Monday, November 29, 2010

The Current Conversation


America now has two distinct literary cultures. Which one will last?

Honestly, I don't think you should waste your time reading this article, but I'm sharing it because I think it's important because it represents a huge flaw in so many people's thinking -- that there are only 2 ways to be a writer. 

Here's some points the author makes that I thought were interesting...

The superficial differences between these two cultures can be summed up charticle-style: short stories vs. novels; Amy Hempel vs. Jonathan Franzen; library copies vs. galley copies; Poets & Writers vs. the New York Observer; Wonder Boys vs. The Devil Wears Prada; the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference vs. the Frankfurt Book Fair; departmental parties vs. publishing parties; literary readings vs. publishing parties; staying home vs. publishing parties.

(Note: I did have to laugh at the everything else vs. publishing parties)

The model for the MFA fiction writer is her program counterpart, the poet. Poets have long been professionally bound to academia; decades before the blanketing of the country with MFA programs requiring professors, the poets took to the grad schools, earning Ph.D.s in English and other literary disciplines to finance their real vocation. Thus came of age the concept of the poet-teacher. The poet earns money as a teacher; and, at a higher level of professional accomplishment, from grants and prizes; and, at an even higher level, from appearance fees at other colleges. She does not, as a rule, earn money by publishing books of poems—it has become almost inconceivable that anyone outside a university library will read them. The consequences of this economic arrangement for the quality of American poetry have been often bemoaned (poems are insular, arcane, gratuitously allusive, etc.), if poorly understood. Of more interest here is the economic arrangement proper, and the ways in which it has become that of a large number of fiction writers as well. . .

(Note:  Um, is it just me, or is this the most painful sentence I've ever read:  it has become almost inconceivable that anyone outside a university library will read them.  Knife, meet my back...)


But again, the biggest flaw in the obsessional guessing-game of how best to be a writer in the US is that there is only *one* way to choose -- the MFA or the Life Experience way, but wait, there's more... 

If you call now to be a writer, not only will you receive this annoying article on limited choices, but also a handy-dandy poetic license to use as needed, a box of tissues to help with the rejection slips, but also your very own headache from reading debates that have been going on for years.

Can Poetry Matter?  Wait, where are we?
Listen, let me tell you this secret-- there is no one right way to be a writer.

Writers with MFAs publish books.
Writers without MFAs publish books.
Writers who have gone to college publish books.
Writers who have not gone to college publish books.
Writers who do not even live in NY publish books! (Amazing!)

Article after article slams MFA programs or raises them up, but it's too big and there are a bazillion ways to become a writer.

I have an MFA.  For me, it was an amazing time in my life and helped me be a better writer.  It is something I will never regret, but that way was right for me.  But that doesn't mean not getting an MFA is wrong.  Ah, the great thing about living an artistic life-- there is no wrong way to do it.  There's only your way, my way, his way, her way.  How freakin' lucky is that?!

Unlike becoming a doctor where you need to do X number of years in college, take test Y & Z, then intern at Hospital ABC, the pages in the Handbook for Becoming a Writer have been ripped out.  

Yes, there are the "read lots" and "write more," but that's one way.  There's also submitting a hundred times & be published or submit once and be published, or submit your own special number of times and be published.  But let's not stop there, there's many other ways-- don't forget, have a terrible childhood or uniquely special event in your life and write about it.  There's also get lucky, work hard, and your brother-in-law is a NY publisher way too.  Sometimes there's the self-publishing route or the write obsessively about that weird dream you had route (see Twilight series).  There's publish your thesis and publish your blog ways as well.  

But MFA & NYC only?  Nah.  We are not divided up.  It's like saying, "Let's look at that beautiful field of wildflowers-- oh, if I put my face in the dirt I see that some wildflowers have roots that criss-cross and others have roots that do not connect.  Let's pull out all the flowers and talk about them (ignoring all their beauty, of course) until everyone has passed out from boredom.  We'll ignore the flowers whose roots are in the shape of anything else and maybe not even mention those. . .well, that was fun.  What other field shall we uproot?"  

Ugh.  Give it a break.  Judge the writing, not the writer.  Discuss the book, not the lifestyle.  There is no secret decoder ring on how to live best as a writer.  Wait.  I lied. There is one...

Here's the secret decoder ring for becoming a writer:

Wander around your life a bit then sit down and write something.
Realize you need to find your own way & what's best for you.
If it interests you, write about it.
Trust your gut, your inner voice, your own path.
Either an MFA or not an MFA, that is not the question.

So, I thought you'd be interested in knowing that the debate continues on.  Even though I thought we were discussing the weather, the holidays, the words.

Is this still a topic we need to explore or can we just say different strokes for different folks?  

I think I'll say that.  Maybe even spell it out on my secret decoder ring.  Thank gawd I bought that box of Cracker Jacks, who knows, if I wouldn't have found my ring so early, I might have missed this whole writer's life.  My precious.



  1. I read that entire - and long - article the other day. I think I shared it in a couple of groups at She Writes, too, where the issue has come up several times.

    You offer a great response.

    Haven't had a box of Cracker Jacks in years!

  2. Laughing and cringing. How Do I Become a Poet, let me count the ways. Thanks for giving us all more options!!

  3. Wow.

    That article. Cringe is right.

    I laughed at Wonder Boys vs. Devil Wears Prada (because being a poet is so unlike either of these movies, although I wish that it was more like both of these).

    Everyone is so fixated on the MFA issue (not you--the article, I mean), for sure. Why do you think this is? To justify our own decisions to attend them or not?

    Thanks for the decoder ring. I have found it very helpful :).

  4. Getting through that article was torture!

    I don't have an MFA, don't want an MFA, sometimes think MFA programs have been counterproductive for a few poets I know, but, hey, if you want one, Go for it!

  5. I've always wanted a secret decoder ring...

    (Today's Word Verification secret code message is: "gangic.")

  6. I also get annoyed when people try so desperately to limit things to convenient categories.

    As someone who organizes and hosts monthly poetry readings, I get irritated when people try to divide everyone into "page poet" or "performance poet" camps. I love putting together readings that expose audiences to poets and poetry that they wrongly dismissed and pushing them toward the conclusion that compelling poetry is compelling.

  7. You mean I don't have to move to NYC to be a real writer/poet?! Whew ...


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