August 12, 2016 § 9 Comments
Last month we ran Emily Smith’s blog post suggesting that the MFA in creative writing was a calling card of sorts, allowing entry into certain corners of the literary world. The post garnered plenty of commentary, and a number of follow-up blog posts. Here they are, all rounded up into one neat package, for your reading pleasure (or to share with your students contemplating a graduate degree):
The MFA as Calling Card, by Emily Smith
The MFA is Not a Calling Card, by Dinty W. Moore
The MFA is Not A Calling Card: The Low-Residency View, by Kevin Haworth
Why the MFA was the Right Choice for Me, by Jayme Russell
The MFA as Friend, by Kelly Green
The MFA as Rampant Careerism, by Matthew Schmeer
No MFA for Me, by Tim Drugan-Eppich
August 10, 2016 § 11 Comments
Matthew Schmeer adds his voice to the “Of What Use is the MFA?” discussion:
Let me tell you my story.
I wanted an MFA and I wanted to teach.
I had been stuck in a technical writing/project management office job
I hated after dropping out of college. My wife (wise woman that she is) encouraged me to go back to school, finish my BA, and apply to graduate schools. She agreed to keep her secretarial job until I graduated and landed a teaching position.
So I quit and went back to school. But not without doing my homework first.
Before applying to graduate schools in 1998, I did my homework. I
looked at positions advertised in The MLA Joblist, The Chronicle of
Higher Education, and The Writer’s Chronicle and realized that getting
a tenure track teaching position to teach poetry with was nigh
impossible unless you were 1) brilliant and 2) able to produce
prodigious amounts of publishable work. I was neither. But dammit, I
wanted to write and I wanted to teach.
So I diversified.
When I was accepted to my program, I didn’t restrict myself to
creative writing courses. Half my load was Rhetoric & Composition,
with a sprinkling of theory courses. My plan was to pitch myself as
the Swiss Army Knife of teachers, able to teach any kind of writing.
The semester I started my MFA, my program founded its literary
journal, Natural Bridge. I pitched myself as the perfect person to
manage the journal, drawing on my project supervision background and
five years of publishing a small online journal (Poetry Ink, which
later morphed into Poetry Midwest). I was hired as the first Managing
Editor when I demoed a submission tracking database I clobbered
together in Microsoft Access. This turned into an hourly paid position
during my time in the program.
Yes, I TA’ed for a semester (funding was cut for further TA support)
and found I loved teaching Composition. But I also started networking.
One of my fellow students managed the campus Writing Center and
brought me in as a tutor. I found I liked helping beginning writers
with their writing problems.
Another student in the program ran the Writing Center at a local urban
community college and she hired me as an adjunct instructor. I
discovered that community college students are sometimes brighter and
more driven than their university counterparts.
Another student owned an ACT/SAT prep consultancy and she hired me as
a tutor. I found out I loved working one-on-one with students and that
standardized tests are no true measure of a person’s intelligence and
I took courses with Mary Troy and Howard Schwartz and Donald Finkel
and Steven Schreiner and learned how to be a compassionate but
Also: I pissed off Richard Howard (he YELLED at me!) at a translation
symposium that our program sponsored, and found I liked being a
In workshops, I learned to tear work apart and point out what was
wrong. In my classes and in tutoring sessions and in my mentoring
sessions with my professors, I learned to foster the risky impulse to
create and share.
And I wrote, of course. Oh god did I write. And submitted to journals.
And applied for jobs. I decided that if I was ever going to get a
teaching position with any security, it would be at a small school or
a community college. The semester before I graduated, I sent out over
300 job application packets. My mailing budget was sometimes equal to
our food budget.
And I had a stack of “thank you for applying but ick, no” rejection
letters, from both journals and human resources departments.
So I adjuncted at two community colleges, worked in writing centers,
and kept doing ACT/SAT prep. And kept applying to jobs.
