Activist Writers: Chanel Dubofsky on Fiction and Privilege


The evening the verdict in the Zimmerman trial was announced, I thought that somehow I could not pay attention to it. That’s white privilege, in case you needed an illustration. I can turn off my computer and go down the street or to sleep and not think about it, because for me, a white skinned Jewish girl, if I don’t think too hard about it, it can actually seem like it doesn’t matter. The spoiler is, of course, that I couldn’t not think about it. I couldn’t think about anything else, and for the first time in a long time, I felt the gross creeping of white guilt, something I try not to entertain because it’s so unproductive, so paralyzing, so indulgent. But there it was. The thing about privilege is that you cannot give it away. Not really. You can pretend you don’t have it, people do that all the time. You can step aside and make a space for someone else, but you always have your privilege, regardless of whether or not you want it. There’s nothing like it in the whole world.

Writing is the thing I count on when I can’t figure out how to maneuver through the world. I usually sort through sexism, racism and other disturbing daily social phenomenon with essays, but these days my job is actually to write fiction, seeing as I’m in an MFA program.  I’ve never felt like it was harder to justify making art.  For days, it felt like the most privileged, smug thing I could possibly do. I’d written a blog post shortly before the verdict came in, about my process of writing fiction (anxiety, caffeine, procrastination, frantic typing, delirious joy, exhaustion, anxiety…), and when I looked at it later, I knew I could not possibly post it. It was irrelevant. It was nothing. It was maybe even cruel.

I’ve been thinking about endings lately-the ones that are neat and tidy and satisfying, the ones that have been earned, as well as those that are vague and sloppy and ultimately realistic. Trayvon Martin did not deserve any kind of ending at the age of seventeen. There is no age at which he could deserve the ending that he got, and yet, while so many of us are shocked and bruised by the verdict, we also know that this is the reality of living in a racist country.

Being a progressive activist means understanding that people are complicated, that we all have multiple identities that we engage with to varying degrees. It’s not like it isn’t possible to be many things at once-writers know that, maybe better than anyone else. Sherwood Anderson wrote, “The whole glory of writing lies in the fact that it forces us out of ourselves and into the lives of others.” There are entire books to be written about how to responsibly write about people who are not us without exoticizing, or stereotyping, but for the sake of this piece, I’ll just say that writing, particularly fiction, is-or should be-an exercise in empathy and ethics. For that reason, and thousands of others, it’s important. It can keep us alive.

Chanel Dubofsky’s work has been published in RH Reality Check, Cosmopolitan, The Frisky, The Billfold, Lilith and The Forward, among others. She is working on her MFA in Fiction at the Vermont College of Fine Arts and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Do, Don’t Complain: An Interview with Nick Ripatrazone

Nick Ripatrazone’s novella, This Darksome Burn, is forthcoming from firthFORTH Books, and his short story collection, Good People, will be published by Foxhead Books in 2014. His fiction has received honors from Esquire, Shenandoah, The Kenyon Review, and ESPN: The Magazine. He lives with his wife and twin daughters in New Jersey.

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Why did you decide to pursue an MFA?

I began the MFA program at Rutgers-Newark in 2009, a few years after completing an MA in English Literature there. The MFA program was relatively new, so I attended based on the excellent faculty: studying fiction with Jayne Anne Phillips, Alice Elliott Dark, and Tayari Jones (as well as Paul Lisicky, a visiting professor) was a unique opportunity. I had submitted both critical and creative theses toward my MA, but I wanted to really engage my creative work during this second round of graduate study.

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

Besides sleep, not much: Continue reading

Go, Go, Gadget Litmag: An Interview with Adam Lefton

adam lefton

Adam Lefton is a writer and editor living in Austin, TX. His work has appeared in Water~Stone ReviewWashington Square Review, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. In 2012, he co-founded LitRagger, the world’s first iPad application exclusively built for reading literary journals.

Why did you decide to pursue an MFA?

