Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Do writers need an MFA to get published?

On Fresh Air yesterday, Terry Gross interviewed James Franco, whom I remember as the good-looking stoner on Freaks and Geeks. Franco, it turns out, is pursuing an MFA in Fiction Writing from Columbia.

Gross asked him why he is going to school to learn to write. Franco answered:

"I felt that if I wanted to be serious about writing I should be around other writers. There's a romantic notion, like, uh, 'well if you want to be a writer just write.' But I don't know if this is true, but I had a professor at UCLA who just wrote a book on this very thing. And I think it turns out—I could be wrong—but I think 90 percent of fiction authors that are being published today went through MFA programs."

This gave me pause—enough to look up the podcast and transcribe the passage above. I have no intention of pursuing another graduate degree, mostly for reasons of time and money, but also because I don't want to go through the trauma of taking the GRE again. (It turns out your GRE scores are only good for 10 years; just thinking about taking another long, standardized test makes my palms sweaty).

I wasn't sure how to test this premise—most published fiction writers do not put "MFA" after their names. But, of course, it turns out, other blogs and web sites have addressed this issue so I don't have to do any original research here. 

I googled: (do fiction writers need an mfa?) [without quotes] just now and found the following answers*:

• Everywritersresource.com - Should I get an MFA in Creative Writing? The Good, Bad and Ugly. The answer is "maybe," but only if you write literary fiction.

• afterthemfa.com - A short post says: You don't need no stinkin' MFA, which links to a web site devoted to this idea, http://www.youdontneednomfa.org (Unfortunately, it hasn't been updated since Feb. 2007).

• A link to a book listed on Amazon, Portable MFA in Creative Writing, which purports to offer the "core knowledge of a prestigious $50,000 MFA program without paying tuition."

Most of the other hits, especially on the following windows, seemed to be links to specific MFA programs. So I tried a new search question,  (do fiction writers need an MFA to get published?) This brought up such titles as: 

• I Say "Phooey!" to the MFA in Writing: Let's Write Our Hearts Out Instead (from associatedcontent.com)

• The importance of MFA creative writing programs for writers (from helium.com)

• How to make a living writing short fiction (idea) (from everything2.com)

What's depressing is that many of the articles that weren't links to MFA programs were found on non-paying, freelance-written web sites, or posted as questions on user-driven forums like Yahoo! Answers.

So, based on this short Internet survey, whether you have an MFA or not, it looks like the chance of your being a struggling, unpaid writer are still very good.

* I know Google isn't AskJeeves, but plugging in random questions is sometimes a cool way to discover new web sites—I'd never seen any of these web sites before now.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Blog site counters—or spyware?

I used to have Sitemeter installed on this blog, rather than just the simple blog counter I’m using now, but I uninstalled it after only a few weeks. I still use Sitemeter on my Quotes About Creative Women (QACW) blog and have enjoyed seeing that that blog has found readers in India, South Africa and the United Kingdom, even while reader numbers were in the low 40s (that’s not 40,000 but just plain old 40).

I hardly check the Sitemeter icon on the QACW blog because I don’t go on it every day. (That’s because I usually spend half a day a month finding quotes and loading them onto QACW, and post-dating them so that one automatically publishes each week.) Even when I do look at the blog, I mostly forget about that little green icon for Sitemeter at the bottom of the page. Since I'm not writing the material, I don't have as much ego invested in it, I guess.

But I go on this blog more often. And when Sitemeter was on it, I checked it to see if friends who said they would read this blog had, in fact, read it. There’s a function on Sitemeter that lets you click on “Recent Visitors: By Location.” This brings up a page where country of origin appears in the first column, as a small flag icon and country name (which is why I knew that someone from S.A., India and the UK had looked at my quotes blog), and a more specific “Location” is listed in the second column. Through this function, I’ve discovered the blog also has had readers from South Carolina, Illinois and Canada.

Even more specific is Sitemeter’s “Recent Visitors: By Details” function. This brings up a page that lists domain name, visit time and visit length. This offers a little more detail than I want. For instance, most people have visited the QACW site for 0 seconds—not very reassuring. Obviously, most of QACW readers have stumbled upon it by accident, either through “Next Blog” or some chance Internet search and have declined to stay.

I’m not sure why I need to know how many are (or who is) reading my blogs, but I can't bring myself to erase the counters. They are addictive. In anxious moments I scan them to see if the numbers are going up. Even a small increase (more than five), has kept me going another week on my lesser-read blogs.

So, I'll keep them for a while longer. Yet I wonder if the information on who is reading what is being gathered somewhere, by some organization, trying to predict consumer spending/reading habits or, worse, political affiliations and grievances. I worry, then, that these are tools on more than one level and that this and other blogs could be conduits to information gathering in some other place. Such tools are free, but I wonder what price we might all, ultimately, pay for them.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

My accidental synchronicity with Joan Didion

Last week I put a quote temporarily in this blog's header:

"The impulse for much writing is homesickness. You are trying to get back home, and in your writing you are invoking that home, so you are assuaging the homesickness." --Joan Didion

I found it accidentally, while looking for quotes about women writers. In an interview, Joyce Carol Oates said that Joan Didion had written it. I then Googled part of the quote and found it had been mentioned in several other sources and by other writers (though I've yet to find Didion's text where it first appeared).