And eventually I was a hired on a full-time temporary basis at a small
southern state school and two years later landed my current position,
where I have been for almost 15 years. Rumor has it my application
packet was pulled from the reject pile after the hiring committee was
dissatisfied with their initial round of interviews. I am told they
regret the decision, but it is too late now; I recently made full
Of course, this is not to say I didn’t have obvious advantages. I am a
cisgendered white male and benefit from all the trappings of privilege
that comes with this social identity. I was able to get through my
program without taking out student loans because my life partner
supported us working full-time during the day while I stayed home with
the kids and attended classes and worked at night. I was technically
an employee of the university and qualified for a slight tuition
remission. We also had a modicum of support from my father-in-law, who
didn’t want to see his grandchildren starve. So no, I didn’t go it
alone. I had a strong social network of support.
And I truly love teaching at a community college. Yes, I teach
primarily composition and read a lot of truly terrible writing and I
am overloaded with committee work. But I get to be the first college
writing teacher for most of my students, and that is an awesome
responsibility. I have 16-year-old homeschooled kids sitting next to
laid-off welders seeking job training sitting next to sixty-year-old
grandmothers going back to school sitting next to recent immigrants
from Sudan sitting next to single mothers from the inner city sitting
next to rich white kids from one of the wealthiest counties in the
nation and I get to show them the basic, basic ropes of academic
writing. It is hard. But it is so worthwhile.
And yes, I teach creative writing. And technical writing. And my
favorite class, writing for video games (who would have thought that
all those hours playing Legend of Zelda and DMing D&D would have laid
the foundation for teaching non-linear interactive narratives?).
And yes, I still find time to write and to publish (albeit not in
areas generally considered “literary” in any regard).
And this would not have been possible if all I did during graduate
school was singularly focus on my craft.
I tell you all this because it IS possible to get an MFA and secure a
teaching job. You have to make the most of your time in your program
not to just write, but to make connections. Not publishing
connections, but job connections. You have to work your ass off to
learn not just to write, but to teach and nurture and respond. If you
choose to pursue an MFA, begin laying the groundwork for what comes
after the MFA even before you take your first workshop. Become a Swiss
Army Knife, and your blades will never be dull.
Matthew Schmeer is a Professor of English at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, Kansas. He received his MFA in Poetry from the University of Missouri at St. Louis in 2001. He rarely posts at http://poetrymidwest.tumblr.com and posts roleplaying game material at http://rendedpress.blogspot.com. He still hasn’t published a book.
July 29, 2016 § 5 Comments
We’ve struggled through the morning trying to come up with a concise summation of Ned Stuckey-French’s discussion of John D’Agata’s latest anthology, The Making of the American Essay, but the truth is that Stuckey-French’s analysis can’t be reduced to a few sentences. He challenges D’Agata’s ideas on the essay and on nonfiction generally, while at the same time giving D’Agata his due for being a provocative thinker and graceful writer. He focuses on the Graywolf anthology trilogy and D’Agata’s outlier theory, but at the same time provides a clear and succinct historical overview of the genre. And he does so with serious thought and consideration, and with wit.
Still and all, we have to give a taste, if only to convince you to click through and read this in its entirety. Here is Stuckey-French on D’Agata’s controversial assertion that facts can and should be be fudged in the literary essay:
The real bogeyman is facts (a.k.a. Truth, or Reality). Here D’Agata’s false either/or, in which facts are pitted against art, raises its ugly head again. “Facts for the sake of facts” is replaced by art for art’s sake. Why must we choose? Like Pooh, when Rabbit asked, “Honey or condensed milk with your bread?” one wants to shout, “Both!”
The full review essay is up at the Los Angeles Review of Books, and it is so worth the reading.
July 27, 2016 § 25 Comments
By Marcia Krause Bilyk
I was a bright, curious, talkative child raised by a mother who couldn’t tolerate the noise and disruption of four young children. Mother withdrew into herself and her housework, leaving us alone to resolve our issues in the backyard or basement playroom. My older sister Cynthia, who knew I was afraid of the dark, would race up the basement stairs, flick off the overhead light and yell, “The wolves are going to get you, the wolves are going to get you.” I’d pound on the locked door and beg to be let out. One fall afternoon as we sat on the curb in front of a pile of burning leaves, Cynthia heated her play golf club in the embers and placed it on my knee, saying, “Let’s play cowboys and Indians.” I still bear the scar.
