Dear Fury #15: “Complain about them all you want… but don’t stop writing!”

Dear Fury,

Poetry and I needed a time-out, a mutually-agreed break-up. Call it conscious uncoupling, if you want. Writing no longer felt therapeutic or rewarding and the bitter feelings I had towards my MFA program also created the distance. I paid a lot of tuition money to help myself become a better writer, but I also entered the program hoping to receive guidance about the writing world, publishing, making money, learning how to get teaching gigs ….. basically real-world applications of writing in addition to the obvious “studying of the craft” part of a program. I was so idealistic.

It took a professor sequestering the poetry graduates into his living quarters for us to hear the actual practical advice for poets: “Ok, poets. Try to get 6 poems published into reputable journals. Then, apply for a book contest. Fiction and non-fiction have different paths, but this is yours.” I couldn’t believe we never had a lecture about this. We had to learn this in secret. I’m not exaggerating; the professor sent us an email inviting us over and then said something like “I’m giving you a gift here by actually talking about publishing.” At least I had a better idea of the path of publishing poetry, but I still felt I had paid a lot of money only to be symbolically told “Yeah, you’re still going to have to figure this out on your own.” Who gets an MBA and then has their institution not help them get a job in business?

Why was HAVING A CAREER in writing a taboo subject for a freakin’ I-WANT-WRITING-AS-A-CAREER program?  I realize it takes time and patience to build a career and it takes tenacity…..and there’s this badge of pride of “I did it on my own and struggled for years” kind of aura to it all.

Now, I’m still taking time away from poetry but have started something very new and foreign: children’s writing. I have plans to apply for a children’s writing class via a continued education program — and really hope that in addition to teaching the genre, they also teach you about how to get published, how to market yourself, etc. I love thinking about audience, marketing, etc. I’m not ashamed to say it — I realize it’s not sexy for an artist to talk about making money or becoming popular because it implies that you’d have to sell your artistic integrity.

Some of the most popular poets were ridiculed in my program; making any commercially successful person a non-example of what to become……(Billy Collins, Mary Oliver, Anne Lamott…) Of course, maybe they admitted some of their work was good before they “whored” themselves out. Oh, but Shakespeare, he’s a great example even though he is popular, timeless and makes a lot of money for publishers. It’s okay that his quotes are on tote bags, but don’t you dare buy an Oprah book. Oy!

A professor once told me Anne Lamott was for “housewives-who-want-to-write” …. little did he know that I read it in college. I know the importance of making up your own mind vs. feeling that every professor is a guru who knows best.

If an MFA program keeps you as an outsider, how can you make it inside? People in my program would say “Oh, never bring up publication” and even professors would make it clear, you should not bring it up. I realize it would be inappropriate to say “Hey, professor, you’re an editor of a journal, how can I get published in it?”  But asking about the path one would take in each genre about getting published and asking about using social media or networking, etc — that seems like it would be included in at least an hour-long lecture.

I guess, at this point, my focus and goals have changed dramatically, and I have a new plan for how to proceed with my goals.

But I still feel (embarrassingly) bitter towards my MFA program for making publishing a taboo subject. I get it’s about “making you a better writer” at MFA programs but let’s get real — we all want our work out there.

I realize writing is a very self-driven process and every step needs a gung-ho, independent, tenacious spirit. However, you’d think that entering a community of professors and published writers would mean you’d actually have a community to make you feel a little less alone in the endeavor.

Those who seemed least alone were ones who were really chummy or even flirtatious with professors and I just did not feel comfortable acting like I was their friend. I just wanted a good, old-fashioned mentorship with no dance of “we’re buddies and laugh together at lunch” or “we’re gossipers together” or “we flirt” kind of vibe. And some professors didn’t want to socialize either and there just didn’t seem to be the opportunity to get the formal relationship I was hoping for.

Thanks for reading my fury. I think this email acted as the emotional barf I needed. And please know, I realize the onus is/was also on me for getting what I wanted. Here’s to moving onward! But I’d still like your take on whether MFAs do enough real-world applications of writing…….and should they? And what do you think of the low-res social aspect of MFAs?

Thank you,
Grateful VIDA-lovin’ lady


Dear Grateful VIDA-lovin’ lady,

Thanks for barfing all of that in our direction, but, next time, please use the bag conveniently located in the seat pocket in front of you! This is a lot to clean up.

Despite the length of your question, the gist of my answer is this: while it was definitely a failure of your MFA program to avoid discussion of post-grad possibilities, you had to have known going in that success as a poet is extremely relative. Your professor was likely right: success for a poet is to publish in journals, then perhaps a book, then maybe that book gets reviewed, maybe there’s another one. You could poll most of the country and probably only a tiny fraction have ever heard of even one living poet (and that poet is probably Maya Angelou because rock on, Ms. Angelou!).

My guess is, it’s not that publishing and life post-MFA is a secret, it’s just that it’s a depressing reality. Who would want to destroy the hopes of young people who have given up time and money for what will likely come to nothing? And maybe that’s the root of the snobbery you experienced, maybe it’s merely the resentment of a seemingly unattainable success (or maybe your teachers and fellow students were just douchebags who don’t understand the absolute genius of Lamott’s “Bird by Bird.”) Odds are, only a small percentage of your classmates will keep writing at all, let alone publishing. Not that these odds are limited to writing (I would imagine most college grads go on to lives a lot less exciting than what they’d planned.) As with many careers, success in writing requires a mix of talent, luck and perseverance.

And this is where I worry about you and your odds, frankly. I’ll assume you have the talent and I’ll hope you have the luck, but it’s the perseverance I’m not seeing. It seems to me that you are willing to give up the thing you presumably love (poetry) because you are pissed off that your grad program didn’t do a good job of preparing you for the “real” world. What bullshit. I mean, complain about them all you want, start a #fuckyoumymfaprogram hashtag, populate forums with alarming anecdotes about your lazy teachers, but don’t stop writing. If you can give up writing poetry that easily, it was never going to be the thing you ended up doing. Writers write because they feel they must, not because they did or didn’t get a degree. Because poetry doesn’t need a time out; your feelings of resentment and frustration do! Just because you feel bitter about having wasted your time at a shitty MFA program, don’t take it out on the thing you love.

Unless that love wasn’t for poetry, but the idea of being a poet, without all the struggle and the work. That work includes the writing, but it also includes a shit ton of submitting (and rejection).

I mean, your plan to write children’s books is a good one, if you are as passionate about children’s literature as you believe you were about poetry. Like poetry (like ALL writing really) it’s a tough market to break into. And, like poetry, it’s something that many people think is going to be really easy to both write and publish. It’s not. The difference is, of course, that there are occasionally children’s authors who strike it big, whereas in poetry there’s just Maya Angelou.

So, again, you seem like you had a shitty time in grad school, resent your profs and fellow students, and were a really dissatisfied customer. Which is a shame, sure, but how different do you think a low res program will be? If you want to attend another program in order to learn and refine your craft, great. If you expect to be anointed when you graduate? Remember you will need talent, luck and perseverance for that.

Get to work.