Let’s Not Forget an MFA is a Fine Arts Degree: An Interview with Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum

andrew MK

Why did you decide to pursue an M.F.A.? 

I wanted to be a poet. I already was, technically, when I made this decision in my second year of undergrad at Virginia Tech to be an English major. I had published some poems, was doing well in my poetry classes, and was in the process of forming The Brush Mountain Review at the time, but I also knew I wasn’t very good at it.

I read far too many poems that simply blew my mind to think I had any real idea what I was doing, and I seemed to have this innate ability to recognize “bad” poems or, at least, poems most other readers wouldn’t think were particularly “good.” Even though I had some great teachers in Katherine Soniat and Ed Falco at VT, I knew I needed as much intense, focused attention to my work as I could get. I also knew I needed time to write. I figured that one out pretty early. I write ALL the time and have always been a voracious reviser. Seeing that I wasn’t independently wealthy, it made sense to go to school for a few extra years where I could work under the tutelage of authors and burgeoning writers I admired and would actually have time to develop my craft.

When you started the degree, what were you leaving behind?

Ha! I wish I could say I sacrificed a beloved career in politics, but I hated the long, grueling, boring, and often disappointing work of the campaigns. I wish I could say I’d made millions as owner of a landscaping business, but landscapers don’t make much more than adjunct professors and the work was so exhausting, I had no energy to write at the end of the day. I wish I could say I really enjoyed being a chef, but, trust me, if cooking isn’t your passion, DO NOT do it for a living! So, in short, I left absolutely NOTHING behind. For me, everything I cared about lay in an MFA program. It was my only option.

Let me backtrack a bit.

I first applied to MFAs in my final year of college. Sadly, not a single program accepted me. Yes, I applied to some great programs, but I also applied to sixteen of them. The best I got was a waitlist.

At first, I was devastated, but then I thought “Well, being a writer isn’t exactly the best way to make a living anyway. Maybe this is for the best.” I had a lot of interests (being a chef, working in politics, owning a business, etc…), so I figured if one door was shut, every other door was now open.

I spent several years wandering around the country doing all sorts of work, and I showed a lot of potential in a number of careers; or, at least, I think I did. But none of it actually mattered to me the way writing poetry did. And even when I greatly wanted to write, even when I read something I loved, I couldn’t actually get my body to do the work my mind desperately yearned for.

Long story short, I met my wife-to-be three years after graduating college. After she got to know me a bit, she saw how frustrated I was. I had been researching various Lit and Education Masters programs when she came home with a list of my favorite poets and where they taught. “This is what you’re applying to,” she said. So I did.

At the time I was a chef in a kosher restaurant. When I told the owner I got into an MFA program, he said, “Thank God, you’ve been a real pain in the ass lately.” He was kidding, of course, but he was also letting me know it was clear to him I was meant for something else.

So I can’t say I left anything behind to go to an MFA. It was time.

In your essay “Ghostwriting the Eulogy,” you make the case for writers doing work other than adjuncting. You also write, “One has to make a living and find some time to write, right? And while there are some of us out there surviving as bar tenders and working retail, most would like to use our skills and training as writers to make a living.” I’m going to harp on that bartending and retail line for a moment: Do you think there’s a particular stigma for writers coming out of MFA programs against working low-skill jobs? More so than for writers without MFAs? Why?

Oh no, not at all. In fact, I think most writers romanticize working regular day jobs rather than being in academia or doing something more “professional.” But bartending and writing simply don’t mix for most of us. The hours are long. The hours are late. And the pay (though at times is spectacular) comes with very little upward mobility. I managed and helped open a number of bars and restaurants before I got into the MFA Program at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Even though I was super-disciplined about writing at that time, I barely found two hours a day to dedicate to my work. That includes reading. So you can imagine how productive I was in those days.

This, of course, isn’t true for everyone. I know some folks who do really well working jobs of this sort (I wouldn’t call them low-skill by the way!) and being writers. But it’s rare. And it certainly doesn’t work for me.

