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gcsumfa


Sep 18, 2009, 11:28 PM

Post #1226 of 2090 (16264 views)
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Re: [bktv] The Future of PhD Study for Poets and Writers [In reply to] Can't Post

I think it's important to differentiate genre here.

It's not a big secret that poets tend to publish more at a younger age than fiction writers; that's because fiction takes more time.

So while I can see a poet going the lit/crit route, I think it would be more difficult for a fiction writer to take this route--to write an academic dissertation while continuing his or her work on a novel or short story collection.


umass76


Sep 19, 2009, 1:04 AM

Post #1227 of 2090 (16240 views)
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Re: [bktv] The Future of PhD Study for Poets and Writers [In reply to] Can't Post

Hi BKTV,

The hope was that the 2009 NRC (National Research Council) rankings would be out already--they've been delayed (literally) 8 times since 2007, having not been released (i.e. there's been no new data) since 1995--but it sounds like October is the earliest hope for that. I definitely wouldn't look at any ranking that doesn't take into account the NRC; in the field of English this is really what hiring committees look at (if at any rankings at all), not USNWR.

One other note: that Cornell Ph.D. is not a CW Ph.D.; that's a CW MFA that transitions into a traditional Ph.D. I think you know that but I wanted to make sure it was clear.

GCSU,

Yes, that's a fair point. I think that poets are more likely to be competing for jobs with Lit. Ph.D. holders (i.e. who also have MFA degrees) than fiction-writers are. Of course, that's just the tip of the iceberg for differences between the genres--in poetry, building a reputation takes countless publications in both book and journal form, whereas fiction-writers only to need to "hit" once, get a great agent and a great book deal, to really be on the map. That said, it's easier to publish a poem (or even a book of poems) than a novel. So in that sense, fiction-writers need alternate job-placement qualifications even more than poets do; i.e., if you're right that fiction-writers take longer to get their big break than poets, which they do, and that fiction-writers face longer odds than poets in the "break" sense (i.e., poets can gradually build up a reputation, but fiction-writers really "make it," if at all, all at once, against horrible odds), doesn't that militate for fiction-writers being even more interested than poets in having a fallback? I mean, one could get an MFA and then a Lit. Ph.D. and have both terminal degrees by, say, the time one is 30 or 31 years old; given that most fiction-writers could certainly stand to have their big break (if they have one at all) happen at 33 or 34, whereas poets are reaching middle-age by that point, again, maybe that cuts the other way? Plus, if you figure a fiction-writer spends two or three years working on a novel in their MFA, even if they have reduced time to write for the 6-8 years of their Lit. Ph.D., it seems one could still have a pretty tight novel finished by the time one got to one's dissertation defense? And if not, within 2-3 years after?

Be well,
S.


gcsumfa


Sep 19, 2009, 2:37 AM

Post #1228 of 2090 (16221 views)
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Re: [umass76] The Future of PhD Study for Poets and Writers [In reply to] Can't Post


In Reply To
Hi BKTV,

The hope was that the 2009 NRC (National Research Council) rankings would be out already--they've been delayed (literally) 8 times since 2007, having not been released (i.e. there's been no new data) since 1995--but it sounds like October is the earliest hope for that. I definitely wouldn't look at any ranking that doesn't take into account the NRC; in the field of English this is really what hiring committees look at (if at any rankings at all), not USNWR.

One other note: that Cornell Ph.D. is not a CW Ph.D.; that's a CW MFA that transitions into a traditional Ph.D. I think you know that but I wanted to make sure it was clear.

GCSU,

Yes, that's a fair point. I think that poets are more likely to be competing for jobs with Lit. Ph.D. holders (i.e. who also have MFA degrees) than fiction-writers are. Of course, that's just the tip of the iceberg for differences between the genres--in poetry, building a reputation takes countless publications in both book and journal form, whereas fiction-writers only to need to "hit" once, get a great agent and a great book deal, to really be on the map. That said, it's easier to publish a poem (or even a book of poems) than a novel. So in that sense, fiction-writers need alternate job-placement qualifications even more than poets do; i.e., if you're right that fiction-writers take longer to get their big break than poets, which they do, and that fiction-writers face longer odds than poets in the "break" sense (i.e., poets can gradually build up a reputation, but fiction-writers really "make it," if at all, all at once, against horrible odds), doesn't that militate for fiction-writers being even more interested than poets in having a fallback? I mean, one could get an MFA and then a Lit. Ph.D. and have both terminal degrees by, say, the time one is 30 or 31 years old; given that most fiction-writers could certainly stand to have their big break (if they have one at all) happen at 33 or 34, whereas poets are reaching middle-age by that point, again, maybe that cuts the other way? Plus, if you figure a fiction-writer spends two or three years working on a novel in their MFA, even if they have reduced time to write for the 6-8 years of their Lit. Ph.D., it seems one could still have a pretty tight novel finished by the time one got to one's dissertation defense? And if not, within 2-3 years after?

Be well,
S.


Certainly you could argue for multiple approaches, as you do here. I just think that the prestige of a degree only matters if it comes with other important creditionals.

In my case, since I only had two years in an MFA program, and since I was fairly young at that time (early to mid 20's), it made more sense to go to a PhD CW program, rather than a Lit/Crit program (so that my diss would be my first book MS). I'd rather take my chances with a CW PhD from a non-prestigious school, about 10 national magazine pubs, and a collection MS than a Lit PhD with a lesser pub record.

With Lit PhD programs, there's also the expectation to sell yourself as a scholar in the application. I think the days of the generalist lit PhD are pretty much over at the top ranked PhD Lit/Crit programs.

Interesting discussion!


