Should we make it our business to teach the business of being a writer?


Writing as craft and writing as business

Here’s the question I asked both MFA faculty and students on the survey.

MFA programs should avoid “professionalization” and “business” issues related to the writing life, such as discussions of the market and what sells.

And here are the results:

No surprise there!

But check this out:

I was kind of blown away by how many faculty said false.

This might surprise you: I selected TRUE. Let me explain that. And let’s talk about what we mean by “professionalization.”

Which business are we preparing them for: academia or publishing?

I was trying to make a distinction between:

  • academic professionalization of grad students (creating a CV, how to apply for academic positions, how to give a “job talk”)
  • non-academic professionalization (creating a resume, how to write a query letter, synopsis, or book proposal, how to enter the publishing world).

The former activity almost always happens in English departments, especially those with PhD programs. In my MFA program, the creative writers prepared themselves for the job market by going to meetings for PhD students on “How to enter the profession via the academic job search.” We creative writers translated for our own purposes (dissertation = book manuscript, etc.) and sought additional assistance from the CW faculty and writer friends a few years ahead of us. I got very little MFA-specific guidance in how to pursue academic employment, but I did get something, even if it was pitched to PhD’s, not creative writers.

The latter activity, non-academic professionalization, which we’ll call “How to get published,” or “What to do next,” sometimes happens in MFA programs, but not often in classes, per se. You’re more likely to find it happening in the co-curriculum (delivered via panels, visiting writers series, info sessions) or in one-on-one sessions between thesis advisee and adviser.

I got my MFA long ago in 1995, and back then, my program didn’t explicitly address any of these things:

  • how to submit work to magazines
  • how to find an agent
  • how to pitch a nonfiction story to a national magazine
  • how to do a book proposal
  • how to apply for grants and fellowships
  • how going to writers’ conferences might help me find new writing peers and possible blurbers
  • And I definitely didn’t learn anything about how to build and maintain a website or online presence. (It was 1995. We were barely using email then.)

These days, I do talk about these things explicitly–at the end of my advanced undergraduate and graduate courses. If you check out the syllabus of my novel-writing class, you’ll see that I teach them how to write a pitch, query, and synopsis. I show them how to format a book manuscript. I show them how to submit to literary magazines and how to learn from rejection.  

Dangling the Carrot

If you encourage someone to embark on a big thing, dangle a carrot in front of them so they’ll finish it. I tell my students, “If you keep writing this book and revise it and make it as perfect as you can, send it to me and I’ll see what I can do to help you.” A few weeks ago, one of my former undergrads got an agent who is going out with the novel my student started in my Senior Seminar. In this case, I was able to help a student directly, although most of the time, my help is more indirect, more like pointing former students in the right directions or encouraging them not to give up.

Why do so many apprentice writers give up writing? I think it’s because they don’t know what to do next. They don’t know what to do with the books we encourage them to write. They think publishing is a secret society, and they aren’t the right sort, they won’t get in. I say bullshit. I say read this. I say let’s give them some agency, and I don’t mean a literary agent.

But I need to tell you this: I’m enormously conflicted about the fact that I do these things.

If writing is a business, should we teach marketing?

Some people think that MFA programs should help students build an online presence. Last year in the Chronicle, Brian Croxall advised PhD students to do this:

…you want to start now in building an online profile so that you’ll like what they find. You can start by Googling yourself to see what information is out there already. Then work to grab your own space on the web, whether it’s a blog, wiki, static website, or space on Twitter (or all four). In these spaces you should keep your updated CV, materials related to courses you’ve taught, first drafts of your work, or anything else to help colleagues and potential employers understand your research, teaching, and skill profiles. As guest ProfHacker and friend Dave Parry wrote in a post on academic branding, you want your profile to “demonstrate to the world what type of scholar you are, and what you do.” I personally recommend using your real name, as it will establish your online foothold that much more strongly.

Do we really want to teach MFA fiction candidates how to create a website, how to understand the market they’re writing for, how to brand themselves? Do most MFA faculty even understand what that means?

Just thinking about this issue makes me itchy–because it’s a complete anathema to the way I became a writer, and yet, I know it’s incredibly important these days to be an “author-preneur.”

