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After the MFA: Fantasy, Reality, and Lessons Learned

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September/October 2014

Online Only, posted 8.20.14

Back in the spring of 2001, I enrolled in an MFA program in creative writing with a fiction specialization. For many reasons, including the fact that I’d already earned multiple graduate degrees and was employed at the time as a lecturer on history and literature at Harvard, I chose to pursue a low-residency creative-writing degree. I’d already earned a doctorate in history, I was already teaching, albeit in a term-limited position, and shortly before arriving on campus for my first MFA residency, I’d signed with a literary agent to represent my novel manuscript, “The Haguenauer Line.” I’d applied to MFA programs believing that the new degree would both help me become a published author and, combined with the teaching experience I’d already earned, would smooth the way to securing a tenure-track job teaching creative writing at a college or university.

In fact, if you had asked me back then how I dreamed I might be introduced a decade and a half later—maybe as a speaker at a big writers conference such as the one I attended recently in Boston—I might have come up with the following. Let’s call it my “aspirational” biography. Or, perhaps, a fantasy:

Erika Dreifus is the author of the novel The Haguenauer Line [published by Little Brown, Random House, or any other “big” publisher]. The same year The Haguenauer Line was published, Erika was honored as one of the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” and one of the New Yorker’s “Best Young Novelists.” She is a tenured professor of creative writing in the Boston area [although New York or Washington would also be acceptable locations] who spends her summers alternating between residencies at the MacDowell and Yaddo colonies. She is currently completing revisions on her second novel, which will be released in the fall, and for which she will embark on a multi-city tour while she is on paid sabbatical.

Now the reality:

Erika Dreifus is the author of an unpublished novel manuscript, The Haguenauer Line, which, though agented, never sold. She is also the author of a short story collection, Quiet Americans, that she’d basically given up on ever seeing in print by the time an emerging micro-press contacted her. That collection was published in 2011, eight years after Erika’s MFA graduation and nearly two years after her fortieth birthday. Erika has not completed a new short story in nearly three years.

When her university teaching appointment ended in 2002, Erika continued to live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, while teaching writing in adjunct positions and freelancing for magazines. During this time, she began to apply for tenure-track writing jobs along the Boston-Washington corridor. She also applied for fellowships at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, and others, but received nothing but form rejection letters in reply.

By the end of 2006, this lifestyle did not seem sustainable. So Erika applied for, was offered, and accepted a nine-to-five, Monday-through-Friday, writing-intensive office job at the City University of New York, where she worked from February 2007 to July 2014. In August 2014, she became the media editor of Fig Tree Books, a press that specializes in fiction representing the American Jewish Experience.

In addition to the publication of her story collection, highlights of Erika’s writing life since her MFA graduation include 1) studying, writing, and publishing poetry—her poetry chapbook manuscript, “Double Chai,” was a contest quarterfinalist last year, and she continues to send it out; 2) writing and publishing personal essays and commentaries; and 3) reviewing books for many publications, including, recently, the Washington Post, the Missouri Review, and the Barnes & Noble Review. She is also an active online advocate for writers and for Jewish literature.

She has never won a residency to MacDowell or Yaddo.

There are several valuable lessons I’ve learned from my experience—none of which I understood before or even upon finishing my MFA—that I believe every writer considering a graduate degree in writing (or those who have recently received one) should know:
           
Your MFA thesis is not, in and of itself, a book. And even if some of it eventually shows up between book covers—three stories that I wrote for MFA workshops made their way, after further revision, into my collection—publication can take a long time. Again, nearly eight years elapsed between my MFA graduation and my book’s release.

It is very difficult to secure a tenure-track teaching job in creative writing. As the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) noted in its most recent “Annual Report on the Academic Job Market,” “roughly 4,000 graduates receive advanced degrees in creative writing each year; yet the AWP Job List reports that just over 100 tenure-track creative writing jobs were available in 2012-13.” You do the math.

It is also very difficult to support oneself solely as an adjunct instructor and/or freelance writer. To say that, a decade ago, I didn’t exactly dream of spending eight hours every weekday back in an office is an understatement; that environment, which I’d entered immediately after my college graduation, had pushed me straight to Graduate Program No. 1 in the first place. But that’s exactly where I found myself seven years ago. And, flexible scheduling, sabbaticals, and other perks aside, I’m not at all certain that I’d be much happier with a permanent (or at least, steady and secure) job teaching writing in a college or university. (But that, my friends, is a subject for another essay.)

As in the rest of life, things will happen in your writing life that you don’t expect and can’t predict. Notice how much more textured and developed my “real” biography is compared with the “aspirational” one. It’s entirely possible to become a different sort of writer than the sort you anticipated you would be, or thought you wanted to be, at the outset. Learning doesn’t end with the MFA program; your identity as a writer isn’t finished developing. At this point, as much as I love the idea of being a fiction writer, and as much as my degree and book publication proclaim me to be one, I don’t think of myself primarily as such.

Nor could I have have anticipated—not in 2001 when I began my MFA program and not in 2003 when I graduated—the growth of the Internet and technology. I could not have imagined then that my story collection would be published because I left a comment on a guest post on one of the many blogs I’d been routinely visiting—because the guest poster was establishing a publishing company that would rely on something called “print-on-demand” technology and was looking for work. I could not have anticipated that even if all the major pre-pub book-review publications—Booklist, Kirkus, Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly—would ignore my book, I’d somehow manage to find readers (and reviewers) elsewhere, thanks in large part to bloggers, social media, and something called a “virtual book tour.”