That said, adjuncting sounds a lot like bartending except for the pay, which is criminally low. And adjuncting can be just as stressful as any other type of job. So if a writer can find a way to work 40 hours a week at a day job and write, why not go that route?

So, it sounds like we’re on the same page about writers needing day jobs—you’ve written about, and hosted an AWP panel on, the difficulty of staying afloat through adjunct work alone, and the slim odds of getting a tenure track position even with strong qualifications. What other work do you do to supplement your adjunct and writing life?

Two classes I typically teach were cancelled this summer due to low enrollment. This was three weeks before the semester began and put me in a rather serious financial bind that couldn’t be 100% solved by simply calling other college and universities in the area and begging for more classes, which, of course, I did.

After managing to fill most of the financial hole, I decided it was time to look for work outside the academy, that it was time to find a new way to pay the bills. I, of course, have been supplementing my income with reviews and interviews, but I wanted to find a way to do more than supplement my income. While I only have a small sample size, freelance editing appears to be a possible solution. There are several excellent freelance editing groups online (just Google it), editing pays much, much better than adjuncting (or any other job I’ve ever had), and it’s extraordinarily gratifying. You’d be amazed how many people are out there looking for help with their writing and just how excited they are to work with a professional. Many MFA grads have a hard time thinking of themselves as “professional writers,” but what else would you call a person with a terminal (at least for now) degree in writing?

There is also quite a bit of demand for freelance writers. Just go to your local bookstore and head over to the magazine section or check out the reviews, interviews, and articles in journals on your bookshelf. That stuff doesn’t write itself, and it’s the sort of writing more poets and fiction writers probably need to engage in anyway (that’s an entirely other discussion!). It can be tricky learning how to write a decent pitch and to gauge the market for a particular piece, but I’m starting to get the hang of it. Again, the pay is much better than adjuncting and the people you meet, the places you go, and the activities you find yourself engaged in can be life-changing.

I often get the impression people think you have to be a mover and shaker to do this sort of work. Trust me, you don’t. You just have to get started and see where it goes. If you read an awesome piece in, I don’t know, Cycling Today, why not email the author and ask him/her how they went about pitching and selling their work? Then shoot a heck of a lot lower and build up your credentials. It’s fun. It’s gratifying. And it pays. Eventually. And don’t forget that publishing in various genres outside your own is very attractive to academic search committees as well.

What’s good about each kind of work you do, and what’s bad? Can you imagine doing any one task (freelance editing, ghostwriting) full time and still having the time/ brain for poetry?

It’s all about moderation for me. I’d lose my mind if I only did one of these things 40 hours a week. A mix works much better for me. Heck, if I could find a bar that would hire me to work from 4-7 Monday and Wednesday, I’d do it. Alas, this sort of schedule is hard to find unless you work for yourself. Luckily, this is the exact sort of schedule that teaching and freelance editing and writing entail.

How do you build writing time around your work? How is it different from accommodating writing with a 9-5 job?

Because my schedule changes each semester, it’s hard to establish a permanent process. In grad school, I got up at 6 am everyday and wrote until I had to stop. I did this for the three years I was in the program, and it worked really well. Now I let my schedule come to me and simply find stretches of time in the day for reading and writing.

That said, I certainly don’t have the time I used to. At SIUC, I wrote somewhere around 60 hours a week. It’s down to twenty or so these days, which isn’t ideal. But I’m no longer a student, and I shudder to envision the 9-5. I simply can’t work that way. It took me twenty-five or so years to figure that out, but I hate getting up at the same time everyday, shoving raisin bran into my face, and hopping a train for eight hours of work inside some building. As dorky as this sounds, such work is soul-crushing to me, and I think it is for a lot of writers, let alone everybody else! As a freelancer and teacher, I can set quite a bit of my own schedule and thus schedule writing time that works for me, not everyone else.

Back to that tricky question of legitimacy: what advice do you have for writers who are struggling to feel professional when they still haven’t published very much, but hesitate to take on a traditional 40-hour work week and leave little time for writing?