I work now with the Midwest Writers Workshop, a great conference in Muncie, Indiana. Last year, I was on the faculty and over a two-day period, I taught short sessions on craft, but because I was scheduled against sessions on HOW TO GET AN AGENT and HOW TO GET A MILLION TWITTER FOLLOWERS (I’m exaggerating a little), I spoke to a very small number of people. To address this problem, this summer, we created an entire block of nothing but craft sessions to emphasize how much the conferences values good writing AND learning the business.

The point is: Faced with the choice between an opportunity to learn how to be a successful, popular writer vs. an opportunity to learn how to be good, highly skilled writer, most people will choose the former. Do MFA programs really want to present even more opportunities for young writers to obsess about SEO or their Klout score?

If writing is a business, should we teach them how to stay in business?

But on the other hand (can you tell how conflicted I am about this subject?!) given the state of the academic job market, how can we not offer some real-world survival skills to the hundreds of students we loose upon the world each year?

This is a very serious question.

And isn’t this at least part of the reason to offer instruction to fiction writers in how to write a novel?

And while we’re at it, how about teaching them how to adapt the novel into a screenplay or teleplay, as writers like Benjamin Percy and Dean Bakopoulos and many others have done?

In a Huffington Post article last year, Brian Joseph Davis suggested “diversifying with more commercial applications of creative writing,” which would “balance practical skills with the no less important art of completely impractical, clever and beautifully unmarketable literary fiction writing.”

I’d suggest including screenwriting, as some programs already do, or adding more new media courses. How about courses that prepare MFA grads for ghostwriting an unauthorized Hugh Laurie biography, one that earns them enough money to pay rent for a year so they can work on a novel?

As a former MFA faculty member, I’m interested in anything that gives MFA students an opportunity to lead literary lives–however they choose to lead them. At the same time, I want to pose this question: Isn’t it hard enough to teach someone to read and write well in 2 or 3 years? Are MFA programs responsible for equipping graduates for all possible professional outcomes?

I don’t know the answer to this question, mind you.

This will make me sound like a fuddy duddy, but I have to say it: as mentioned above, my MFA program didn’t professionalize me about the publishing world, and yet, here I am anyway. Everything I thought “being a writer” would mean in 1995 is completely different today, and I’ve adjusted.

It’s not that I think my students should “learn things the hard way” just because I did. Rather, I think the way is always hard, no matter what you do or how you prepare someone.

Meaningful anecdote

Once, I was on a committee charged with reading alumni surveys. All undergrad English majors. One guy wrote to say he was very disappointed in his major because at his first high school teaching job, he was asked to teach The Sun Also Rises, “and you never made me read that book!” To which we responded, “Did you read any Hemingway? Did you read any Lost Generation writers? Did we teach you how to read a book critically, how to research things you don’t already know? Surely we did. Surely we can’t prepare you for the exact circumstance each graduate will face. We hope we taught you the most important thing: how to teach yourself.”

If writing is a business, so is creative writing instruction

In the years ahead, MFA programs must decide whether or not to respond to these demands for more professionalization, more real-world, practical skills. Because they will start losing students: to the Grub Street Novel Incubator, to low-res programs, to courses (IRL and online) offered by independent centers and literary magazines and the distance-education arms of major universities, to the growing number of writer conferences, to privately run writing groups, to critique sessions offered by writers.

As creative-writing instruction goes, MFA programs used to be the only game in town. Now, they aren’t. If a young writer knows exactly what she wants and an MFA program can’t provide that, she will look elsewhere for those opportunities–and believe me, she will find someone ready to give her exactly what she wants.

What about you? What do you think? I’d really like to know, because as you can tell, I’m awfully conflicted on this issue. I’d also like to expand these thoughts and publish them. What other topics should I explore?

About Cathy Day

I'm the author of THE CIRCUS IN WINTER and COMEBACK SEASON, and I teach at Ball State University.
This entry was posted in CW Programs, Teaching and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

39 Responses to Should we make it our business to teach the business of being a writer?

  1. Joe Young says:

    Hey Cathy,

    Interesting question to ask. I read this with my music-composer glasses on. (I think the lifestyles between that and writers are almost exact.)

    The issue that kept coming up in my mind was a question of “heart” and “Darwinism.” (I’ll try and do my explanation justice and hopefully it’ll make sense.) In compositional programs (literary and musical here on out) I’m all for tools being made very available to students on how to compete and adapt to the market today. There definitely needs to be times to teach and discuss the social media and self-propaganda sort of things.