As a teenager, I wanted to be a screenwriter, but at Dickinson College the amazing Susan Perabo introduced me to writing fiction and I never turned back. When I graduated from Dickinson, I knew about this thing called an MFA, but Susan had—wisely—advised me to hold off on applying until I felt like I could absolutely do nothing else but devote two or three years to my writing. It was great advice. I worked in publishing for three invaluable years, and then I began to feel that itch. I’d been writing, but I wanted more time to give to my work. I wanted to return to an academic environment, to workshop. So I sent out a big pile of applications and was fortunate enough to be offered a spot in the program at Purdue University.

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

Unfortunately, I was next in line to run Farrar Straus and Giroux.
But, actually, no. I left nothing behind. Some people might remember Black December and what happened in publishing after the financial crisis began in 2008. Lots of people lost their jobs, and I was one of them. Fortunately, I had already been planning on leaving to get my MFA, though there were a few tense weeks there after I lost my job when I still hadn’t been accepted anywhere.

When you started your program, what did you envision happening afterward?

Working in publishing substantially lowers your expectations as a writer. I think it’s probably made a number of my friends quit writing completely, though I doubt they’d admit as much. I don’t know if I really had a clear vision for what would happen after my MFA. I’d read thousands of query letters highlighting accomplishments exactly like the ones I hoped to soon have, and these books weren’t getting published. So I didn’t expect much–just a few publications. That’s it. I wanted to be a few steps further ahead with my writing than I had been when I started.

Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t think an MFA would automatically result in publication, as though it were some badge that made my work publishable. But I felt that immediately prior to entering the program I was on the cusp of breaking that threshold, and that the freedom to commit myself to crafting better stories would push me over the hump.

Since leaving Purdue, you’ve developed an app for people to read literary journals on their electronic devices. Where did the germ of that idea come from, and how did you develop it?

I was the Managing Editor of Sycamore Review at Purdue, and I spent a lot of time researching digital publishing methods for the journal. There were so many obstacles. The technology was too complicated, the cost too high. I started to wonder if maybe the best solution was one that didn’t exist yet, and then I wondered it out loud to the right person (which leads nicely to your next question).

Do you have a background in tech? If not, how did you become acquainted with the skills you needed to move this project forward?

LitRagger is a two person team. I’m incredibly lucky to have Landon Sandy as a partner and master of all things tech. The application would not exist if not for his incredible dedication. Landon is married to a friend of mine from workshop at Purdue. That’s how we met.

Would you say that there were concrete elements of your MFA that pointed you in the direction of this project, or was it a complete divergence?

Oh, absolutely. LitRagger would not exist otherwise. The people I met during my three years at Purdue were a huge asset during development. Many of the journals we launched with—HOBART, Gulf Coast, Prairie Schooner, etc–were involved in the process because I had ongoing relationships with their editors. More so, though, being at Sycamore Review for three years forced me to rethink journal publishing. I had been staunchly print when I arrived at Purdue. In fact, like many writer/editors I wanted to start my own print journal one day. But seeing how much amazing work was already being published in the journals I admired, and how little these journals were bought and read relative to the high numbers of people who sought publication in them, shifted my perspective. A lot. I began to feel like a new way of distributing work could be a much more significant contribution to the community than another journal. It could change, for the better, how we enjoy the work, making it more accessible, shareable, and interactive.

I don’t think we’re quite there yet with LitRagger. We are working on integrating social media so that readers can make recommendations through the app, much like you would in a program like Spotify, and will probably launch this feature in the Fall. Just imagine how much more likely people are to read a certain piece when they see on Facebook that it has been “liked” by a bunch of their friends.
The goal is to create a space for conversation about contemporary prose and poetry that is both a forum for debate and a catalyst for organic, social media driven publicity. That’s something I feel is severely lacking for literature, especially given how much technology has revolutionized other arts. So often, the work just sits there, nicely bound and printed, and even if people read it no one ever responds.

There’s a lot of work still left to do to achieve this, but I think the foundation is there, and we are growing.

What does a typical workday look like for you?

As you might guess, I do not work on LitRagger full time (it just wouldn’t pay the bills), and I’ve had a few other jobs since finishing my MFA. My typical LitRagger work day is a weekend, usually Saturday. I’ll hunker down at a coffee shop. I do a lot of the work at night too. Basically, between writing, various jobs, and LitRagger, I am a 7 day a week worker.