(This post was edited by gcsumfa on Sep 19, 2009, 2:39 AM)


libbyagain


Sep 19, 2009, 5:48 AM

Post #1229 of 2090 (16207 views)
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Re: [umass76] The Future of PhD Study for Poets and Writers [In reply to] Can't Post

Seth, your analysis of this-all is wonderful, and thanks so much for doing it.

I got my lit. doctorate at UW-Madison about 15 years ago, and watched two colleagues get their cross-fertilized creative-crit. doctorates at the same time (they built their degrees at that time, there being no formal channels) and I'd just like to chime in and say that the personnel with whom one works, the foresight one has re. faculty and approach, would make a world of difference at a place like UW. A world. Coming in prepped, knowing with whom one wanted to work and why, knowing that individual would remain there (no surprise departures)--all this would (not could) make the difference at UW between an agonizing and a possibly ecstatic experience. Just for yucks I scanned the list of faculty at UW and imagined scenarios, thinking, for instance, "Okay, Lynn Keller's at the helm; that means IF a prelim committee made up of her, and X and Y, and excluding Z and P, were possible, THEN . . . bliss. If, however, Lynn took a leave, and Q came to the fore, and allowed in Z, as she was wont to do. . . .then look out."

I'd imagine a hybrid approach at almost any school would make for a similar scenario. Being forearmed, forearmed, forearmed. Starting from the blocks with a WHOOSH. For my two colleagues at UW, for instance, though both are doing okay, these days, one is doing quite a lot MORE okay than the other, for having predicted personalities of mentors, constellations of prelim and diss. committees, with a LOT more judiciousness. God is in the details, I'd imagine still, for a hybrid approach.

It really could/should work, though. Makes tons of sense. So, best of luck to all contemplating it.


bktv


Sep 19, 2009, 11:15 AM

Post #1230 of 2090 (16166 views)
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Re: [libbyagain] The Future of PhD Study for Poets and Writers [In reply to] Can't Post

I'll second that. Thanks, Seth, for such a thorough response. I hadn't seen anyone talk about the benefits/possibilities of getting a Lit. PhD, even though as Seth said, many creative faculty at top schools have them. At USC, T.C. Boyle and Mark Irwin, for example.


aiyamei

e-mail user

Sep 19, 2009, 12:18 PM

Post #1231 of 2090 (16144 views)
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Re: [umass76] The Future of PhD Study for Poets and Writers [In reply to] Can't Post


In Reply To
if you're right that fiction-writers take longer to get their big break than poets, which they do, and that fiction-writers face longer odds than poets in the "break" sense (i.e., poets can gradually build up a reputation, but fiction-writers really "make it," if at all, all at once, against horrible odds), doesn't that militate for fiction-writers being even more interested than poets in having a fallback? I mean, one could get an MFA and then a Lit. Ph.D. and have both terminal degrees by, say, the time one is 30 or 31 years old; given that most fiction-writers could certainly stand to have their big break (if they have one at all) happen at 33 or 34, whereas poets are reaching middle-age by that point, again, maybe that cuts the other way? Plus, if you figure a fiction-writer spends two or three years working on a novel in their MFA, even if they have reduced time to write for the 6-8 years of their Lit. Ph.D., it seems one could still have a pretty tight novel finished by the time one got to one's dissertation defense? And if not, within 2-3 years after?


I just want to chime in as the young author of a first novel that has now had its 'big break'. Everything I am going to say is meant to represent my subjective experience, and yet I do not think it is without value for people thinking about these things.
I do understand what you are saying, Seth, about fiction-writers being even more in need of a back-up plan than poets, and your advice makes perfect sense statistically, if all you care about is a basic kind of survival in this field. And, too, it's the advice my mother gave me and the advice I'd have given a child of my own, if I had never lived through this process. However, hmm...how shall I put this? As a fiction writer, getting involved in a Ph.D. program that calls on you to excel at things in other areas besides novel-writing means that you step up to the plate and excel in those other areas, does it not. Excelling in those areas means that you put yourself into them. Then that is where your _self_ is. I know this sounds new-agey and vague. But honestly, I would never have believed this before I went through this, but do not discount what I'm saying: once you start messing about -- attaching your ego in a serious way to projects other than the novel, your hunger will change. You might think you will be hungry in the same way. But you won't. And if there is one thing that writing a richly-imagined, fiercely original several-hundred-page work over the course of many years demands, it is a certain kind of exclusively focused hunger. You say that the sacrifice (in terms of novel-writing) represented by doing a Ph.D. comes down to nothing more than "six to eight years of reduced time to write", and I say tommyrot. This 6 to 8 years is deadly, and the deadliness has only a little to do with reduced time, but instead with psychological factors too numerous and and in their legion too insidious to fully illustrate.

I say: the act of choosing not to have a back-up plan (in terms of work that might give your life its purpose and meaning) is the single most frightening but also most necessary and courageous aspect of becoming a significant writer. Your entire project here, Seth, of rationalizing and professionalizing the novelistic venture is really only relevant for people who can be content with mediocrity.


umass76


Sep 19, 2009, 12:46 PM

Post #1232 of 2090 (16134 views)
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Re: [aiyamei] The Future of PhD Study for Poets and Writers [In reply to] Can't Post