    I agree (not sure if you explicitly agreed actually…) that these are best left at workshops and presentations. That type of information isn’t NECESSARY (I don’t know how to bold font on here)–just extremely helpful. In music composition programs there are short courses (not sure about Ball State now) on media design, promotion, applying works to publishers, resumes, etc. I don’t agree that they’re curricular.

    The “heart” and “Darwinism” issue that kept coming up for me is like this: if the student can’t search out the tools outside of what courses tell them, they’re not doing that other small part of what being a writer/composer is. I think you could have someone who is 100% writing/composing all the time–they could write the best stuff the world has ever seen. But if they’re ALL writing and no learning-how-to-work-in-the-market, then they’re just an individual with a hardcore hobby.

    Pick any ratio (that probably means nothing in this argument) but a writer should be 99% their craft & 1% all the stuff you talked about above (how to market, resume, etc etc). Being a composer isn’t just notes on a page all day and nothing more. It’s exercising the other parts of brain that adhere to real-world competition. That’s the “Darwinism” part.

    The “heart” part is as the academic professors, is your creed to prepare students to read and write the BEST they can? Or to read, write, AND be a fully-functional sociable/interactive market-goer as if they minored in Business, the BEST they can? If I were an academic professor of writing (really music, again) I would choose to prepare students to write and read the best they can, specifically within programs courses. My non-academic personality would say, “Go check out these resources,” or “I’ll recommend this,” and so on and so forth.

    I think I touched on what you were asking, or at least a small part of it. Pretty much if “Business” isn’t in the degree name, then the “business” part should be left to the “facts of life”/growing up part of the world. Life experience on your own is just as important as study.

    –Joe Young,
    owner of many picture books.

  2. Jon Sealy says:

    I’m currently in that middle ground, a few years out of my MFA but a few years away from having enough credentials to apply for a tenure-track job, if I ever go that route. This post caught my eye because I’m doing a lot of self-education about the agent/publishing world. A few thoughts:

    *I disagree that most apprentice writers quit because they don’t know what to do next. I’ve watched a lot of my peers quit writing, the first wave in the years after we finished our undergraduate English degrees and the second wave after the MFA. The reason seems to be that writing on your own requires some combination of stupidity or arrogance or something to keep that fire burning. I hate to be melodramatic, but the world is quite hostile to someone who wants to write a novel — from your parents (and in-laws!) to your boss to marketers to the indifference of most people to fiction that’s not Harry Potter or the Hunger Games. Most people just quit writing by 30, same as they quit their band or quit acting or whatever. They quit and find jobs that offer an easier path to middle class living. I’m not sure there’s anything you can or should try to do about that.

    *A little bit of professionalization probably goes a long way. If you’re an apprentice plumber, you learn about plumbing. Maybe a little bit about what to charge and how to find clients is useful, but if you can’t fix a toilet, no amount of business savvy will save you.

    *There’s probably a difference between what to do at the MFA level vs. the PhD. level. MFAs often go on to do things other than teach, whereas PhD students are in it for the long haul.

    *Maybe the MFA world has changed drastically even in the few years since I’ve been out, but I can’t imagine not having craft as the center of the experience. If the experience becomes more about professionalization, it seems like it will just turn into another hustle. For instance, take a look at the American Writers and Artists Institute, which seems to be the opposite of an MFA program.

    *I think there are a lot of opportunities for MFA graduates in the business world, which don’t have anything to do with creative writing and which most MFA faculty don’t seem to be aware of.

    *How much can MFA faculty really do toward securing a student’s future publication? If it’s a significant amount, doesn’t that confirm the idea that the publishing industry is closed off to those on the outside? Does anyone want the system to be closed off from the rest of the culture? I worry about that more than anything, because our entire marketing culture seems to be about creating pod groups for targeted advertising (consumer A gets the Mercedes commercial, consumer B gets the Wal-Mart commercial). It seems like if MFA programs promote an isolated system, they’re promoting their own irrelevance.

    I think, in short, I share your concerns, but I also fear I’m turning into a grouchy old man.

