for a certain tier of writer to demand as a prerequisite to responding to a query letter that an editor promise to nominate the work (sight unseen) for certain honors and awards. And it’s not at all uncommon for a different tier of writer to list the number of publications earned (sans titles of journals) in cover letters. As in, “I have published in 122 journals.”
That’s the problem in a nutshell, isn’t it? Increasingly, it’s the mere fact of the publication in the context of cover letters to editors and agents that matters, not the fact that the reading of the publication might offer a unique (and valuable) pleasure to the reader. It’s a numbers game. And, I don’t know about you, but I’ve never had much of a taste for math. What I love, instead, is the thrill of discovery, the opportunity to reconsider what I know of genre conventions, the chance to lose myself in a story and wake up an hour later with my head on backwards.
Where else can you read Lydia Davis or Carmen Maria Machado published alongside writers publishing their first poems? Where else can you encounter variety within variety: a creative non-fiction category, for example, that features flash, longform reporting, and lyric essays? Or an 83-page poem published alongside a series of translations? Where else can you read literary reviews that are written in the service of explicating a book-length work in literary (and distinctly non-commercial) terms—for the sheer love of it?
The work of the literary editor is about providing a rich readerly experience to an audience that is far more likely to read a tweeted photograph of a printed page or follow a link posted to Facebook than to purchase an issue and/or read it whole. But those of us who keep on keeping on are often the ones too in love with the business to ever stop. Bringing writers together and sharing their work with others is often a thankless, soul-wearying endeavor. It’s also the most wonderful job I know.
I’m convinced that online journals have a shot at sustainability (the journal I edit is online, so I have become a digital strategizer and a shameless crowdfunder) but we appear to be reaching a point where writer/reader apathy collides with editor apathy. I fear that the tension might erupt in a conflict that precipitates yet another round of extinctions. I’m not sure how we fight back—perhaps no one knows—but I do know that it would help if the tone and tenor of the business were less antagonistic and more celebratory. We’re all on the same team, I find myself repeating to myself. And then, in my darker moments, I find myself wondering: Are we on the same team?
There are certain technologies that always endure cultural paradigm shifts and words are one them, of course. I hope we come around to discovering their value in the context of the literary journal again—and soon. With any luck, I’ll still be here. Reading the slush. Forever.
Sarah Anne Strickley is the author of the short story collection, Fall Together (Gold Wake Press, 2018). Her stories and essays have appeared in Oxford American, A Public Space, Copper Nickel, Witness, and elsewhere. She teaches creative writing and serves as faculty editor of Miracle Monocle at the University of Louisville. Visit her online at www.sarahannestrickley.com and visit Miracle Monocle at http://louisville.edu/miraclemonocle
July 1, 2019 § 31 Comments
By Jenny Klion
Acknowledge that you are, in fact, the oldest living being in your class, older probably than the classroom itself, and definitely older than your eye-candy teacher.
If and when you are not the object of any classmate’s romantic or sexual affection: let it go. You had your turn, and you did it well. Remember that at one time, you too might have wondered who that random older woman was—the one looking to get laid at the summer writing workshop.
Realize you may miss out on some late night social intrigue, since you have opted out of staying in the dorms due to the nightmare scenario of shared coed bathrooms. Harken back to the time when you knew you were done doing circus work, because you ultimately couldn’t live without porcelain.
Know that your work may scream Boomer themes and concerns—your poor little rich girl saga, for example—and that your story might not be as fresh as your classmates’ stories, with their contemporary radium-filled toxic hometowns and their coming-of-age slaughterhouse sex patrols.
Comfort yourself with a lunch at the documentary-famed pint-sized burger joint in town, which traffics in cash only, offers no condiments, only tomato and onion on white bread toast, with the burger cooked medium rare, and you better not ask for anything else. Do this because you know that you are not part of the popular crowd anymore. Suffice it to say that your idea of partying involves getting a to-go cup for the remains of your one glass of sangria from the Cuban restaurant you eat at by yourself.