Do you like the work you do? Why or why not?

I love it. I mean, the grueling schedule can wear on me sometimes, but I am very passionate about this project. Plus, it’s kept me involved in a community that is sometimes difficult to stay in touch with once you’ve finished your MFA.

Are you writing these days? Publishing?

I knew this question was coming. The answer is yes, though not as much as I would like to be, and without the same kind of focused direction I had during my MFA, which feels at once liberating and distracting. I send out work less because I feel less pressure to get published. During the MFA, it’s pretty easy to get caught up in the excitement of submitting your work and the success of acceptance for yourself and your peers. I’ve pretty much reverted back to my pre-MFA approach to submitting work: only when I’m absolutely certain it’s ready and that I want this work to be mine.

Do you feel that you’ve been able to structure your time to privilege your writing? How do you do that?

It’s much harder. I don’t sleep much.

Did you have the opportunity to work in academia after you graduated? How did you respond to that opportunity?

Not in any significant way. I was offered a class at Purdue for the fall semester, but by the time they’d made that offer I had already decided to move to Austin and focus on LitRagger.

Do you ever have any regrets about getting an MFA?

Not living off the stipend Purdue gave me. The program is very generous, one of the most well-funded in the country. But one of the drawbacks of three years in the professional world is that you become accustomed to a certain lifestyle. According to some financial records at various institutions that I won’t name, I borrowed money in order to maintain that lifestyle while getting my MFA, and despite numerous hoaxes and spells they continue to demand—via antiquated snail mail—that I return it.

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

My first reaction to this question was: no one should be taking advice from me.
Just remember that pretty much every road after your MFA ends is going to be bumpy, so you might as well pick the one most interesting to you.

MFA as Tattoo: An Interview with Erin Fitzgerald

Erin Fitzgerald is a fiction writer who works as a content manager. 

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

I always knew I wanted one — even in high school. Probably related to that, I thought of it like a tattoo. No matter what else I did with my life, it would always be there to remind me that writing was important.

When you started the degree, what were your goals? What were you leaving behind?

I started an MFA elsewhere after getting a BA at Sarah Lawrence. For uninteresting-to-others reasons, I left that program, returned to Sarah Lawrence, and finished my MFA there. My overall MFA goals were to get that tattoo, and use the time overall to see how fiction writing would end up being a part of my life. Even though I was naive in all those newly minted BA ways, at least I knew fiction writing was not likely to be my paycheck.

You graduated from your program in the mid-nineties—what are your impressions of how M.F.A. graduates fared then and now?

There are many more MFA programs now. There are also many more applicants who understand that an advanced degree in creative writing is not a law or medical degree with near-guaranteed prospects on the other end. They know that thanks to the Internet, there are many other ways to create parts of the MFA experience that appeal to them. Related, they’re more pragmatic about finances. In the end, I hope that means there are more of them who don’t give up, and who do what they genuinely love after graduation.

Continue reading

As I Lay Dying (While Working The Night Shift At This Power Plant)

Faulkner in a rare leisurely moment.

You may have recently heard that James Franco has bulldozed, ahem, directed, written, and starred in an adaptation of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. But does Franco know that Faulkner finished the novel while working the night shift at a power plant? “His primary motivation was to have long periods of uninterrupted time for his own work” (sound familiar?) and he wrote the novel in only six weeks.

1929, as it happens, was a banner year for Faulkner: he also wrote Sanctuary, published Sartoris and The Sound and the Fury, and wrote a fair amount of short fiction. Another day job of Faulkner’s was working as the postmaster at Ole Miss–by all accounts, he was terrible at it.

Did Faulkner care about work-life balance? Did he stress, maybe, about whether he should have looked for a more permanent job? Unclear. But it was about this time that he would say: “Beginning with Sartoris I discovered that my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it, and by sublimating the actual into apocryphal I would have complete liberty to use whatever talent I might have to its absolute top.”

In sum: back to work.