    • Cathy Day says:

      Thanks, Jon! What are these business world opportunities of which you speak?! Also, you ask: “How much can MFA faculty really do toward securing a student’s future publication?” Well, I feel like it is the job of a mentor to write letters of recommendation for students, make introductions, help them get into writer’s conferences, etc. I certainly can’t guarantee anybody anything, but I do feel like it helps, and I don’t think it’s a bad thing. It’s an old and venerable tradition: one generation helping the next. There was a great interview with agents in Poets and Writers a few years ago.

      P&W: What do you want them to do? I think it can seem really hard to get an agent’s attention when you live in a small town somewhere and you don’t know anybody.

      STEINBERG: Well, know somebody. [Laughter.] I’m serious. We’re in the age of e-mail and the Internet. If you e-mail twenty of your friends and say, “Do you know anyone in publishing?” someone has to know somebody. Or somebody who knows somebody. You know what I mean? Find how you know somebody.

      STEIN: But you know what? I’ve actually taken on several clients who didn’t know anybody in publishing. I’ll give you an example: Anya Ulinich, who’s done pretty well for somebody who didn’t know anybody. She did some research and asked herself, “Okay, I’m Russian, and my novel has something to do with Russia, so who represents Russian novels?” She did some research and targeted those agents and wrote a query letter that was just really straightforward. It was like, “Here’s my deal. Here’s why I’m writing to you.” It was completely unpretentious and completely straightforward and well written, and because of all that and because there was nothing in it that made me think, “Oh, she’s read some book that tells you how to write query letters”—it was just very natural—I asked to see pages. I don’t think you have to know somebody.

      I think those two quotes from agents speak directly to your worries about “Do you have to know somebody in order to be published?” and the answer is “Of course,” and “Of course not.”

      • Erin says:

        I can answer the question about business opportunities because that’s how I’ve made my living post MFA. I’ve written course materials, training manuals, and subscription-based online content. And one non-academic job for which I really do feel an MFA trained me: Sales proposal writer. That job is all about being receptive to and weighing the merits of feedback, and treating the givers of feedback properly under a set of sometimes peculiar circumstances. My non-MFA colleagues wrestled with that…almost never a problem for me.

      • Jon Sealy says:

        Thanks for the link, Cathy. For the business world, check out this article:

        The world of commercial copywriting is wide open — advertising, corporate communications, marketing, public relations, project management (particularly with product launches). Innovation is a current buzz word in the business world; following the lead of I think Proctor & Gamble, a lot of businesses have set up “innovation departments,” which is fancy-speak for research and development. The business world is slowly learning some lessons from the creative arts, so people with a knack for design, storytelling, and analysis are in good shape. (Of course, the business world can be somewhat antagonistic things like interiority and character, so it can be tricky for an MFA to stay focused in that world.)

  3. Brittany says:

    I’m currently in an MFA program that has primarily addressed craft and spent a little bit of time addressing professional concerns about publishing. A little bit really does go a long way – we spent part of one class session last semester discussing short story submission and book publishing, etc. And being invited as graduate students to give input about faculty hiring has shown us what the “job talk” looks like. Information about professional concerns is very helpful, but I would never want it to overshadow craft, or even give it equal time. The program has emphasized that these are things we should worry about after we have completed and polished a manuscript. Just being in an MFA program has given me access to resources – people, books, websites – that I will be able to use to break into publishing when I’m ready.

    As for web presence training, this is probably because I am in my twenties, but I don’t think it’s necessary for faculty to give students this kind of instruction. Even for people who aren’t tech-savvy, it’s incredibly easy to access internet how-to guides on everything from blogging to twitter. These are the kinds of things that are easily self-taught. Plus, it’s way too easy to spend time building a website or tweeting and think you are “working”, when your time would be better spent writing. MFA time should be spent writing.

    So I suppose, to go along with the philosophy of teaching people to teach themselves, it’s more important for programs to point students toward resources than it is for them to teach students “the business”. All writers are self-starters anyway; our success depends on our self-motivation. Like you said: you figured it out, and here you are.