Dad was a narcissist, prone to exuberant exaggeration and unpredictable outbursts. Mother swore us to secrecy. We weren’t to speak about our family outside of our home. Growing up I watched my every word. I was so anxious, so self-conscious, I could barely speak. Who would want to listen to what I had to say? What if I misspoke? What if I revealed something I shouldn‘t?
Following a panic attack in my late twenties, I saw a therapist for the first time. I couldn’t look him in the eye. For months, I spoke into the mid-distance between my chair and the wall. Speaking the truth about my family felt like a punishable offense. I was filled with guilt and shame. Over time, long-forgotten secrets emerged. Each revelation freed up space for me to be.
Years later, at Drew Theological School, where I studied for a Masters of Divinity, I was introduced to the writings of the feminist theologian Nelle Morton. She spoke of women who were silenced by outside forces or by their own fear, who later reclaimed their power through the telling of their stories. “We empower one another,” she said, “by hearing the other to speech.”
In the small groups that I’ve led as a pastor, I’ve witnessed women come alive as we listened to their stories. I now experience the same phenomenon in writing classes as we read our work aloud. When I sit alone my keyboard, otherwise hidden parts of me make themselves known. I become more whole.
For me, writing is revelation, an act of disclosing what has not been known or seen before. The unknown is called from darkness into light. It’s an act of creation not unlike when God spoke the world into being.
Marcia Krause Bilyk is a photographer, writer, and ordained minister who lives in rural New Jersey with her husband and three dogs.
July 26, 2016 § 7 Comments
Jayme Russell adds another helpful perspective on the MFA as Calling Card discussion:
Although Emily Smith’s piece “The MFA as Calling Card” was posted weeks ago, I have still been thinking about it. I think Dinty W. Moore and Kevin Haworth addressed most of my concerns in their own posts about why students should consider fully funded and low residency programs. In all three of the posts, non-traditional students and students struggling financially were mentioned. I thought it might be pertinent to give the point of view of a non-traditional student who recently graduated with both an MA an MFA in creative writing.
My first day of as an undergraduate, I couldn’t walk through the classroom door. I was a twenty-year old single mom without a job, without financial support, and without any real direction. I walked back to my car and cried. The next day, I went back and walked into the classroom. I had no other choice. I didn’t want to go back to waitressing, which was the only job I could get in the small West Virginia town where I lived. It wasn’t a career I could stay in forever, and the paychecks did not cover my living expenses.
I naturally gravitated toward an English degree and flourished thanks to many wonderful professors. I scheduled my classes around my son’s preschool time. I studied for hours after he fell asleep. I got my BA and am very proud of that. I also got into debt. It was unavoidable for me. I had no support. No scholarships. No job. No job interviews. I couldn’t even get a job on campus. I had the choice between putting myself into a hard situation, going into debt, or do nothing at all.
Dinty briefly touches on the problems of the educational financial system when he says “Clearly, college tuition rates, state funding of education, and financial aid are all broken systems, not just for undergraduates but for graduate students as well.” However, none of the blog posts address the fact that undergraduate students with debt can use their time in graduate school to forbear loans a little longer, in order to gain more experience before going onto the job market. I used my time in graduate school not as a time to go further into debt but a time to help me get out of it.
Emily notes that she could either get an MFA or grope blindly. I did not feel like I had the choice to grope blindly, waiting to see if I got a job when I was getting absolutely no response to job applications. I was already “saturated” in debt and, as a recent graduate, had no job experience whatsoever. I had no experience. I decided to apply to MFA programs and MA programs in Creative Writing. They would allow me to write, which is what I wanted time to do, and teach, which I wanted to learn how to do.