Aiyamei,

I disagree, but I don't want to leave it there, but rather explain why I disagree. I've met with some success in my own field, too, so I do speak from experience (however strictly-delineated) here. I think the presumption that one's writing requires single-mindedness is correct; but I disagree with how you're defining single-mindedness. You're presuming that single-mindedness also requires cutting oneself off from streams of intellectual inspiration which might, in time, not only inform one's writing but improve it. To think that there is no discourse (generally, or in the individual human heart/spirit) between academic study of fiction and the act of writing is an old but, I think, very limited view. The writer most likely to be mediocre is the one who believes, at the conclusion of their MFA (or simply at an early age) that there is nothing more beneath heaven and earth that can and will inform their aesthetic--and not just their aesthetic, but their philosophy of the world as a writer. A fiction-writer who writes a dissertation on the breakdown of genre in post-WWII post-colonial fiction is far more likely to find a way to locate such revelations in their fiction than someone who blithely decided that it was "enough" to merely have had a thought about what to write, and what writing is, and then followed it for the entirety of a career. I don't plan on becoming a theory-intensive poet, but given my fascination with rhetoric in poetry it seems only natural to spend some years studying--rather than just doing doing doing--how the greatest writers and thinkers in human history have approached this issue. What you call mediocrity I call never allowing one's impulse toward self-education to lapse. And yes, as others have intimated, we need not be rushing quite so much to publish; as artists what matters is what we publish, not when. Many writers are happy to publish books of poetry that win prizes but will--if history is any precedent--be available at used bookstores across the country for $3 in a mere five years. That's mediocrity. Those who want to write books which, however small their audience now and/or however long it takes to publish them, will last--in large part by virtue of the level of thought, study, and preparation behind them--will take a different path, and at least in poetry it will often lead through a critical dissertation in Poetry Studies and a traditional Ph.D. program.

Best,
Seth


Woon


Sep 19, 2009, 12:54 PM

Post #1233 of 2090 (16131 views)
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Re: [umass76] The Future of PhD Study for Poets and Writers [In reply to] Can't Post

Finding books in used book stores is hardly any indication of the relative merits of those books. I've amassed quite a collection of great books through this channel. Just the other day, I found Kazuo Ishiguro's "A Pale View of Hills" in the $2 bin. Imagine that! Having said this, I've found a lot of crap in these stores, too. I mean along the lines of Michael Crichton crap.


umass76


Sep 19, 2009, 1:03 PM

Post #1234 of 2090 (16127 views)
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Re: [Woon] The Future of PhD Study for Poets and Writers [In reply to] Can't Post

Woon,

You're right, I should have drawn a clearer distinction between the book one buys for cheap in a used bookstore and which, when one mentions that fact (say) on a blog, everyone says, "Holy shit! You lucky dog!" and the book one finds in a used bookstore which won many laurels in its day but which, when others discover you have it, respond, "What now? Who?" In poetry it's much easier to find books of the latter sort.

Be well,
S.


umass76


Sep 19, 2009, 1:14 PM

Post #1235 of 2090 (16120 views)
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Re: [umass76] The Future of PhD Study for Poets and Writers [In reply to] Can't Post

P.S. (to aiyamei): With respect to your comment about "rationalizing and professionalizing," I'm not sure we're having the same conversation. Never in my many years of writing about MFA programs specifically and graduate education in the arts generally have I ever made the question of when and where to study synonymous with the question of how and why we write. You've done so here, but I think it's important to note that you've done it entirely on your own; nothing in anything I've ever said or written has allowed for, encouraged, or justified that sort of blithe, categorical conflation. I'm sure there are some whose powers of cognitive dissonance are so stunted that they cannot simultaneously choose to attend an MFA program and retain absolute aesthetic independence both in the present and going forward; I'm sure there are those who allow institutions to cause them to forget who they are as writers, to lose their spark of individuality and their drive to innovate. But such mediocre minds--note that I don't even say "writers"--have always been beneath the contemplation of even my most basic inquiries into the subject of MFA programs.


aiyamei

e-mail user

Sep 19, 2009, 2:00 PM

Post #1236 of 2090 (16111 views)
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Re: [umass76] The Future of PhD Study for Poets and Writers [In reply to] Can't Post


In Reply To
You're presuming that single-mindedness also requires cutting oneself off from streams of intellectual inspiration which might, in time, not only inform one's writing but improve it.


Seth, when you put it this way, I start to suspect we are in total agreement. I realize my vehemence was set off by the idea of the age timeline, and an imaginary figure I felt was invoked: a figure of the prudently multi-tasking back-up-plan-making novelist who's going to 'have it all' by the age of 33 -- this idea of being up-to-speed, career-wise. The way things actually happen psychologically, I just don't buy it (and I don't think you can use your own experience as a counter example, since poets put books together so very differently). The type of work involved with a Ph.D. is simply not very easily combined with producing a big novel.

I did not AT ALL mean to suggest in some anti-intellectual vein that writers should eschew education. Quite the contrary. A Ph.D. (in my case in a field unrelated to writing) is something that I feel I owe my novels: the mind turns to mush without both rigor and receptivity to newness, and artists have to seek this rigor and hold themselves open to the new by any means they can -- Ph.D.s absolutely included and welcome. I'm just not willing to tie the task of educating myself, as you certainly did in your post, to back-up plans and artificial age-oriented careerist clock-punching.
I'm reject this BOTH because it leads to mediocrity AND because, frankly, it doesn't work. (For the novelist.)


(This post was edited by aiyamei on Sep 19, 2009, 2:01 PM)


aiyamei

e-mail user

Sep 19, 2009, 2:16 PM

Post #1237 of 2090 (16102 views)
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Re: [umass76] The Future of PhD Study for Poets and Writers [In reply to] Can't Post


In Reply To
I'm sure there are some whose powers of cognitive dissonance are so stunted that they cannot simultaneously choose to attend an MFA program and retain absolute aesthetic independence both in the present and going forward; I'm sure there are those who allow institutions to cause them to forget who they are as writers, to lose their spark of individuality and their drive to innovate. But such mediocre minds--note that I don't even say "writers"--have always been beneath the contemplation of even my most basic inquiries into the subject of MFA programs.