  4. Is there a way to be complementary with that list of other resources that you just listed as competitive? For example, could you encourage students to go to commercial-ish conferences and get a little credit from the MFA program? The Pike’s Peak Writers’ Conference brings in an array of agents and editors every year… some are genre-oriented, but there are always literary types as well. And there are great workshops and seminars on synopsis, queries, cover letters. There are pitch sessions, first page analyses by agent panels, and chances to read your first three pages in front of an agent or editor (and about 20-50 people in a room) and see what they say. Similar things happen at regional and national SCBWI conferences for those who are writing YA. I learned much more at those types of events, in just a long weekend, than I did via AWP type publications or events. Really, queries and synopses are not that hard, and there are books and lots of free online resources now. You and your programs don’t need to spend a lot of time of them. It’s more about demystification, and perhaps you could simply, as you say point the students in the right direction–and formalize how you do that.

    • Cathy Day says:

      Thanks Claudia. It might be difficult to offer course credit for something like that, but I agree that pointing them in those directions, “demystifying,” is a great idea. My sense is that it’s often difficult for graduate students to afford writers’s conferences, or that they feel that conferences aren’t “for them.” Although I’m not sure why they feel that way.

  5. Michael says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this! I was just blown away to see the faculty results… though maybe I shouldn’t have been. I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about this, too, and I’ve probably ranted about this to like-minded colleagues more times than they cared to hear. Anyway, for what it’s worth, here’s my two-cent take on it.

    My MFA education definitely helped me become a better writer but there was really only one prof who set up occasional professional development workshops; the rest either marginalized that stuff or in most cases, avoided it altogether. From talking to fellow writers, it seems like I actually got more professional instruction than most… and I’ve still made plenty of fairly needless mistakes.

    I’ve also had to unlearn some truisms that turned out to be not all that true in today’s publishing/tenure/marketing world. For instance, I recall hearing again and again that a hard-working writer with an MFA and a book could EASILY get an adjunct job and was a decent candidate for a tenure-line job, too, especially if she/he had some solid journal publications. And from there, marketing would sort of take care of itself. If you wanted a PhD, well, that’s fine but you didn’t really need it.

    These days, almost none of that’s true and even the extremely rare exceptions only seem to prove the general rule. What worked for writer/profs who got to where they are in academia fifteen or twenty years ago is totally different from what’s needed now–but as you said, good teachers already have their hands full simply trying to get their serious students to improve their reading and writing skills. So I think that too many profs simply fall back on their own memories of how they got from A to B (through hard work, talent, and persistence, sure, but to be blunt, also with significantly less competition) and assume things will continue to take care of themselves in that regard.

    This is why I’ve started offering optional lectures and tougher critiques to my more serious/advanced students. Not trying to sound like one of the few, proud defenders of artistry and youth here, but I’m genuinely worried that without the relatively small number of us who cover this stuff, promising/hard-working writers might get both an undergrad and a grad degree and still not know the basics of cover letters, the technical elements of simultaneous submissions, the dangers of self-publishing, how to request and retain rec letters, marketing, networking, pitching ideas, etc.

    I’ve heard it suggested that some writer/profs simply don’t want to create more competition (I once heard a writer/prof confess exactly that) but I think that in 99% of the cases, it’s just a case of limited energy and out-of-date information mixed in some cases with (say it!) a tinge of complacency and a touch of laziness. There’s also the desire to avoid conflict; I’ve seen firsthand that students (aka human beings) are all smiles when they’re told that everything they’re doing is awesome and their future is nothing but wine and roses. Nobody likes to be the bearer of bad news.

    Again, just my two cents. Thanks again for initiating this very important discussion!

  6. Julianna Baggott says:

    I discuss how to submit and the process of publication at various levels, what agents and editors do … and then I have open question periods where students can ask questions on craft or the industry. It doesn’t take much time. And then, of course, when a student is ready to send out a book, we get much more serious and specific.
    HOWEVER, I see so many web sites that give the impression that you need to know people, that it’s all about networking, that you need a platform… For the classical fiction writer and/or poet and/or memoirist, you need to be good at what you do. You send out poems not mentioning an MFA or any connections. They are accepted on merit.
    Platforms can help for those rare Tweet feed becomes a book deals. And/or someone who’s a specialist in a field who then gets a book. Or for celebrities.
    The one who works hardest on their craft, they’re the ones more likely to succeed. Period.
    So, yes, a little goes a long way.
    Meanwhile, the skills you learn on a lit mag and in the classroom help students get jobs in editorial, in magazines, pub houses, non-profits, education… I’ve seen people do so many things with the degree.