Teach Only If You Have To: An Interview with Julia Fierro

Julia Fierro directs the Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, home to 2000+ NYC writers, which she founded in her Brooklyn kitchen in 2002. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop and the author of Cutting Teeth, a novel due out from St. Martin’s press in Spring 2014. 

julia fierro

Why did you decide to pursue an MFA?

After graduating from American University with an English degree in 1998, I dreamt (quite naively) of “making a living by talking about books,” but I knew my GRE scores and GPA were nowhere near the 4.0+ score needed to be considered for a PhD program.

I’d heard rumors of this “MFA” and my parents had been badgering me to get a Master’s degree, because, they claimed, you could earn a higher salary. A higher salary doing what? I wanted to ask. I was knee-deep in that sludge of directionless doubt that so many new college grads feel in that first year post-undergrad. What should I do? Who should I be? What career should I have?

My extremely generous and supportive undergrad creative writing professor, Harvey Grossinger, urged me to apply. At the time, there were no MFA blogs or chat forums, and MFA programs didn’t have websites. I sent a check to AWP, and a few weeks later, the glossy green catalogue that listed all the current programs arrived, a fraction of what exists today. Professor Grossinger gave me a faded photocopy of the first official MFA program rankings, which had been published by U.S. News World Report in 1997, and I applied to the top 15 schools and waited, hoping I would get into just one—opening a door to a new life.

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

I left behind an over-priced Boston rental and temp jobs I loathed, all of which I was elated to abandon. But my boyfriend did have to sacrifice. My now-husband, writer Justin Feinstein, was a professional gigging hand percussionist (congas, bongos and the like). When I applied to programs, I assured him I would NEVER get into Iowa – the odds were insane, and we fantasized about programs in cities where he could play music, like NYC and Austin, Texas.

When my acceptance letter from Iowa arrived, I was amazed, shocked, excited, all of which was instantly clouded by the terrible fear that Justin might not come with me to Iowa.

Thankfully, he did. He sacrificed a lot to be there and had many dreary jobs (including holding a sign in the bitterly cold prairie wind for a jewelry store going out of business). In the end, his experience at Iowa was a huge gift to both of us—he realized that he loved the writer’s perspective and that he felt more comfortable with writers vs. musicians. He became a writer and recently completed a manuscript and signed with an agent.

If a Sackett student is considering applying to MFA programs and asks me for advice, my first questions are — can you leave your current life without too much repercussion? How old are you? Have you worked hard to establish a career you wouldn’t want to leave behind? Do you have a partner/significant other? Do you have a family?

There are writers who cannot afford to leave their jobs and their families for a two or three-year program. But the majority of today’s MFA students, especially those in programs outside NYC, are young – most in their twenties — and many attend straight from undergrad, which means they have had little time to create ties that can’t be left behind. I imagine this trend of the young MFA student is partially due to the slump in the economy, which has created a slump in employment. Historically, young people flock to universities when there are no jobs, especially when they are accepted at a fully funded program. Lastly, there is a growing romantic buzz around MFA programs that appeals to young people searching for an identity, and this has been enhanced by the many communities of MFA program candidates who find each other through blogs, groups on Facebook, and forums via Poets & Writers. The experience of applying to MFA programs has become its own community, in a sense.

When you started your program, what did you envision happening afterward?

When I first started my MFA, I was an inexperienced writer who hadn’t yet learned to take her writing seriously, and so all of my post-MFA dreams were focused on “career.” I hoped I’d come out of Iowa with teaching experience, enough that it could help me get a teaching job. At the time, I knew university positions were few and selection was competitive, but I had no idea how competitive.

My expectations for life post-MFA changed dramatically after my first semester at Iowa. I was chosen as one of seven Teaching-Writing Fellows, my work was well received in workshop, I realized I was a natural teacher, and I fell in love with the craft-focused writer’s perspective. I had found my calling. For the first time ever, I was surrounded by people who were a lot like me. They too were obsessive observers, storytellers and character analysts. I had never felt less alone. After decades of being told by my family and friends that I thought too much, that I was too critical and overly analytical, I remember thinking, at Iowa, “There’s nothing wrong with me. I’m just a writer!”