Bless your soul also when you admit that at one point you feel like Captain “Sully” Sullenberger, whose ability to land a doomed plane on the surface of the water was due in large part to the depth of his age and experience. And that you yourself survive the crushing defeat of a bad critique, with your head held high to boot, because you’ve already been there and done that before. Many times over. And come out with something better on the other side.
Pat yourself on the back when you exchange your campus keys for a certification of completion. You have earned serious bragging rights, and that kind of satisfaction never gets old.
Jenny Klion’s work has appeared in Ploughshares, Longreads, The Rumpus, Tonic, The Hairpin, and the anthology Flash Nonfiction Funny (Woodhall Press 2018), among others.
June 25, 2019 § 15 Comments
As online writing communities proliferate, new writers flock to groups that include members of all experience levels, asking some of the same questions over and over again. Some questions are difficult to research independently—seeking a consensus of opinion or a specific sliver of information—but other questions could, and should, have been Googled first.
Starting to write is overwhelming, I know. Annie Proulx I am not, and yet even I have been asked “how do I know where to submit my stories?” more often than I can count. Just because I’ve done it before. I suspect that new writers are often so worried about starting that they want to talk to another human being about it, even if that human being isn’t particularly impressive. In grad school, I was asked so many times where and how to submit short stories, I wrote a series of blog posts about the question and related ones. In online groups, I refer curious new writers to this series of posts at least monthly.
I’m hardly the only person to write helpful blog posts aimed at beginning writers. Any online search reveals a boatload—a yachtload—of opinions about market and submissions. Maybe this is part of the problem; maybe there’s simply too much out there, so overwhelmed young writers post “How do I know where to submit?” instead of sorting through Google results, knowing that a human will offer a narrower, less intimidating place to begin.
That troubles me. Online communities are poor substitutes for the kind of genuine mentorship that can give a young writer the aesthetic foundation and emotional stability to persist in a difficult career. Plus, dashing off a post with a broad question betrays a desire for the easiest way. It shifts the labor of research onto the answerers, rather than the questioner. It’s akin to skipping a seminar, then asking at the next class, “What’d we do last week?” It’s the student’s job to find out and make up what she missed, and—crucially—not to waste the time of the other students, who are ready to get on with that week’s class.
This is the labor underneath writing: research, trial and error, reading. Hours of browsing online content to see if your work is a good fit. Honing queries, word by word; mourning lost opportunities (and determining to do better next time) due to not reading the submission guidelines down to the last comma; poring over prize-winning collections and pieces to figure out what makes their work different from yours. Pitching and following up. Writing interview questions. Crappy spreadsheets.
It’s hard, annoying labor, but it’s not possible to outsource. You have to learn how to do it. Most of learning how to do it happens on your own.
Asking other people to do or explain the under-labor of writing will make you more helpless and, ultimately, less successful; it will mean always buying fish from the grocery instead of catching your own.
If you have no idea how to fish, then of course you need to learn from the ground up. But would you go directly to Kevin VanDam, the greatest living bass fisherman, to learn to cast a line for the first time? No, you would not. You’d probably start with YouTube tutorials, or a library book, or someone’s dad. When your skill level grows beyond what you can figure out on your own, then you seek help.
A writer asking general questions of a community of experts when he hasn’t put in enough effort to learn the answer on his own demonstrates that he doesn’t work independently very well. That’s a real problem for a mostly solo profession. It also shows that the writer has minimal understanding of the time and work publishing takes, how much research writing involves, how frequently it requires sorting through overwhelming noise for the harmonies that make the work sing. Writing is a profession like any other, and learning a profession takes time and effort. Enough lazy, broad questions online and expert writers will stop answering. Then all of us lose out on the value they add to such communities.
(Incidentally, a writer who is discouraged from asking more directed or complex questions by this message of “figure out the basics before you seek help” is missing the grit and perseverance necessary to be a writer. Feeling rejected, overwhelmed, and lost is a daily condition. Get past it.)
The early stages of being a writer are full of such uncertainty, so many questions, and it seems impossible to know what you’re doing. But no one guidebook will tell you what you need to know. No number of answered questions will prepare you for being inside the profession. At some point you have to get a rod and reel and go, learn in the moment what it feels like to have a fish on your line. That experience will only bring up a whole new set of questions, some of which might not appear to have answers you can Google as easily as your early ones. Voila, the community will be there to help.