    • Cathy Day says:

      Thank you, Julianna. I think of you as someone who has a lot of business savvy, and so for you to say Focus on craft, is important.

    • Julianna, I definitely agree that the race tends to favor those who work hard and with great persistence, but with all due respect, I also think it’s a bit of a stretch to assume that publishers accept work solely based on merit and that the most critically venerated writers are always the most talented and hard-working (or, to reverse it, that talented and hard-working writers are always the most critically successful).

      I love the poetry of Sharon Olds, Dorianne Laux, George Bilgere, Yusef Komunyakaa, Marie Howe, and Tony Hoagland, for instance, and they’re very well-regarded; but I also love the poems of Jim Valvis, William Trowbridge, Peter Davis, Tom Hunley, Djelloul Marbrook, and Peter Bethanis, and they’re significantly (and I’d say unfairly) less well-known. I also think we have to be on guard against a natural human tendency to assume, once we’ve “made it” (somewhat analogous to the uber wealthy in a capitalist system) that we don’t just continue to succeed due largely to hard work and talent, but ONLY due to hard work and talent.

      As someone who’s judged some contests and has a little experience as an editor, I have to confess that I’m just as guilty as anyone. I think it’s something we all need to bear in mind, given that the closest thing to genuinely “objective” publishing takes place as the result of blind-judging in contests.

      Again, though, hard work and persistence are obviously of critical importance; I just think that if we assume the most well-known, critically-acclaimed, “successful” writers also collectively represent the best of the best, we’re making a leap of faith that we’d never make in other areas of media (cinema, music, etc).

      • Cathy Day says:


        Even though you directed this comment to Julianna, I’d like to jump in, if you don’t mind. I know what you’re talking about. But yet, I still think that we HAVE to say to students, “It’s about the work, the quality of the work, the craft, NOT “the biz.” Right? Don’t we HAVE to say that? Isn’t it the better thing to say? Even though it’s not quite that simple. Just thought I’d throw that out there…

        • Oh, I totally agree! The great majority of emphasis should definitely be on writing good stuff. Without that, the rest is just window-dressing for a house without windows.

          I probably should have prefaced my previous statement by confessing my growing frustration with the politics/fashions of academia… despite my love of teaching (I’m not sure there’s anything better or more rewarding) and sustaining devotion to this oddball religion we call writing.

  7. Michael says:


    There is so much about publishing that I did not know post-MFA. Most of what I know, if I know anything, I figured out on my own. I didn’t think or know much about what I was going to do after graduate school. I wanted to write, and that was about it.

    As you pointed out, there is a lot more competition for the attention of emerging writers now, from conferences and organizations like Grub Street and so forth, but MFA programs still seem to be the best foundation for writers to learn because of the long-term immersion (two to four years) that someone spends in school.

    What would really help is if MFA programs sat each new student down and planned out one of those two tracks you pointed to – academic or non-academic – and helped the incoming grad students figure out a plan, within the program, to walk out of graduate school ready for the Next Thing (whatever that might be). Too many programs, I think, offer workshops and maybe a technique class, and not much else. Adding two or three classes that focus on professionalism would go a long way to giving students some direction post-MFA. I’m not sure it needs to be a complete either/other, but presenting students with the optional direction (maybe this starts in the second year rather than the first year of graduate school) to focus on, say, screenwriting or grantwriting and so forth. I think that flexibility would be really wonderful.

  8. I’m of the firm opinion that opportunities to learn how to query, how to freelance, how to adapt your story, how to create an intriguing synopsis, what a platform is and how to build one, should all be offered to Creative Writing students at the BA level. I didn’t slog through all those workshops just so I could give good critique– I did it so that I could be a decent writer, a published and read writer. I reject the idea that I should have had to go yet further into debt to learn to write a good story. Not that I’m against the MFA, but it is hardly a necessity.

    As grateful as I am for my education, I also see the holes. If there had been a way to learn these skills alongside my regular writing classes, even in an Independent Study course, it might have changed my life.

    Maybe interdisciplinary classes could include some marketing/employment instruction for all the arts. But then, promising dancers are already taught how to compete, etc. This happens even earlier than college, for some of them.