With this newfound confidence, my vision for life post-MFA changed, and with every success in workshop, it ballooned. I left Iowa with very high expectations for myself and for my writing.

My first few years post-MFA were very difficult, definitely some of the darkest years of my life, and I do think this is in large part due to my unrealistic expectations. When you are part of an insular world (the MFA is its own kind of “beautiful bubble”), and your classmates are earning two-book deals and being published in The New Yorker, you create very high expectations for yourself. When those dreams of instant publication and instant employment at a university did not come true after I graduated (I was very impatient), I lost my confidence and motivation. I wouldn’t regain it until the Sackett Street Writers’ gave me a new kind of focus and self-worth.

I knew enough about Iowa’s prestige to call the workshop and speak to one of the secretaries, just in case there had been a mistake and I had received the letter of acceptance by accident. No, they reassured me (with a smile in their voice), you’ve been accepted. It wasn’t until I arrived to start the program and spoke to other writers, equally as shocked at being accepted, that I realized the staff at the workshop received these calls every year.

When I arrived in Iowa City, I went to Prairie Lights, a wonderful independent bookstore. Lo and behold, there was an entire shelf dedicated to books about the Iowa Writers’ Workshop! Nearby shelves were covered with books by Iowa MFA grads, and they were some of my favorite authors – Michael Cunningham, Sandra Cisneros, Ethan Canin, Nathan Englander. That was when I understood how incredibly lucky I was.

That said, the point I am trying to make, is that when I went to Iowa, I was a [Editor: the following link is silly and has nothing to do with Julia Fierro] blank slate, and in many ways this was the best way to be. Unlike my classmates — several already had MFA degrees, and many had already decided what they believed to be good and bad writing — I had no presumptions. The only craft-talk I had ever heard was from my one and only undergrad writing teacher.

I was a sponge and I soaked up every bit of advice my teachers — Ethan Canin, Chris Offutt, Marilynne Robinson, Lan Samantha Chang, Frank Conroy, Francine Prose — offered me. I was eager to participate in class, had no pretensions, and I was in love with reading about, talking about, and thinking about the craft of writing.

Do you like your work? Why or why not?

I LOVE my work.

Not a day goes by that I don’t feel very very lucky.

How long did you spend looking for work after the MFA?

My husband and I (newly married) had a very hard time finding work when I graduated in 2002. I was an adjunct at three different universities, as well as a part-time babysitter, and he was working full-time at a catering company, and still we could barely make rent. Oh, it was rough.

The worst part was that I lost all faith in myself as a writer after my first book went out and was gradually rejected by every publishing house in NYC. I did not write for close to 5 years, and instead threw myself into teaching my Sackett Street workshops – first one class, and then another, until I had four full classes of amazing writers gathering in my kitchen four nights a week, and I could finally quit my adjunct work.

Do you feel that with your job, you’ve been able to structure your time to privilege your writing? How do you do that?

My schedule as an adjunct, and as director and main teacher of Sackett Street, was full of time in the four years between when I started Sackett Street and when I had my first child.

Oh how — now in retrospect — I wish I had taken advantage of all that free time I had before my children were born – the first in 2007 and the second in 2009. I often wonder if I had too much time on my hands, because I became more organized, disciplined and motivated in the years after my children were born. Writing truly does feel like a “privilege” when you are in stealing time from your work and your family to practice it. But this is a topic for another time.

From 2004 to roughly 2009, I was not writing. I was recovering from the rejection of my first novel, was consumed by teaching at multiple universities and at home through Sackett Street, and by the constant struggle to make enough income to pay our bills. My son was born in 2007 and I could only afford 6 hours of babysitting a week, so I spent many hours critiquing student work and preparing for class in my home, while he watched Sesame Street — sometimes on one half of my computer screen, while I worked on the other half. It wasn’t until my son was 4 and my daughter 2 that I was able to invest more in childcare and I returned to writing regularly in 2011. Hallelujah.

Did you have the opportunity to work in academia after you graduated? How did you respond to that opportunity?