Look, if you’re a writer: write. A LOT. And read. A LOT. Publishing your work is a natural effect of putting in your time, being honest with yourself about your work, and (if you can) finding folks who will be honest with you as well. Who gives a damn about legitimacy? That’s not a word writers need to concern themselves with in my view. Do what you have to do to write and good things will come. Whatever works works. And let’s not forget that publishing in journals and publishing books doesn’t mean you have been “legitimized”; it means you are achieving your goal of being an author, not that everyone else will read your book or look at your CV and think you’re worth a hill of beans.

What could MFA programs do (or what are some programs already doing) to better prepare graduates for the world of making a living outside of the academy?

Virtually all of the skills I use to make a living I learned while an MFA student at SIUC. Dr. Dively, Dr. Molino, and their colleagues in the English Department took teacher training very seriously and taught me almost everything I know about educating people. Working with Allison Joseph (soon to be Dr. Joseph!) and Jon Tribble as an Editorial Intern with Crab Orchard Review taught me how to edit others’ writing and to manage, design, fund, and promote a literary journal. They also encouraged me to write reviews (my earliest venture into freelance writing), and my first published interview was with Rodney Jones. Pinckney Benedict taught me via video-conference how to edit my anthology, Apocalypse Now: Poems and Prose from the End of Days, and Judy Jordan and Beth Lordan pushed me to stick to my craft even as I was learning to do other things.

I’m not sure the MFA could do much more to prepare students for the working world. Yes, we could ALL be a little more direct about the job situation, but MFAs would have to radically alter the model to do much more than they already do. The simple truth is that professors at MFA programs don’t have to “make a living” beyond the academy and should be focusing their efforts on writing stories and poems and teaching classes. There are of course folks like Allison Joseph and Jon Tribble who teach others how to run journals along the way, but asking them to do more is unreasonable. Asking MFA programs to train students to write outside their genre is probably asking too much, particularly when we’re talking about writing for magazines and editing alien romance novels.

It may be possible to add an element to the MFA that would give students the opportunity to work with others in the English Department (and in other departments on campus such as Journalism), but this would also require a serious student willing to split that time with working on their craft. I’m not sure many MFAers are willing to learn how to make a living outside of teaching. That said, almost everyone seems to have faced the fact that teaching gigs are very hard to come by. So this might be changing.

I have heard of programs that have classes in non-fiction writing (not creative non-fiction). This would logically include writing for magazines, reviews, interviews, and the like. If more programs did this sort of thing, I think that would help a lot. But, again, that would represent a rather large change in the model given that very few MFA faculty do any writing outside the “creative” categories: poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction, and (rarely) stage/film writing.

Do you have any other words of advice for recent or soon-to-be graduates of MFA programs? For writers just entering those programs?

If your unhappy with your work situation, go ahead and give freelancing a shot. You already have the skills to do this sort of work, but you may not have attempted applying them yet. While teaching yourself a skill isn’t always the best way to learn, it’s not the worst way to go about learning either. Perhaps programs could make a greater effort, but let’s not forget it’s a degree in “Fine Arts.” What else can we really expect? Everyone is over-taxed in academia, not just adjuncts. And expecting a radical change is probably a bit naïve and, again, may be unwarranted. My advice would be to spend a little time writing reviews and interviews and working on a journal. Don’t expect to get paid for your work right away; instead, build your CV and see where it goes. Writing is virtually EVERYWHERE in our world. If you look, you can find ways to make a living doing it. Some of us get lucky and sell enough books to pay the bills. Some of us get decent jobs. Some of us get crappy jobs. Some of us strike out on our own. Some of us do a little bit of everything. Yes, it’s a little maddening, but we’re artists. It’s never been easy.

Andrew’s first book of poems, Ghost Gear, is forthcoming in 2014 with the University of Arkansas Press; his anthology, Apocalypse Now: Poems and Prose from the End of Days, was released in 2012. He is Founder and Editor of PoemoftheWeek.org, a freelance editor, and Acquisitions Editor for Upper Rubber Boot Books. Andrew teaches writing at CU-Denver and Metro State University. Read his work at www.AndrewMK.com.

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