I love this! I'm glad to hear you feel this way -- very refreshing to see some non-relativism. And I do think that this kind of absolute self-certainty is what one ultimately sees in _most_ of the best writers, and so in a lot of ways you're right.

That said, do you really have such disdain for those whose minds get bent out of whack by their social environment? That's my first question. Because I have to say, some of the greatest writers in my personal pantheon were incredibly sensitive souls (Joyce, Woolf), who, no, simply did not have the powers of cognitive dissonance, and that was _the source of their strength_ as artists. But I guess we can agree to disagree. Also, I read what you wrote above as more of a battle cry than anything else, one which might well encourage and give strength to those who are perhaps beginning to waver under the pressures of academic jobs. And if so, I'm all for it.

Secondly, I did not mean to suggest that you were bringing in any "blithe, categorical conflations" a discrimination you seem eager to make. As for whether I made a conflation, or whether it was blithe and categorical, I hope that I made it clear I was offering my belief as a reflection of my struggle, thus, a belief _rooted_ in ONE experience even if branching out ultimately thanks to other observations. These beliefs are firm and perhaps sound categorical only because I have developed them fairly, through great effort and through close observation of a world I care about passionately. But I do not see this as blithe. It is offered _as a view_, for people to use as they wish, always for comparison with other views, so long as they also be equally fairly earned and offered in a spirit of sincerity. (Which I hope and believe yours is too.)


(This post was edited by aiyamei on Sep 19, 2009, 2:21 PM)


__________



Sep 19, 2009, 2:25 PM

Post #1238 of 2090 (16092 views)
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Re: [aiyamei] The Future of PhD Study for Poets and Writers [In reply to] Can't Post

So wait -- are we saying writers like Kafka, who might harbor a question or two about their absolute aesthetic independence, are beneath the contemplation of even Seth's most basic inquiries?

Is this like when you ask a Christian about the vile things Christians do, and they say, Pfffffft. Those aren't reaaallll Christians!

What is the purpose of an MFA, then? To welcome into administrative arms the absolutely certain -- and to mold them into more of an individual ?

Anyone else's head spinning? No? Just me?


six five four three two one 0 ->


aiyamei

e-mail user

Sep 19, 2009, 4:39 PM

Post #1239 of 2090 (16035 views)
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Re: [umass76] The Future of PhD Study for Poets and Writers [In reply to] Can't Post

 
Just a question because I am worried you are more serious than I thought, and I want to know your thinking on this. So here is the famous Joyce quote:

"I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using as my defence the only arms I allow myself to use - silence, exile, and cunning."

Why would Joyce have chosen these particular 'arms' for an artist's fight to express himself freely, each of which implies the artist's need to isolate himself -- if he were one of these wonderfully gifted 'real writers' you describe above, who can maintain aesthetic independence despite social integration? I realize there are _many_ types of writers in this world, but, um, James Joyce was one type, no? And maybe a real type? A type worthy of respect? There are different ways of interpreting Joyce's words, but I think you are unfair to suggest that that which he might well have been describing here -- a very common tendency in writers to need to withdraw for long periods from social integration particularly when working on an ambitious work -- is so contemptible, or that it has nothing at all to do with the proclivity, amongst even the best, to get drawn in and drawn down by society and its demands.

It seems almost funny you wouldn't recognize this, as this type of sensitivity is on ubiquitous display and is indeed such an omnipresent part of the artistic personality that it has become a cliché: from Emily Dickinson, to Nabokov (via Sebastian Knight), to Strindberg, to Kafka, to Joyce, to Woolf, to the Brontės...many of the best writers have sought isolation, and have flailed when denied it, and I would challenge you to maintain that the way they chose to live has nothing at all to do with what they achieved.

Yes, there were writers who did not live like that: for every Roth there is probably a Balzac, for every Yourcenar there is a Colette, for every Dickinson a Pushkin and every Dostoyevsky a Chekhov. (Although even here, when we look closely at the work, we see differences by temperament...) But I guess my only question is: if you are serious, then who is conflating, blithe, and categorical now?


umass76


Sep 19, 2009, 6:34 PM

Post #1240 of 2090 (15996 views)
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Re: [Junior Maas] The Future of PhD Study for Poets and Writers [In reply to] Can't Post

JM,

You have to put that quote back into the context from which it was born: the question is whether one allows institutional influence to compromise (importantly, not merely to affect or to inform) one's aesthetics. Obviously we attend programs (MFA, Ph.D., or any other sort) in part to be recipients of benevolent inspiration--from our peers, from course readings, and so on. But the artist always exists, if one is an artist, in a space of absolute, unfettered agency; the artist determines which influences will be allowed, and when, and what form those influences take. S/he is not a mere victim of circumstance. So, for instance (and this responds to Aiyamei also) there is no such thing as an institutional timeline--one can't plot out when, where, how, or why one will make the leap in artistry which will (in a perfect system) shortly lead to a leap in audience. I felt (though I may have been wrong) that it was being suggested that, categorically, a traditional Ph.D. could frustrate one's development as an artist. My point was that it just as easily could aid it, because there isn't one type of artist, one type of influence, or one timeline for things to happen in an artist's life. I gave an example--and merely that, an example--of how a fiction-writer might just as easily find the time and opportunity to both write a novel and complete a traditional Ph.D., and in a time-frame that in no way hindered the writer creatively or (as much as this ever need be considered) professionally. To be clear, I don't believe one does a traditional Ph.D. to create a "fallback" plan (though it's odd that we presume high school basketball superstars should have back-up plans but not novelists and poets, who face similar odds and face less [even with "success"] financial stability), but rather because it carries many of the same benefits as a CW Ph.D., is an intellectual challenge (and, importantly, a new one for the working writer), because it expands job opportunities, because it keeps one in an intellectual environment of the sort that might not merely support but expand one's view of writing, and because I don't, at base, believe that a doctoral program has the power to decimate (as I feel was implied) the vision and commitment of a true artist. Part of being an artist is knowing what--and how--to use things (experiences, emotions, perceptions, et. al.) to further one's art.