I did work as an adjunct for several years (and at several different NYC universities) after I graduated from Iowa. The commutes were very difficult – I’m a high-strung writer, after all – and after a year I decided to work at just one university and supplement with editing work. Many years later, I am still ashamed to admit that I made a little over 11,000 dollars a year at that university teaching an 8-credit load. This was between 2002-2006 and this was at a very expensive private university. I was young and energetic, however, and madly in love with the craft of writing, so much so that I taught all my courses – even composition and literature – like one big writer’s seminar. Because I read with a “writer’s perspective” and am more interested in how a writer creates the reader’s experience through technical choices such as point-of-view, order of information, pacing, etc., I felt I had little in common with the literature professors, who were scholars and more interested in what a work of writing meant.

A few months before I left academia to dedicate myself to the development of Sackett Street, I was called into the English Chair’s office. “Professor Fierro,” he said, “I heard from Dr. (James Joyce scholar) that you’ve been telling your students not to read Joyce.” I explained that I told them I didn’t like Joyce. He laughed. I laughed. But as I walked out of his office, I began plotting my escape.

I would love to return to university teaching someday, especially at an MFA program, but for now I am teaching the most motivated, experienced and skilled writers in NYC in the Sackett Street post-MFA workshops. Can a writerly girl ask for more?

Do you ever have any regrets about getting an MFA?                   

I don’t have any regrets. There are aspects of my experience I would, in retrospect, have altered, such as my unrealistically high expectations for my life post-MFA, but I was young when I went to Iowa (24-25), untethered, career-less, and it was a perfect time for me to devote all my time to my writing and teaching.

The MFA experience was a necessity for me, and the timing was perfect. I needed the validation of being accepted, and the critical reception given to my work and my ideas while at Iowa, in order to take my own writing seriously.

Unlike many of the writers I would meet at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I did not grow up in a family of readers or writers, and so the notion of writing as a “profession” wasn’t part of my reality. Many of my Iowa classmates had wanted to be writers since they were teens, even children. Since I was child, my parents had told me I’d be a lawyer, my brother a doctor, and this is a common experience among children of immigrants.

My declaration of an English major as an undergrad had already disappointed my parents, and when I was accepted at Iowa, there was nothing I could say to convince them of the program’s prestige. In their worldview, success came with financial stability, and how could a writer make money? They could not believe that creative writing was a tangible “career”. They could understand the worth implied in the phrase, “Master’s degree,” and I didn’t inform them that an MFA was not the most lucrative degree. And when I called home from my first semester at Iowa to tell them that my students called me Professor Fierro, they delighted in telling their friends that I was a Dottoressa.

So my decision to apply to MFA programs, and to take my writing seriously, was quite a leap of faith. I am almost certain that if I had not been accepted at an MFA program, particularly one that gave me substantial financial aid and an opportunity to teach, and if I had not lived for two years in a world where writing was treated as a sacred craft, I would have never given myself the “permission” to call myself a writer, or to make the necessary sacrifices (time, financial, family, etc.).

I also believe that the “Iowa MFA” helped me fill classes in those early years of Sackett Street. All my early Craigslist posts (starting in 2003) advertised, “Writing Workshop with Iowa MFA grad,” and many a student showed up at my kitchen table because they wanted to work with an Iowa MFA grad, and had dreams of going to Iowa themselves.

I do not think the MFA is necessary to a writer’s development, and/or their success, but, if feasible, it is amazing opportunity to devote time to your work — a privilege not everyone can afford.

What is your response to the articles that pop up every so often condemning the MFA as misleading or bad for literature?

Like so many controversial topics that flare up online, I do think that if one looks at the question relatively, there would be nothing to write about at all.

It’s simple: For some writers, MFA programs are great. For others, not so great. It depends on that particular writer’s subjective needs at that unique point in the development of their unique craft.

As far as the larger effect that MFA programs have on the state of literature, this is an interesting question. Like any intensive graduate program, the MFA student receives information, advice, and perspective from their instructors and their classmates, each of whom has different taste and style, and by the end of those two or three years, the MFA student is filled to near bursting. The first few years post-MFA are an important, and often confusing, time for the MFA graduate, because he/she must shed the information and prejudices he/she has gathered, retaining what truly matters to their unique way of writing.