Ask your questions, by all means.
But do your research first.
Katharine Coldiron’s work has appeared in Ms., the Washington Post, NPR, LARB, and many other places. Her novella, Ceremonials, is forthcoming in 2020 from Kernpunkt Press. Find her at kcoldiron.com or on Twitter @ferrifrigida.
June 19, 2019 § 12 Comments
By Amelia Morand
The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien
The night before I move to Montana, an online forum tells me that the trailer I’ve rented will void my car insurance and possibly kill my engine. The next morning, I buy a discount rooftop cargo box and consolidate my life into sixteen cubic feet. I leave behind: the King bed and dining room table I got in the breakup, my Crock-Pot and large and small food processors, half of my shoes, and most of my books. I bring: four pairs of SmartWool socks, three forks, rain boots I will never wear, and two drugged dogs.
The Drama of the Gifted Child, Alice Miller
Reading the very first round of submissions, I realize that we were all the star writers in our undergraduate workshops. Our teacher tells us that if we let it, the jealousy will consume us, and we write this down, desperate for his approval. Each week our cramped classroom will hold our egos and impostor complexes, shifting rivalries and alliances, layers of flannel and down, the smell of spoiled milk growing more urgent and distinctive as the weather gets colder.
Just As Long As We’re Together, Judy Blume
Early on, one of my new friends tells her partner, “I’ve found my tribe.” We nickname our program The Bubble, and our old lives feel far away. It’s too hard to explain to everyone back home what we’re doing here. The three of us often end the night holding hands above the console as the engine idles for an hour, gossiping about the cohort, complaining about our students, laughing again and again over the same stupid joke. I always forget to turn off my headlights, and we watch deer making their way across the lawns.
When You are Engulfed in Flames, David Sedaris
I spend my first term failing to do the following: teach my students how to write a strong thesis statement; understand or even finish Ulysses; talk to a human every day; write a story I’m proud of.
Capital Volume I, Karl Marx
I’m lucky enough to receive a tuition waiver and a stipend, which puts me a little more than six thousand dollars below the poverty line. At first I feel guilty for applying for SNAP, for using my EBT to buy organic chicken, for using it to buy ice cream. I majored in economics as an undergrad, as I make sure to tell everyone, but my Marxism is theoretical, not personal. The choice to study creative writing instead of inequality seems so stupid, so selfish, I feel I don’t deserve any assistance, let alone the public’s. Still, after a few months, I will go just about anywhere if the food is free.
Blue Nights, Joan Didion
I think that the world will probably end soon, and also that I never had any talent to begin with, and I’m not sure which depresses me more, and this ambiguity is another reason I lie awake and anxious from two to five, sleep until nine or ten, spend the day groggy and ashamed. The third time I tell my doctor I want to go back on Wellbutrin she gets it, and while this doesn’t change how I feel about climate or my writing, I now feel able to teach, and read, and walk my dogs. Some days I even write.
Preparation for the Next Life, Atticus Lish
I don’t register the rejections most of the time, though sometimes they’re a little nicer, and I feel optimistic, and sometimes they all come the same week, and I think I’ll quit. The schools all started hiring months ago, and the restaurant in Santa Fe would be glad to have me back. My friend asks if I’ll be home for her wedding in September. “It’s complicated,” I say.
And Then We Came to the End, Joshua Ferris
The theses were read last weekend, a thousand pictures taken by parents and partners (none mine). I skipped the last two parties and with them several goodbyes, and I’ve spent most of this cold and sunny day staring out the window, slowly revising my final few assignments. In fact, I did not bring this book to Missoula, but when it shows up on a syllabus in my final term, I remember exactly which box it’s in beneath the framing table, wedged between half-empty journals and my high school yearbooks, taking up space, she reminds me, in my mother’s garage.
Originally from Santa Fe, Amelia Morand now lives in Missoula, where she serves as a Fiction editor for CutBank and has just finished her MFA. Her writing is featured or forthcoming with apt, Hobart, Pithead Chapel, and Lunch Ticket.