    For us, not so much. Like the skill of editing one’s own work, it is assumed that it will not be a problem for the writer, one way or another, and that just isn’t true, now.

  9. Ms. Day. I really loved your post; in fact, I wrote about it today over at my blog. You’re taking part in a fantastic conversation, an important conversation, one MFA programs need to be having perhaps now more than ever given all that’s at stake. Thanks for inspiring the talk…

  10. Ashley Ford says:

    As a current undergraduate student, I’d say if you had to pick one topic to cover then you obviously pick craft. The cool thing is that you don’t have to pick. I’ve actually ever been in two creative writing courses where the “biz” of publishing wasn’t part of our instruction. However, I think my professors did it right by saving that part to the end. After our big workshops, when our work was the most polished it had ever been, then we talked about getting things published.

    Personally, I’ve really benefited from those discussions. Not that I was ever shy, but talking about publishing with my professors helped me realize that even if it isn’t easy, it’s also not impossible. It also opens the door to make a professional connection with your professor beyond the classroom.

    I’m grateful for what I learned about the “biz”. It helps me feel like I’m not floundering out here with a bunch of words in one hand a dream in the other. Everything feels closer to possible.

  11. Sarshi says:

    Hello again,

    I love you. I love the fact that you’re asking these questions and worrying about them. It makes me really wish doing my Master’s with you were an option. Some of the former students in my British Cultural Studies MA said that the skills taught weren’t practical and they’d want to be taught something helpful in the real world out there – which translated into us being taught some confusing, random ‘mock courses’ in business.

    That out of the way, here’s what I think:
    1. Craft is of course THE important thing. If I were to go to a creative writing MFA, I’d go to become the best writer I can. (well, unless I managed to become the best writer I can on my own, case in which I’d go to get an academic degree so I could teach creative writing to others, which is a different story)
    2. I’m just using this number 2. to emphasize craft. I think it’s that important.

    3. But I’d also offer a few words about the business of writing. What you do looks great. Some people are going to go and put themselves out there and advertise themselves like no tomorrow without you having to do a thing. But others will be more lost. Maybe some of them, like me, will have confidence issues and be scared of sending things and won’t know how to get an agent and will go around browsing the internet without knowing exactly what to look for. (it took me forever to discover that there are online publishing houses that publish short stories on their own, for example)

    Sure, we can discover things ourselves – eventually – through word of mouth and research and trial and error. But if a few simple words that point out the way can save a long, long time in attempting to discover what one should do, I say offer them. You don’t need to go into details, you don’t need to explain every little bit. Just knowing what to google and where to start looking is an amazing help. If there’s people who want you to teach them every little thing and hold their hands through the entire process, I think they’re not mature enough and will be disappointed sooner or later regardless of what you do.

    Also, when it comes to screenwriting and such… we had optional courses here, I’m not sure what the system there is. You had a slot that needed to be filled, but filled with what was up to you. Maybe screenwriting/whatnot can be something like that.

  12. Ms. Day…

    I meant to post something here last night, but I think I didn’t see the whole thing through…At any rate, I love this post of yours, and wrote a response to it over at my webpage / blog:

    Love the questions you pose, and would love to hear you talk more about craft…

  13. This is a great topic. It seems to me to relate to another trend, the move toward PhD programs in creative writing. If someone is going to make it as a writer with an academic day job, the days of getting hired for a tenure track job with an MFA and one book seem to be rapidly fading. My impression is that gradually the standard is moving toward doctorate and two books. Academe favors the highest terminal degrees. Why hire just an MFA if you can get a PhD?

    • Cathy Day says:

      Yes, it’s getting tougher and tougher to get a TT job these days, but a former student of mine just got a TT job with an MFA and no book published (although shortly after being hired, his first novel was accepted by a small press). I’m told that it’s because he showed he was a great teacher and colleague, that he’d been well prepared for the academic job search. It’s not impossible for young writers to be hired for their promise as writers and for their demonstrated ability as teachers and departmental citizens.

  14. Ian Wilson says:

    Hi Cathy:

    Everything I figured out about submitting work, contacting agents and that sort of thing I had to do on my own through trial and error. A few teachers urged us to submit our work but never gave us any information on how to do so.

    When I first had the opportunity to teach, I made it a part of all the courses to say something substantive in the last class about the business of writing, the mechanics of submission, agents, publishing and the like.