I often tell my students who are returning after completing the MFA, that whatever matters most to their perspective and their work will rise to the surface after this period of post-MFA “shedding.” As I mentioned in my recent Millions’ essay, it took me years to loosen my style, to allow myself to not only find my voice, but also to accept it.

In this current state of publishing, when editors at major houses seek the next hot young writer, and there exists what I consider a uniquely American obsession with “the young debut writer”, I can see how a writer published immediately after graduating from an MFA program may seem to have an effect on “literature.” But I do think this has more to do with the publishing world than the rise of the MFA program.

It is important to point out that as it becomes more and more difficult to be published by a major publisher, and as self-publishing becomes more common, the ability to be able to revise your own work becomes more essential. I advise my students to have their manuscript as polished as possible even before they send it out to agents. Revision is a writer’s greatest tool.

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

My advice for recent or soon-to-be graduates is:

Dare to dream, but also keep one foot planted on the ground. Every aspect of the professional literary world – publishing, university teaching – is competitive. Don’t get lost in that competition so that you forget where you started. We all started as writers who write to write, because we have to, and because life would mean less without the opportunity to make sense of it through language and story.

In my first semester at Iowa, Kurt Vonnegut came to visit. A small group of us young MFA students sat in the rec room of a dorm hall while Vonnegut chain-smoked and gave us some of the best advice I’ve ever heard. He urged us to make a living outside writing. “Be an insurance salesman,” he said.

In many ways, I agree with him. I know that may sound strange coming from me, a writer whose “living” is earned by running a writers’ workshop, but I do think that writers, too often, only seek income within the extremely competitive (not to mention, low-paying) worlds of academia and publishing. I love to teach – every minute I spend teaching workshop is a carpe diem moment for me – and that made the sacrifices, especially financially, a bit easier for me. But too many MFA graduates feel they have to teach, and, as we all know, teaching can be consuming. Teach only if you need to, if it is your passion. There are others ways to pay your rent—more lucrative ways that won’t deplete the creative energy you’ll need to focus on your own writing.

My advice for those entering MFA programs is:

Go easy on yourself. You are about to enter an inspiring but also intense world where you’ll feel as if you are often under scrutiny. Remember, all the writers in your program feel insecure, even if they don’t appear so.

Do not take everything people say in workshop seriously. In the end, it is you who knows what your story or novel needs. This goes for your teachers too. Just because they may be “famous” authors doesn’t mean they are famously generous or insightful readers. Trust your instinct – it will remain your best friend years and years after you graduate.

Ask the program’s current students for advice on which teachers are the most generous — who writes critiques, who commits to individual conferences.

Don’t beat yourself up if you suffer writers’ block, especially when you first arrive at the program. For some, the fear of criticism in workshop is a motivator, for others a clamp on their creative confidence. If you can’t write, read as much as you can. The MFA is about learning for some writers, and about producing for others. Above all, remember that the beautiful bubble of the MFA experience is temporary—there is a world outside its walls, and a future for you and your writing in that world.


Follow Julia on tumblr:, read an excerpt from her novel at Guernica, or, if you’re in NYC, sign up for a Sackett Street workshop! 

Great Human Things, Cosmic Inflation: An Interview with Sarah Scoles

Sarah Scoles is an Associate Editor at Astronomy magazine. She earned an M.F.A. from Cornell University. 

Why did you decide to pursue an MFA?

I took a Creative Writing course as an elective at the end of my junior year of college. In the Fall, I expected to be applying to Ph.D. programs in Astronomy, as that’s what I was actually studying. But when I took a second Writing class during the first semester of my senior year, I thought that perhaps I loved writing too much to spend six years in graduate school for something else right away. I didn’t know anything about MFA programs (I didn’t even know what the letters stood for, so immersed was I in the science world, until that year), but I knew I wanted to do more writing, I knew I wanted to become a better writer, and I was fairly certain I wasn’t qualified for any jobs.

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

Well, I had wanted to be a research astronomer since I was about four years old, and all of my plans for my future centered on that goal. So I was essentially leaving behind the whole life-path I’d planned to trek down.

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