I paid application fees. I paid for the GRE. I got into an MA creative writing program. I wanted a job. I wanted to have a flexible schedule, so I could spend as much time with my son as possible. I wanted to write. My MA gave me all of those things. In the end, I graduated with a better understanding of the world of academia and the world of writing. I graduated and was very proud of the work that I had completed. I planned to write and teach the following year. That didn’t happen.
I didn’t write. I was teaching, but for such a low wage that it was hard to get by. I was left anxiously wondering if I would have a job the next semester. By this time I loved teaching, yet the instability of the job made me so anxious that I could not continue as an adjunct. I applied to the MFA not for prestige, but for stability and freedom.
I got into an MFA program. I wrote more than I ever had before. Workshop gave me confidence, support, and feedback. After graduating, I finally had a few pieces accepted by print publications. My submissions still get rejected a lot, and I didn’t get on an automatic book or academic job. The MFA didn’t solve my problems, but it taught me to be a better writer, it introduced me to a diverse cohort of writers, gave me two university jobs, and helped me to get the position that I hold now. I don’t make an extremely large amount of money, but I am slowly paying off my student loan debt. It feels almost insurmountable at times, but I still made the right decision to pursue these degrees.
That is not to say that I haven’t felt shut down as a young female writer in certain writing environments. I have. I think it is important to note that in Emily’s original post she related an incident in which an older male writer did not continue a conversation because she was simply seeking her BFA and not an MFA. I’m not sure why this particular writer was so rude, but Emily’s age and gender made me think that more was happening than she expressed. When people are not taken seriously, it is so often as much about gender, age, race, sexuality, etc. as qualifications.
I’ve seen students not taken seriously by other students, teachers, and visiting writers for so many reasons. A female writer friend of mine was told in workshop that her sentences were too simple. Also, she needed to write literary fiction, not young adult novels. At times, I feel as though I personally haven’t been taken seriously because of my gender and age. As a woman writing about violence, I’ve been told that I shouldn’t write about certain subjects. I’ve received the written comments: “You don’t know what you are talking about.” I’ve also been laughed at by a visiting writer for expressing my interest in obtaining a career in academia. Most, but not all, of these things have been said and done by white male students. This is a problem that is constantly being battled against in the literary world, and elsewhere.
The truth is that not everyone you will meet in the (writing) world wants to help and support you. There is competition. Not everyone will take time to talk to you about your work. Not everyone has the best advice, or constructive criticism, or patience, or kindness. Some do.
For me, getting three degrees and continuing to write, even when it is hard, has been so rewarding. It has made me the person I am now. I am educated. I am willing to stand up for my own thoughts. My financial situation and the negativity of others have not stopped me from doing what I have wanted and needed to do. However, my hard work is not over. I have a BA, an MA, and an MFA, but no calling card.
Jayme Russell received her M.A. in Poetry from Ohio University and her MFA in Poetry from The University of Notre Dame. Her work can be found in Black Warrior Review, PANK, Tenderloin, Tiny Donkey, and elsewhere. For more information on her work and writing process visit her website.
July 20, 2016 § 2 Comments
By e.v. de cleyre
A 352-word essay took me two years to write. It started with a prompt at a low-residency workshop, then expanded into a long essay (per a professor’s suggestion), then written into a nonfiction manuscript, then removed from said manuscript, and finally rewritten at another low-residency workshop with another prompt, two years after the first. Instead of being happy about its publication, I felt like a slug and a fraud—like I was too slow, and couldn’t write anything without the help of a prompt, or without the work of other writers.
Patrick Madden’s Sublime Physick makes me feel better about two things: that writing takes time, and that we all suffer from “Independent Redundancy.”
The second-to-last and longest essay of the book, “Independent Redundancy” took seven years to write, clocks in at over thirty thousand words, and explores “the phenomenon of two or more individuals coming up with the same idea without any cross-pollination or shared influence.” Madden mentions controversies and court cases from music history, along with passages of writing about his own writing, quotations from other essayists, musings on why independent redundancies occur, plus images and illustrations. Sublime Physick is a mix of Montaigne and Sebald (as noted by Brian Doyle) with a dash of Chuck Klosterman.
