Two juicy titles recently debuted at the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference in Seattle this year, MFA vs NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction and Now What: The Creative Writer's Guide to Life After the MFA edited by Ashley Andersen Zantop, Michael Bayer, A.J. O'Connell, Erin Corriveau, Adele Annesi and Jean M. Medeiros. This may put you in a quandary. With trying to fit writing into your already full life, and reading on top of that, are they worth reading? Fortunately, I devoured both books over my spring break and I can help you with that. If you're a true writing geek, someone who's devoted herself to wedging writing into her life because she simply can't imagine it any other way, someone who's driven by having something she desperately needs to say, and who's committed to saying it whether or not she has loads of time or money, you can skip MFA vs. NYC but Now What might be just what you need.
I'll admit, my expectations were high for MFA vs. NYC, perhaps a bit too high. The minute I heard about the book, I breathlessly pre-ordered it from Amazon in late January and began counting the days until its release. If this sounds a little, well, geeky, to you, let me confess right now that in addition to being a writing geek, I'm also a geek when it comes to the history of creative writing in higher education, right up to the present day. The Elephants Teach, The Program Era, I've studied these books and many more and even written my own, and so I fully expected MFA vs. NYC to be the next volume in an informal series of sorts, a current, nuanced view of creative writing as expressed in higher education and in the publishing scene. And when one of the essays in the book, "The Pyramid Scheme," Eric Bennett's elegant investigation about, among other things Iowa Writing Workshop Director Paul Engle's CIA connections during the Cold War, was leaked in advance of publication, I thought my hopes might have been realized. Then Carla Blumenkranz's essay, "Seduce the Whole World," revealing infamous creative writing teacher and editor Gordon Lish to have been a megalomaniac monster, followed and I wasn't so sure. It was decades ago that Lish's controlling, insatiable ego (and sexual appetite) dominated the lives of would-be writers willing to pay thousands to be victimized by his teaching, but the essay reads as if these egregious practices would fly in creative writing programs today. I would argue that, by and large, they wouldn't, in part, because creative writing programs have actually changed a great deal since that time (and are still changing) and in part because today's students wouldn't stand for that kind of teaching. Growing up in a post-Anita Hill landscape, most of them know exactly how they should be treated in the classroom and in the workplace.
Which really gets at the main issue I have with MFA vs. NYC: it already seems out of date. In fact, one of the best essays in the book, "The Fictional Future," not surprisingly by David Foster Wallace, was published in 1988. 1988! Over 25 years ago! For better and for worse, the creative writing terrain has changed vastly since then -- publishing this essay in a volume that purports to describe the current culture is misleading at the very least. Additionally, other essays that describe publishing careers begun over 15 years ago (and dwelling on those early days) or chronicle lost years spent frittering away a $200,000 advance (hint, if you want to live on a $200,000 advance for more than a few years, don't live by yourself in New York) feel likewise outmoded. Of course, there were a few highlights: besides Bennett's piece, there's also Alexander Chee's wistfully elegiac description of his time at Iowa, "My Parade," and Lynn Martin's uncharacteristically (for the book) upbeat portrait of her work as a publicist at St. Martin's, as well as a few other bright spots. But on the whole, in its striving toward a sort of hipster cynicism, MFA vs. NYC simply comes off as overwhelmingly, disconcertingly passive.
By contrast, if it's genuinely useful information you're looking for, from people who, like you, are trying to keep body and soul and writing together, Now What is probably what you're looking for. Disclaimer: Now What is a publication of the five-year-old low-residency program at Fairfield University in Connecticut and was written for people who have graduated from an MFA program. In fact, it seems particularly aimed at those graduating from a low-residency program, who are more likely trying to fit a writing life in with other careers. However, I think it's also a useful volume for anyone considering or pursuing such a program. I plan to assign it to my students in the future and gift it to those I've already taught. And even if, after reading it, you decide such a program is not for you, you'll have learned a great deal about building a writing life along the way.
As program director Michael White explains in his introduction, Now What "grew from a pamphlet addressing the needs of our graduates to a 300 plus page book with over forty contributors." Not surprisingly, emerging from a desire to be both "authentic and practical," what I like most about Now What is how proactive it is, declaring, as I tell my students all the time, "a good writing life after your program begins during your program" and then providing an abundance of resources that detail how a writer can take the reins and make that life happen.
Although a number of the contributors to Now What do make their living in teaching, writing, editing and publishing, they are also realistic about the kinds of conditions writers work in today, as demonstrated by sections with titles like "Life Happens: How to Keep Writing Anyway," "Writing Reality for Breadwinners" and "Health Insurance for Writer.s" It is this realism that aligns them to the writing geek creed*, best expressed by a quote from Baron Wormser's essay in the book, Life Comes First: "We get to live a life and write. We get to know some other people who feel about writing as strongly as we feel... What more could we ask?"
What more indeed.
*I have not yet written the "Writing Geek Creed" but this quote surely aligns with it in spirit.
Correction: A previous version of this post misidentified Ashley Andersen Zantop as Ashley Andersen Zapp.
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