Be well,
Seth


umass76


Sep 19, 2009, 6:50 PM

Post #1241 of 2090 (15989 views)
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Re: [aiyamei] The Future of PhD Study for Poets and Writers [In reply to] Can't Post

Aiyamei,

I'm sure one reason for us talking past each other is that we may well be serving different functions in this and other communities. I am, in addition to being a writer, an educator: when I was a public defender I trained other public defenders; over the last two years I taught poetry (among other art-forms) to more than 100 undergraduates; I co-authored a handbook for aspiring poets and writers interested in graduate study; I run three blogs (receiving many thousands of visitors a week), all of which are intended to be primarily educational; I do freelance essays for non-profit magazines geared toward an ever-learning audience, give interviews to college newspapers about MFA programs, conduct talks for large groups of undergrads considering graduate study in creative writing, and so on. I feel an obligation to these young writers, and I think I discharge that obligation with attention and care. Were I merely an academic--by which I mean, were I free to merely theorize, rather than being someone self-tasked with pragmatic, immediate instruction--I might well hold up an idiosyncratic, once-in-a-century author such as Joyce as a possible model for how to be a writer in the world. I might (as I have seen some other teachers do) tell students that "it doesn't matter if you ever publish anything; Emily Dickinson didn't, and look how famous she became!" I believe that's a disservice, for precisely the reason we're discussing: whatever they might say of themselves, once-in-a-century writers of Joyce's and Dickinson's caliber have sufficient force of will to make the decisions that are right and necessary for themselves whatever I may say. And to be clear, such idiosyncratic souls--such rare souls--are liable to make the sort of decisions for themselves which are not likely to be the subject of widespread advice to a general audience such as the one (for instance) at P&W. One thing this community, and others, can do for young writers is to provide information that empowers--that adds to the necessary agency of the artist sufficient information with which to fuel that agency. Information about graduate study is one type of information; telling young writers about how they begin the process of publishing their work is another; teaching college students about the many aesthetic approaches to art is another; and so on. And to the extent possible, the information provided--and any advice given--is going to be tailored to the specific student and/or writer in question. But in speaking in general terms about the development of artists I don't see value in putting Dickinson's example, or Joyce's, on equal footing with others. You say "for every Joyce there's a _____________", but really this is a rhetorical move; you and I know that for every Joyce there are tens of thousands of writers for whom that example would be not just a terrible but a destructive one. Indeed, for every poetry MFA student there are probably twenty aspiring "poets" who scribble dreadful verse on napkins in bars to pick up members of the opposite (or same) sex; these "poets" are the modern-day example of isolated writers, not Joyce.

Be well,
Seth


owenj


Sep 19, 2009, 8:03 PM

Post #1242 of 2090 (15970 views)
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Re: [umass76] The Future of PhD Study for Poets and Writers [In reply to] Can't Post

Seth - I think what I'm going to say is in support of what you're saying, but I'll admit there's a lot of to sift through here to make what I think is a relatively simple point - that a creative writer shouldn't balk at the idea of a Lit/crit PhD as being counter-productive to a writer's creative pursuits. I agree with you on this completely. But to push you on a few things -

I disagree that there's some time-line by which we can gauge success. This is a simple quibble, but I'm not sure it's fair to suggest that a poet is 'middle-aged' by the time they enter their mid-thirties, or that fiction writers tend to have their big breaks in their early thirties. I may be misinterpreting what you're getting at, but in my experience in the writing world (going on fifteen years), these figures are in reality all over the map - twenties, thirties, forties, fifties+

I also think it's worth noting that just as you suggest that a Lit/Crit PhD may be advantageous to a writer, so can lots of other experiences - if I count the number of people I know with 1+ books (on the fiction side at least) most of those are working outside of academia. I'm not sure how you can even define 'work in isolation' at this point, but these are folks that do other stuff to make money and write without the aid of workshops, mentors, etc. For the vast majority of people with MFAs, this is the reality. I don't mean to suggest that MFA's and PhDs aren't valuable - far from it (I'm in the third year of my lit-heavy CW PhD) - just to say that what I find valuable about the PhD doesn't necessarily work for every writer. My own straw-folks, the writers outside of academia, have figured out other ways to make it work. It does not take much to make 12k a year - meaning it is possible to live by other means and have plenty of time to write with the same plush lifestyle of a grad student. That's not to diminish your argument because I think the claim you're really making is that the job market might be favorable to somebody with a straight up lit/crit phd, so those folks are outliers, but I think it's worth mentioning. I think the same agreement can be applied to the benefit of one type of PhD versus another - I hear what you're saying, but I think you're privileging your own experience to the extent that as much as I love and have learned from my critical reading and writing, I know for certain that I couldn't complete both a critical and a creative dissertation with four years of funding. In my program, most who want it are lucky to be awarded fifth and sometimes sixth years, but even then for me I would have a hard time using that time for anything but more creative work. But that's just me - somebody with higher critical aspirations could do it (and some do here) but not for me. So yeah, you could do it, and certainly at the beginning of my PhD I thought I might be able to do it, but as I enter my exam year, I'm not so sure that I could pull it off even if I wanted to do it!