Madden’s essays traverse great depth and breadth. His writings are reflective, pivot to follow the thread of a thought, balance irreverence and grace, and are built on a bedrock of culturally relevant scenes and subjects. Reading Madden’s meta-writings on his own writing is like listening to a magician revealing his tricks, yet he always holds the upper hand: “So the obvious question here is What steganographic secrets does this essay contain? The answer is Yes.”
Still, I am suspicious of writings that seem reveal everything, so willingly, even though that is often the mark of a good essayist (“spend it all,” said Annie Dillard), and I am especially skeptical when Madden says that the universe often conspires to help him write essays: “I am constantly preaching about how when I’m ‘in’ an essay, my life seems to align itself to the essay, offering up quotations and memories, experiences old and knew, in service of the idea I’m exploring.”
Sure, it’s a nice notion, to think that some higher power is looking out for us lowly, solitary writers, but I feel like the universe has other, more important things to attend to. The answer to my unspoken question comes no more than ten minutes after closing the covers of Sublime Physick, when I search the internet for a way into this review, and find a 2015 TriQuarterly piece by Patrick Madden, titled, “Finding a Form Before a Form Finds You.”
Any doubts are slain, and this line from the essay “Miser’s Farthings” is etched further into the brain: “What we know, or think we know, is always surrounded by mystery, which makes an essay both necessary and indeterminate, both essential and futile.”
e.v. de cleyre is a semi-nomadic writer currently residing in the Pacific Northwest. She holds an MFA in nonfiction from New Hampshire Institute of Art, and her essays and reviews have appeared in Brevity, Ploughshares online, The Review Review, and ayris.
July 18, 2016 § 5 Comments
A guest post from Keema Waterfield:
Recently Hillary Clinton offered a personal farewell to The Toast, a website that, among other things, offered a safe haven for women-folk writing and talking about the intersection of literature and women-folk related things (e.g. everything). In her toast to The Toast, Mrs. Clinton encouraged forlorn writers, readers, and contributors mourning its loss to continue to, “look forward and consider how you might make your voice heard in whatever arenas matter most to you… And if the space you’re in doesn’t have room for your voice, don’t be afraid to carve out a space of your own.”
Can I tell you something? Mrs. Clinton’s words fell on me like an ice bath during a climate-change induced mid-summer heatwave.
As a new mother, I sometimes lie awake at night overwhelmed by the odds my daughter faces in a country that still struggles to do justice by its most vulnerable. It happens all the time: victims of spousal abuse, rape, gun violence, childhood trauma and gender nonconformity and inequality, all are regularly treated like mewling kittens and swept under the rug by a culture that is discomfited by their cries. The earnest are so uncomfortable to behold.
A few special corners of the Internet make a space for those voices, and The Toast was one of them. The Toast welcomed writers of the irreverent, the raucous, the thought-provoking, and the visionary. It carved out a space for our manifold voice to manifest. Now The Toast is gone and despair seems too small a word for the loss.
It is easy to feel voiceless in that dark, lonely place under the rug, particularly when you are not rich or famous and you don’t have a Twitter following in the thousands. But I keep thinking of Mrs. Clinton’s urging: “Speak your opinion more fervently in your classes if you’re a student, or at meetings in your workplace. Proudly take credit for your ideas. Have confidence in the value of your contributions.”
When the Senate failed to make even the most basic gun reform after the Orlando shootings I huddled in bed with my five-month-old daughter for days before Tweeting:
When I was 3 a man held a gun to my head with his pants around his ankles. He was a known felon. #EnoughIsEnough #DoneWithGuns #EndGunViolence
For an hour after I posted that message my heart raced. I alternated between rolling up in a blanket, shaking, and sitting with my face pressed to the window fan. I hovered anxiously over the toilet, waiting to vomit. Then I deleted the tweet and curled up around my sleeping baby, exhausted, but magically cured of my post traumatic flu. I was relieved that I’d saved myself the humiliation of sharing that horrible, bald, truth so…truthfully.