June 18, 2019 § 5 Comments
What happened to the days of relaxing on chaises while gentle voices declaimed new prose to the patrons of their work? I refer, of course, to the literary salon, that gentle occupation of poets and writers since the 16th century, in which “a gathering of people under the roof of an inspiring host, held partly to amuse one another and partly to refine the taste and increase the knowledge of the participants through conversation.” (Thanks, Wikipedia!)
The days of discreet servants with trays of petits fours may have ended, but the salon lives on. Rather than the “public reading” with distinct audience and readers on a stage or behind a lectern, showcasing workshop writing or promoting a new book, the literary salon blends readers and audience, formal presentation and conversation. Plus, snacks.
Since most of us now lack servants and large reception rooms, the modern salon is best held in a public location. This also confers the advantage of inviting friends of friends and people you only know on the internet without risking the family silver or your own limited tolerance for guests.
For an easy and pleasant event, consider:
- Don’t pay for space. Choose a bookstore, coffee shop or café that will welcome your business on a quiet evening (the salon I co-host meets on a Monday or Tuesday night). Most of your crowd will buy drinks or nibbles. If you’re feeling flush, buy the first round or a plate of cookies. Picking a place with refreshments also creates a party atmosphere.
- Keep readings short: 3-5 minutes maximum per reader. This is more pleasant for the audience, especially first-time attendees who may not know what to expect, or people who are there as friend-support rather than for their love of all things literary.
- Skip formal feedback. It’s not a workshop. But have social time after the readings for the audience to offer praise and ask questions of each other.
- A featured reader can help attendance and raise the event profile. Give them 15-20 minutes to read, followed by a chat with the host and/or audience Q&A. Featured readers can be local authors, publishing professionals, or authors passing through your town for other engagements. Let them sell their own books, if they wish, but don’t mess with consignment or paperwork. Keep it low-key. If you’re in a bookstore, see if they’ll do a display of books that complement the featured author’s.
- Decide what genres you want to have: prose only, poetry, totally open mic and people who want to can bring a guitar? Consider allowing people to read a favorite passage by another author, to participate with lower personal stakes.
- Announce a “Save the Date” a month in advance. Remind possible guests two weeks out, one week out, and 3-2-1 days out. Post on social media and put a flyer in the venue. Facebook, group texts, WhatsApp and email are all great ways to get the message out. MeetUp can also be effective if you start a group there. Encourage friends to share the event, because endorsements help guests decide to come. Small groups are congenial, larger groups are exciting. Win-win!
- Make sure there’s parking, and unless it’s hugely obvious, mention where to park on the invite. Make it easy for your guests to come instead of begging off at the last minute.
- Appoint a host (or yourself) to welcome people who arrive, let them know they’re in the right place, and introduce them immediately to someone else in the room if they look lost. It makes a world of difference to hear “Oh, you’ve got to meet Joan, she writes flash, too” instead of awkwardly sitting alone until the reading starts.
- The host can also sign up readers. (Get a one-sentence bio to announce them with, because it makes everyone feel a little special.) Try to put a writer you know to be good at the beginning and end of the evening. Put the least-experienced reader third. The momentum of the first two will help them, and by the end, no-one will remember if a nervous author had a hard time five people ago.
- Have your host quietly run a stopwatch. A salon is more casual than a formal reading, but if a reader hits 6 minutes and still going strong, gently interrupt, thank them, and lead the applause.
- Take pictures, and post to social media afterwards. Your readers feel saluted and it reminds people to come next time. (Isn’t our salon’s teahouse adorable? Flip through!)
Why do all this planning? Well, it’s fun. A no-stress, no-criticism salon is a great way to share your work with a receptive audience and talk shop with writers and readers. You also build a bond with your venue, so when your next book comes out, they are a prime spot to host your formal, all-about-me reading. And you get to feel like Madame Pompadour without having to wear a giant powdered wig and carry a special head-scratching stick.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Manager. Her webinar Instagram For Writers: Improve Your Craft, Grow Your Readership is available on-demand at Hidden Timber Books.