This was five months after I named this blog "Writing Home" and used the tag line, "Aren't all writers writing home—and trying to find a home for their writing?"

I'm returning to the original tag line today, but I'll put the quote in the margin to remind myself that there may be no new thoughts left, only new ways (and not necessarily more eloquent ways) to express them.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Finding a room of one's own

In Sleeping with One Eye Open: Women Writers and the Art of Survival (which I’ve been mining for my blog of quotes about female artists), Judith Ortez Cofer talks about the evening writing class she led with a group of working class Latinas. The women's first assignment was to create their own version of “A Room of One’s Own” in their crowded houses and lives. The women say it is impossible—they have no time or space. Yet they all manage to return to the next week’s class with reports of having cleared tables and corners of their homes to make space for their writing—except for one woman, a single mother, whose children in their cramped apartment had gotten into every space she tried to set aside for herself. So she made a portable “room” via a small notebook, which fit into the back pocket of her jeans.

I think this is a universal difficulty for female writers (or maybe all writers), no matter what race or class. I, too, have carried around a portable room of my own with a series of small notebooks I’ve kept in my pocketbook over the years, in which I’ve jotted down ideas and dreams when I’ve had a few moments of time. In fact, most of the introduction to the Interview with Kim Kupperman for this blog was written in a dining booth at Chuckie Cheese, on a long-promised pilgrimage with my daughter this summer.

When I worked nearly full-time and had a toddler son, the room of my own was the subway ride I took each morning from Maryland to D.C.—if I was lucky enough to get a seat. In a series of spiral notebooks I carried with me, I scribbled ideas for the little magazine I published at the time or, sometimes, the first few paragraphs of short stories, many of which never fully materialized.

Now that my children are back in school, I sometimes have whole mornings free when I could be writing fiction or blog posts. Yet many mornings pass just as this morning has—after exercising and eating breakfast, answering three phone calls, starting two loads of laundry, loading the dishwasher, and writing several necessary and unnecessary emails, it's 12:30 and I've written nothing expressive until this minute...but I'm hungry and craving lunch, and need to start another load of laundry.

So, a room of one's own is not just physical space but time or, rather, well-defined/set-aside time. Taking time away from the everyday demands of life to write can be guilt-inducing for women—or, at least, for this woman, especially writing that is done for the pure joy of setting down words to see what thoughts will come out, like this moment, without worry about market or publication.

Maybe it's not just a gender thing, but a class thing. After I had my first baby, a female relative so much as said that I should give up the nonsense of publishing a little magazine. The magazine wasn't making money, obviously, and was taking time away from free moments when I could have been mopping the floor or washing the dishes. From her perspective, it was unproductive (not producing money or otherwise contributing to the household) and therefore a waste of time.

This class-ism, if that's what it is, plays out in multiple and subtle ways. Give me a deadline, or assign me a topic, and I'm good to go; I am "working," not just piddling around. Offer me money to write about something or edit what someone else has written, and that project goes to the top of the list, even if it's not due right away or it means that I won't finish something I've already been writing on my own.

Whether I want to be or not, I may always be working class; when I write I am working against an ingrained notion that writing is idle time. Maybe that is why I find "serious" writing so exhausting. All those drafts and rewrites, "for what?" a little voice inside asks. "To perhaps appear in a literary journal not many read? And for no money? Why waste the time?" To continue on, the creative voice must also be an arguing voice; often, I'm afraid, creativity gets lost in the argument.

I need to build a room where such thoughts are made small, where there is no guilt in dawdling with words. My room, I realize, must first be constructed in my own head before I can find it anywhere else in the world.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Making a living as a writer

Lucky, indeed, it must be for those who go to work and are able to write what they want to say or who are otherwise able to make a living from expressing themselves. I’ve never found such a position, though I’ve tried to find jobs that, I thought, would tap into my writing and research skills, perhaps strengthening them along the way. I have worked as a newspaper reporter and a reference/research librarian; now I work part-time from home as an editor. But none of these jobs have let me write what I wanted to write, or what I would have written had I had the freedom to express myself fully.

And after a working day spent on a computer, it has been difficult to sit down again to write when it’s late in the evening, after dishes are washed and children have been put to bed—especially when my neck already hurts from too much time already spent looking at a monitor.  (I never had shoulder and neck problems until I began to use a computer. Now I have sporadic bouts of arthritis that is more likely to occur after hours spent on the computer, which makes reading difficult on some evenings and writing by hand, also, a pain in the neck.)

I often wish I had pursued the degree in Botany that I had, fleetingly, wanted after taking one class in Field Botany. Or that I could raise herbs for restaurants for a living or in some other way get fresh air and/or exercise before returning to this interior life of putting words on paper or into a computer.  If I had known that physical therapy existed when I was in college, I might have gotten an additional degree in it, just to be around people during work hours and to be, on some level, physical.

Both journalism and librarianship these days mean hours on a computer, often with little people contact except by email and by phone. So, though I have played to my strengths in my career choices so far, I don’t think I’ve nourished my life as a writer, in both a physical and social context.

Which brings me to the topic of this month’s Call Out to Writers: How do you reconcile your writing life with your career? I’d love to hear from other writers who have found a way to make money from their writing, or who work in a career that offers rich contact and context/experience. Send your submissions by November 12, for publication sometime later this month.