I don’t aspire to serve as the face or voice of a cause, particularly not a heartbreaking and dark one like childhood sexual trauma and gun violence. And I don’t have enough of a following on social media to make taking a stand worth the anxiety, right? I’ve written a memoir that touches on my experience and, recently, my lyrical essay “You Will Find Me in the Starred Sky” appeared in Brevity. It is enough, I think, to have addressed it in a literary format, with context.
Still, after I deleted the message I struggled with the urge to speak up, to say something, all through the following day. Too rapey, I thought. Too raw. Too real. Too political. I don’t want to be a “victim”. It is exhausting. It is traumatic. In real life I am not all day, every day, a victim. I don’t want to center myself inside that heavy rhetoric forevermore.
I am also dead tired of the silencing and marginalization of victims. I worry that every silence increases the cultural pressure of repression by tacitly accepting that it is agreeable to be silent.
In her 2011 Rumpus essay “The Careless Language of Sexual Violence,” Roxane Gay responded to a report on the gang rape of an eleven-year-old girl that used language sympathetic toward 18 rapists and one distraught town, but barely touched on the victim. Because the truth is, real victims are hard to look at. We are more comfortable when their edges are blurred, softened, dramatized. Artistic license makes violence palatable.
“I am troubled by how we have allowed intellectual distance between violence and the representation of violence,” Gay wrote. She suggested that we find new ways of rewriting rape that, “restore the actual violence to these crimes and that make it impossible for men to be excused for committing atrocities.” That’s a hard one too. Take away the crush-worthy investigators and their personal stories from Law and Order: SVU and you have an unbearably painful show about gross violence.
The struggle is real: I don’t want to be a victim. I am a victim.
We badly need to rewrite the language of atrocity, repression, race, gender, trauma and yes, even hope and happiness, to look on these experiences honestly. Simply. Directly. Unflinchingly.
My silence won’t change the fact that when anyone dies at gunpoint, I am a victim again. When rape goes apologetically unpunished, I am a victim again. I fear my silence would mean I’ve accepted that those hurts are agreeable.
I do not accept that those hurts are agreeable. I’ve been silenced enough by the cultural expectation of not making other people uncomfortable with my trauma. Who do I hurt if I speak up when the need arises? Who do I help? What would happen if everyone quit keeping the peace in favor of saying out loud this is the violence you prefer not to see happening in your midst to your most vulnerable. You must not look away.
The night after I deleted that first Tweet, the sit-in on the Senate House floor turned into a slumber party and I couldn’t be silent anymore. I Tweeted again:
At 3 y/o a man held a gun to my head to keep me in line. He was a known felon. #EnoughIsEnough #DoneWithGuns #EndGunViolence #NoBillNoBreak
I couldn’t stay silent. I regret that I let my fear of being too rapey stop me from being more direct. I wish I could have gone forward in time to read this essay to help myself through the process. But if that were possible then time travel would be possible, and I wouldn’t waste time writing about being a victim now, I’d go back and make sure that particular trauma never landed me in this quagmire in the first place.
At the time, though, it felt big enough. If two people read it, two people think about it. And that is two more than before. It is a small space I may have carved out, but it’s mine. What’s yours?
The end of The Toast may mean one less forum for sharing our complex and manifold voice, but it doesn’t leave us voiceless. We can carry on the tradition, writers, perhaps even more bravely. Why save our truths for our memoirs or our deathbed confessions? With so many mediums at our fingertips we can continue to carve out space for our voices every single day. We can climb on out from under the rug together and make a tiny roar.
One thousand #tinyroars can’t be silenced.
Keema Waterfield was born in a trailer in Anchorage, Alaska the year John Lennon was shot, Smallpox was officially eradicated, and the first Iran-Iraq War began. Her work has been published in Brevity, Pithead Chapel, Redivider, The Manifest Station, Understory, and Mason’s Road. She received her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Montana and is currently at work on a memoir recounting her childhood adventures performing alongside a revolving cast of folk-hippies on the Southeast Alaska folk festival circuit. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @keemasaurusrex.