OK, my last thing - I'm curious about the idea that it's harder to find jobs for fiction writers than poets - general wisdom in my circles has been that it's actually easier for fiction writers, but my data pool is relatively small, and I'm not sure why this would be - I think there's a perception (again, with my peers) that there are fewer fiction PhDs out there versus a relatively large number of poets with books and long CVs. The bar is, at least on the CV level, a bit lower for fiction - while fiction writers with books have an advantage, of the dozen or so writers that I know who have been on the job market in the last few years, very few of them had had books. Granted, it's tougher for fiction writers to publish (mostly, I think, based on space-constraints in journals) but the people-who-hire that I've spoken with acknowledge that fiction writers generally have shorter CVs. Maybe the fiction folks I know in TT positions are lucky and the exception, but I'd say most of the fiction writers I know (scratching head to run down list!) in academia (who have gotten their start in the last ten years or so) got their first tenure track jobs without books - they later published books, but for most of them these were not 'career making' books - just books, and they did so in their mid-thirties (or later). The (admittedly) very few people I know who have published 'career making' books (books that made them money? I'm not sure how to define this) don't teach at all. At this point, I think most fiction writers' books are similar to poets' - not career makers - I think the state of publishing right now has put literary fiction far closer to poetry, especially writers doing anything remotely outside-the-mainstream.


aiyamei

e-mail user

Sep 19, 2009, 8:36 PM

Post #1243 of 2090 (15952 views)
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Re: [umass76] The Future of PhD Study for Poets and Writers [In reply to] Can't Post

Alright, I totally take your point. And I think what you're doing is great, necessary, and really, really admirable. Everything that follows is in the context of thinking that at base, you are fighting the good fight.

But i have some caveats. First of all, I think that what I'm doing here, despite appearances, is in the same spirit. There are young people out there -- not all, but a significant number -- who need to hear about my experience as well, just as when I was starting to write this book, I was incredibly in need of survivor stories as well. So I too am trying to educate. I'm saying: I have managed to get a first novel published by Knopf. I tried a lot of different ways to make it work. Ultimately, it was through pretty signifcant personal sacrifices in the conventional-career and formal-education departments. I wouldn't trade for those things however. Based on what I went through and what I've found to be the case now that I'm in a position where I've met a lot of other writers, who have had equal and in many cases much greater success, is this: it is very rare that this kind of burning, go-for-broke energy (which is often what is needed for the novel) is achieved when you're doing several highly ambitious things at once. This point is important even from your much more pragmatic perspective, because to get that coveted university tenure-track teaching position, they might need the successfully published novel as well as the educational pedigree. i.e. a great big beautiful novel, whether for yourself or for your career, just might require that you chill out for a few years and do very little else of a mentally taxing nature.

Some people need to hear this just to get up the courage to spurn pressures from their parents, for example. I don't agree with you that it's only Joyce-caliber once-in-a-century massive talents to whom this stuff applies. I damn well needed to hear it. It was really hard to disappoint family and friends by appearing to be on a treadmill for so long -- which is generally what happens when you 'take time off'.

Or do you mean to say it's only the Joyces and Woolfs for whom combining getting a Ph.D. with writing a big novel is not going to work? This I strongly disagree with. And I am NOT using this as some kind of fuel to put people off the Ph.D. Instead I'm just hoping to put people off obsessing about getting it all done by the time they are 32 or something, or having wildly unrealistic expectations. I'd also like to potentially put them off the idea that the CW Ph.D. is the only way to further their education, since the CW Ph.D. might re-focus their energies in ways that just might not fit with _their_ novel-writing endeavor.

But most of all, just in general, I'm not sure I think it's okay to speak to people in ways that preclude the possibility that they are the next Joyce. There is a slightly ugly undertone to what you've said that makes it sound a bit like the voice of The Grand Inquisitor. Do you think there are two camps -- the elect, who should, in their efforts to gain spiritual sustenance and courage for the exhausting work of novel-writing study the lives of Joyce and Woolf, and then the hoi polloi, who should know to set their sights lower, studying the lives of Pearl S. Buck and Sir Walter Scott? I mean, of course people are best served by learning how to make a life/career out of this, but supposing, just supposing, that that life/career, if pursued too ambitiously, precludes producing the greatest work, as it will for _some_, then I think every real poet, under those circumstances, would prefer to be Emily Dickinson, no?

When I said for every ___, there's a ____, that was emphatically not a rhetorical device. In fact, I think there are far more of the need-years-of-isolation type than the latter extroverted type _amongst the greats_. So yes, I was trying to show respect for everyone here by only taking into consideration the greats -- by which I meant to say -- obviously all of us are aiming for greatness. Some people need years of isolation in order to do big work. Some don't.

My message: think hard about which one you are.
And: for what it's worth, in the experience of someone who has done this and who knows a lot of people who have, there's more of the need-isolation people than not. So don't underestimate the price of multi-tasking.


(This post was edited by aiyamei on Sep 19, 2009, 8:42 PM)


umass76


Sep 19, 2009, 8:57 PM

Post #1244 of 2090 (15939 views)
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Re: [aiyamei] The Future of PhD Study for Poets and Writers [In reply to] Can't Post