    To think that we’re all in this for the artistic expression is perhaps naive and fails to acknowledge our basic human drives for connection. Yes, the writing has to matter, but to write in a vacuum without hope of any audience, well that strikes me as some form of self-abuse.

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  19. Yes.

    If the goal of writing–at its most essential–is to reach as many readers as possible, then I think knowing how to reach those readers is essential, as well. I went to USC’s MPW program, where I studied not only story, structure, and character but also the literary marketplace, publishing, and business (one of my courses was actually called “The Business of the Business” and was taught by a woman with an MBA from Harvard).

    I honestly think that if more writers learned business, they’d end up eschewing the agent/corporate publishing route. From a business standpoint, the entire production and distribution model is broken, and from a writing standpoint, the sort of high quality and highly crafted work that MFA students often produce is dismissed in favor of reality television stars, celebrity chefs, and fan fiction.

    While at USC, I learned just enough about business to understand I had to learn more. I ended up going on to earn an MBA in marketing. When publishing is a button–which it now is–marketing is arguably the most important element to it. Marketing, in writing terms, serves that ultimate goal of connecting readers with words. Often, it also helps to objectively regard words subjectively created. I sometimes joke that I earned a PhD in being an author, but what I really did was study how to make a livelihood from my craft.

    • Cathy Day says:

      THANK YOU, Will. I wonder: how many MFA faculty really know a lot about the business? I’m just 44, and I’ve been playing “catch up” for the last few years, trying to educate myself so I can educate my students. I think this is very very important topic. Glad to meet you here! I used to live in Pittsburgh, too.

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  21. Mo Smith says:

    I realize that I might not the target audience for this post, but as a student I feel the need to express how appreciative I am of the opportunity to have a class like ours.

    I don’t know if I will ever write anything that I think is worthy or ready for publication, but if I get there, I will be even more grateful for whatever boost the Literary Citizenship class gives me. Not once did I think that because this class was offered, it was a replacement for a craft course; it is an addition, not a substitute.

    I can’t say that I “know” the internal debate you’re experiencing, but I can at least understand both sides of this conversation because as a student, I want the best education I can get from the writing program and the most important element in that education is craft. However, like I said, I would like to leave the program feeling as ready as possible and that includes the business side as well. I realize that not every student who enrolls in a course such as ours would see it in the same way that I do, but I’ve never felt like this class was telling us we were ready now and to go out and put these tips to use tomorrow.

    If the point of college is to prepare us for a job in our area of study, I think that includes both craft and business. I can only relate it to my education courses. We’re taught why and how to teach before we’re taught about licensing and the job market. The craft comes first, but it’s nice to feel like you’ve got a leg to stand on when you step out into the real world. In the education department, they pride themselves on how much they help students with job placement and I don’t know that a similar thing should be frowned upon in the writing department.

    Perhaps it would be less difficult if more craft courses were required before being able to take a course such as Literary Citizenship, but I still think it’s an invaluable class and should be offered.

  22. This is an engaging debate. Just to show another view and be a pain in the neck I’ll approach the issue from a less popular and rightly contested point of view. All writers have had to deal with protocol no matter what epoch in which they tried to get their writing into the public. Shakespeare had to deal with an aristocracy and censorship much different than ours, though those issues as writers still affect us today. Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Joyce, Williams, H.D., and Stevens who are some of the most influential modern writers have very little to do with academia and writing as a business in the context of this discussion. A list of such writers could go on and on. I think it is important to teach protocol relative to the current trends. I’m all for it. On a pragmatic level it is quite valuable to writers. Writers should be taught “what to do next.” At the same time, MFA and PhD programs and academia are in the Foucaultian sense the rising power structure of the last forty years through which writers to a certain degree must conform, and perhaps questioning the power structure of this “business” as an artist and writer is just as important as adapting to it. It is important that writers understand the systems in which they are participating and contributing and how it affects them and their work in both positive and negative ways. All writers who want their work in the public eye have to adapt to or confront the protocol of their society, and it’s important that writers learn how and why such a struggle exists between artists and their society, and how the relationship can be quite complex, postitive and negative, productive and counterproductive.

  23. Cathy Day says:

    Peter, thank you so much for your thoughts!

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