The Internet has also connected me with other writers that I likely would not have otherwise met—many of whom I’ve become friends with in real life. And I’ve needed them, especially because, unlike many other people—maybe especially those who’ve attended low-residency graduate programs in creative writing—I didn’t leave my MFA program with a strong support system or extensive network.

Which leads to one final lesson: An MFA program is not necessarily destiny. To be sure, I don’t advise anyone to aim toward graduating from an MFA program utterly alienated from most of the program’s faculty and students (again, perhaps a story for another essay). But if that should happen, it won’t be the end of the world. Really and truly—for all of us—MFA graduation is just the beginning.

This essay was adapted from a presentation at GrubStreet’s 2014 The Muse and the Marketplace conference in Boston.

Erika Dreifus is the author of the story collection Quiet Americans (Last Light Studio), which was named an ALA/Sophie Brody Medal Honor Title for outstanding achievement in Jewish literature, as well as a Jewish Journal “notable book” and a Shelf Unbound “top small-press book.” She is the media editor of Fig Tree Books. Her writing and “Practicing Writer” newsletter can be found at www.erikadreifus.com


Reader Comments

  • edwriter says...

    Hi, Erika Dreifus here. I'm sorry that I'm only acknowledging the additional responses now. I want to thank everyone for their generous comments. To writehere2011, I just want to add that I hope one of the points that comes across in the article is very much in line with his/her comment: I think I'm lucky to have come along in a time when there ARE so many more opportunities for writers. Having self-published some resource ebooks, I'm not sure I would have taken on self-publishing my story collection, but there's no question that recent technological advances and concomitant opening of the literary gates, if you will, were essential to my own progress. That said, when I look back now at my own "novel in the drawer," I'm not altogether displeased that it never made its way to the public, save for a couple of strong standalone excerpts. In that sense, I think that the traditional editors did me a favor. And even unpublished, that novel, too, was essential to my progress.

  • dekesolomon says...

    My own experience is that everything I write takes on a life of its own even AS I WRITE IT. I may start out to write a story about a trip to the grocery store but, by the time I've 'finished' the piece, find I've written about something else entirely. Another way to say it is that my prose goes where it wants to go. If I head in one direction, the words may not come or, if they do come, lead me in another direction entirely. Having long ago discovered that, I now believe in the Muse of legend: we all do as she pleases and write at her command.

  • writehere2011 says...

    Certainly the study of writing and literature, plus learning the craft of writing are noble and necessary for all writers. But allow me to throw a skunk in this article. I'm not sure why people are still waiting years for the anointing from publishers and agents. Self publishing is not the dead end. There is a huge lack of literary offerings because most Creative writing folk and MFA holders are going the traditional route. The market is awash in genre fiction, (nothing wrong with that), however if more MFA folks would self publish and establish venues for self published literary works, it would certainly raise the bar of literature. I don't have an MFA, but I did cut my writing teeth in a creative writing class at the Univ of Houston back in the 80's. I'm a prize winning author with stories published in now defunct anthologies. So I'm struggling in the self-pub world.  To earn a buck, I have to wriite some genre fiction. But I wish the literary MFA folk would put their manuscripts out there instead of wringing their hands and chuckingthem in the bottom drawer. Not so very long ago PW ran an article on a writer who waited 40 years for his anointing from a publisher. Ridiculous.

  • Elaineedelman@aol.com says...

    I think this is the most honest, courageous, insightful and straightforward piece about what new writers go through coming out of college and/or MFAprograms  that I've read in over 20 years of reading "Poets&Writers" magazine and in some 25 years of teaching creative writing (in an educational institution, but not in the MFA program -- in fact, I get bewildered post-MFA's in my classes with these kinds of dilemmas.).

    THIS ARTICLE SHOULD BE REPUBLISHED IN THE PRINT VERSION OF 'POETS&WRITERS" -- it's something your readers really need to know.

    Elaine Edelman, Associate Adjunct Professor, The School of Writing of The New School

  • patrickdunn says...

    So many of us spend so much time dreaming about being successful, "full-time" writers that the idea of developing a career outside of writing fiction, etc. seems like failure. The misconception that we all have to be starving artists causes too many writers to work unfulfilling jobs. Don't get me wrong, I'm a recent MFA grad working on my novel manuscript. I plan to send it around when it's as good as it can be. But I'm also looking for a fulfilling, career-minded job in either the nonprofit or education sectors because, as you say, publication is a long road. And financial security from writing is even longer. I think the insights shared in this essay reflect one of the most important lessons anyone can learn from an MFA program: if you're a writer, you're a writer for life.

  • edwriter says...

    Barbara, thank you so much for that generous comment. I'll have to mull it over some more. 

  • Barbara Baer says...

    Very glad you published Erika Dreifus' excellent essay/commentary of real life after MFA. Since I've been receiving/reading her blogs, what is so evident about Erika as a writer and person is her courage, workand moral ethic, and honesty which this piece confirms. Her'project' seems a life project to become clear and honest about herself in a complex world where connecting with readers has so many new wrinkles. Professionally, Erika knows what she's talking about; she's given her best efforts to have her own writing recognized, and so generously to share what she's learned with others. What is missing, for me, however, is how she's certainly grown as a person through this struggle in the professional world where one might start out with the idealized bio of publication and grants and tenure and find oneself in a different place in life. I respect her unwillingness to compare what might have been to what is, to level any judgment...she simply states what is, but I'd have liked to have read something about the resiliancy she's gained, and the rsponses she's had (I'm sure they are many) by making her way on her own.

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