Only have limited time to respond, but I'll address the "ugly undertone" aspect: It's important to understand that graduate study in creative writing is the upstart here, not the convention. The convention is for artists to live in chaos, poverty, instability, and loneliness. That's been convention for centuries. There are 142 full-res MFA programs now; twenty years ago, there were perhaps 25. Twenty years before that, perhaps 8 or 9. So I do take for granted that young artists will know that, if they choose, they can eschew any institution or community they want to. I don't believe anyone feels forced to do an MFA, or to seek community generally, by what we do and say here. I do think--and have always operated from this assumption--that the opposite may be true. That we are losing potential artists by making the lonely road the only option (the only "pure" option) for the young writer; your implication that the lonely road is the road of geniuses shows us how old this philosophy is, and how enticing. Famous poets often espouse it too, and sometimes in more overt forms--you must be miserable, you must sacrifice everything to be Great. The lure of that rhetoric is strong, and so yes, I assume that those who hear that siren-song will follow it no matter what I say. So it's not a question of creating camps among young writers, but of paddling against a very long and ancient current to make sure writers know that they have a choice. And it is: community is a choice. It must be made; it does not occur without forethought. Conversations like the one we're having usually happen at a level of privilege--poets or fiction-writers speak of the writing community as though it were constituted exclusively of people with published books. Thus we say, for every _________ there is a _________, and both blanks are filled with Greats. That is, like it or no, a rhetorical position, even if (cf. Derrida) it takes an Arnoldian, essentialist, logocentric (whatever you want to call it) position that it is merely verifiable "truth." It is a stance. We could just as easily--and I do--point out that the largest bulk of the writing community will always be failed writers who never even found a community in the first instance, who stopped writing because their lives discouraged them from it. The Greats have often said of this: Good, fewer writers means more audience for the committed ones. I don't see that. There's no Greatness if perhaps 65% of the potential pool never has access to Greatness, i.e. never unlocks their own potential (or finds out how they might do this), while 30% end up in MFAs, and 5% end up "Great." The advice to follow Joyce or Dickinson's example is advice that can only be given from, and to, rarified air--from one who does not accept that isolation for the average human cannot be a first principle (even if it comes later), to someone who somehow has the leisure, or senselessness, or courage, or money, or whatever combination of things it might take to know at fourteen--and not, say, at thirty--that one can travel the lonely road. Until one makes that choice, or perhaps because one justly fears that choice, or perhaps because one decides it is a false choice, someone has to be speaking about alternatives. --S.


owenj


Sep 19, 2009, 9:15 PM

Post #1245 of 2090 (15932 views)
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Re: [umass76] The Future of PhD Study for Poets and Writers [In reply to] Can't Post

Can you define isolation? Even within a community, writing is still a solitary activity, so whether you're in an MFA program with a bunch of writers or taking some other path, ultimately we're talking about isolation. If that isolation comes with some people to drink with and a workshop each week, perhaps it is slightly less so, but I think ultimately the act of writing, no matter how you choose to do it, is isolating. Maybe that's not even relevant, but what I'm getting at is that I feel like you're both polarizing something that's not polar. If a writer chooses to go the non-academic route, that doesn't mean that that route is hiding in some cave living in poverty. For some, maybe, but those people are probably happier in caves. Same with an MFA - in my experience the people in grad programs tend to be social people (for the most part) so yeah, it's self-selecting. The majority of people with MFAs never write after their MFA (in my experience) so I'm not sure it matters one way or the other - people have to find success on their own terms. Anyway, my point is that this argument doesn't really boil down to two paths. The people I know who could be said to be writing in isolation are as successful (publishing? page count? happiness?) as those who aren't, so because one thing works for one person doesn't mean it'll work for the next person. Writing outside of academia also doesn't preclude the chance for community, either, or loneliness. When I was working outside of academia I got plenty of writing done, was published, and still had a community - granted it was different - not as many writers, but some - but it was hardly lonely or isolating.


aiyamei

e-mail user

Sep 19, 2009, 9:37 PM

Post #1246 of 2090 (15921 views)
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Re: [owenj] The Future of PhD Study for Poets and Writers [In reply to] Can't Post

Good point. Personally I was just talking about isolation from other major mentally taxing work and responsibilities.


libbyagain


Sep 20, 2009, 5:51 AM

Post #1247 of 2090 (15833 views)
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Re: [aiyamei] The Future of PhD Study for Poets and Writers [In reply to] Can't Post

Ida, I think I smell what you're cooking, and would probably second a motion to make a case for anyone whose hunger is sharp to bypass a Ph.D. program, lit or creative or hybrid and just get on with business and write. If the hunger's there and the mind is a sharp one, then the results of just those two things, busy and without over-much attention to pragmatic details. . .well, yes ma'am. I look forward to that dinner table.

Just to squeak my own experience, though--for all those young writers out there eagerly awaiting my words o' wisdom (yeah, right)--I will say that, for me, the hunger didn't come unTIL I'd studied my mind to a nubbin, and read up the WAZOO, and read some more, and discussed and discussed and written critically into a community, and been knocked around. And then, when the hunger was sharp to write, and I was famished in fact, I truly felt that myriad great writers were now my boon companions. WHAT a privilege. Me, in my Long Beach CA garret, humming all the tunes from "La Boheme" in early morning hours, felt I was practically accompanied by my pals Henry James and Edith Wharton and Harriet Beecher (liked her less when she was "Stowe") and. . . etc., etc., etc. That sense of . . . not "ease," but "presumption" (for good or ill--I'm not going to argue which because I need to be committed to the notion it's for good) came from my 7 years in a lit. doctoral program. I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have started to write without it.

For my tastes, too, I do really wish most writers would read up the wazoo, and not just 20th century . . .stuff. . . either. I think our current literary scene in the U.S. suffers from too many writers not reading very much. I.e., assuming that starting with Hemingway, for instance, might be starting plentee earlee enuf.

fwiw.


aiyamei

e-mail user

Sep 20, 2009, 7:18 AM

Post #1248 of 2090 (15826 views)
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Re: [libbyagain] The Future of PhD Study for Poets and Writers [In reply to] Can't Post

Absolutely!!! Elizabeth, I think your trajectory is a perfect example of the point I'm trying to make. Now I'm worried that my posts are being read as some kind of anti-PhD diatribe. NO! I ONLY meant to say that the idea that one can counsel young aspiring novelists to punch the clock -- come out of a Ph.D. with BOTH the degree AND a novel they feel like publishing, all by the age of 33 -- is _in many cases_ absurd, because for many writers (although not all!) being in the process of working toward a second major ambitious goal changes the nature of their energy -- depletes it, for one, but changes it in other ways as well. Thus, the fact that you, Elizabeth, got to a mental place where the novels began to flow several years after coming out of a Ph.D., is in synch with what I'm trying to say. As I really tried to emphasize, I am not saying the Ph.D. and work in academia _over time_ depletes the novel-writing reserves. If you look back to the original post I took issue with, it was making a very different sort of claim: suggesting the one should put together a Ph.D. and a break-out novel simultaneously so that one can function as a career back-up plan to the other. That's what struck me as pretty rich. I just don't think it's fair to present this kind of double whammy as particularly feasible -- at least for a certain number of people.

Further -- it seems like Seth willfully doesn't want to notice that throughout my posts, I have emphasized that there are different types of writers, i.e. there really are two different styles (and more) so there is more than one social brain that can be "great" -- and more than one kind of genius, etc. I emphasized it so much that I'm not going to offer a rejoinder. As for the idea that the academic creative writing route is the upstart, maverick path: there Seth and I will just have to agree to disagree. We have different perspectives, and while I acknowledge the newness of the MFA/CW Ph.D. world, just because something is new doesn't mean it can't quickly become regarded (by the young and flailing in particular) as the safe path to professional status.

And gosh, all I'm trying to offer to people is this: my experience suggests you shouldn't be rigid about timelines -- because the writing of a big novel MIGHT require more quietness of spirit than you suspect. There is no right or wrong here -- I really only ever meant to be a helpful counter voice, _not_ to prove anyone wrong.


gcsumfa


Sep 21, 2009, 3:25 AM

Post #1249 of 2090 (15708 views)
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Re: [libbyagain] The Future of PhD Study for Poets and Writers [In reply to] Can't Post

I have to be honest with you--the only reason I decided to get a PhD was because I want to teach at the college level, and most "creative writing" jobs require the writer to teach more than just creative writing. That's it; I wouldn't be pursuing this path if I didn't desire a college teaching position as my day job. I think many other PhD CW'ers are in the same boat, as most PhD CW'er students don't need workshops, more than the flexibility such programs offer (i.e., the ability to qualify oneself as a lit generalist, while being allowed to write a creative dissertation).





In Reply To
Ida, I think I smell what you're cooking, and would probably second a motion to make a case for anyone whose hunger is sharp to bypass a Ph.D. program, lit or creative or hybrid and just get on with business and write. If the hunger's there and the mind is a sharp one, then the results of just those two things, busy and without over-much attention to pragmatic details. . .well, yes ma'am. I look forward to that dinner table.

Just to squeak my own experience, though--for all those young writers out there eagerly awaiting my words o' wisdom (yeah, right)--I will say that, for me, the hunger didn't come unTIL I'd studied my mind to a nubbin, and read up the WAZOO, and read some more, and discussed and discussed and written critically into a community, and been knocked around. And then, when the hunger was sharp to write, and I was famished in fact, I truly felt that myriad great writers were now my boon companions. WHAT a privilege. Me, in my Long Beach CA garret, humming all the tunes from "La Boheme" in early morning hours, felt I was practically accompanied by my pals Henry James and Edith Wharton and Harriet Beecher (liked her less when she was "Stowe") and. . . etc., etc., etc. That sense of . . . not "ease," but "presumption" (for good or ill--I'm not going to argue which because I need to be committed to the notion it's for good) came from my 7 years in a lit. doctoral program. I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have started to write without it.

For my tastes, too, I do really wish most writers would read up the wazoo, and not just 20th century . . .stuff. . . either. I think our current literary scene in the U.S. suffers from too many writers not reading very much. I.e., assuming that starting with Hemingway, for instance, might be starting plentee earlee enuf.

fwiw.



gcsumfa


Sep 21, 2009, 3:32 AM

Post #1250 of 2090 (15706 views)
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Re: [owenj] The Future of PhD Study for Poets and Writers [In reply to] Can't Post


In Reply To


OK, my last thing - I'm curious about the idea that it's harder to find jobs for fiction writers than poets - general wisdom in my circles has been that it's actually easier for fiction writers, but my data pool is relatively small, and I'm not sure why this would be - I think there's a perception (again, with my peers) that there are fewer fiction PhDs out there versus a relatively large number of poets with books and long CVs. The bar is, at least on the CV level, a bit lower for fiction - while fiction writers with books have an advantage, of the dozen or so writers that I know who have been on the job market in the last few years, very few of them had had books. Granted, it's tougher for fiction writers to publish (mostly, I think, based on space-constraints in journals) but the people-who-hire that I've spoken with acknowledge that fiction writers generally have shorter CVs. Maybe the fiction folks I know in TT positions are lucky and the exception, but I'd say most of the fiction writers I know (scratching head to run down list!) in academia (who have gotten their start in the last ten years or so) got their first tenure track jobs without books - they later published books, but for most of them these were not 'career making' books - just books, and they did so in their mid-thirties (or later). The (admittedly) very few people I know who have published 'career making' books (books that made them money? I'm not sure how to define this) don't teach at all. At this point, I think most fiction writers' books are similar to poets' - not career makers - I think the state of publishing right now has put literary fiction far closer to poetry, especially writers doing anything remotely outside-the-mainstream.


I've noticed this as well--it's quite common for fiction writers w/ PhD's to land jobs w/ out books (of course, these are entry level jobs at small colleges and regional universities, not jobs in MFA programs).

I also agree with your point about "career making" books. I'm a short story writer, and I'm not sure I'll ever write a novel. I think I'd have a better chance of winning the Power Ball than writing a "career making" story collection (i.e, in the context implied by Seth, which would be one that's published by a major NY House), regardless of my talent.

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