Saturday, August 11, 2007

Lizzy Sosa Paz, MFA Blog Contributor

Lizzy Sosa Paz is the author of a dozen nonfiction books for children. She's a first-year student in the MFA program at Florida State University, where she also teaches freshman composition. Lizzy holds a Bacherlor's degree in Comparative Literature. After earning the AB in the early 1990s, Lizzy decided to take time off to slack and explore the world, Lizzy-style. She's lived in several countries and a handful of U.S. states.

An older-than-typical MFA student, Lizzy thinks she knows a thing or two about finding one's calling. She's followed her instincts relentlessly and they've led her to just this juncture, after all. She'll admit that her instincts might've, in fact, steered her away from a cushier, safer life featuring more reliable cars and a spiffier wardrobe. She'll have to live with that.

While here at this blog, Lizzy would like to offer up tidbits of info and encouragement as required or requested. Also, she plain likes to gab online. Therefore, she hopes to hear from you.


Dan said...

Hi Lizzie,

I found this website just today and read your most recent blog post! I am a 29 yr. old dreamer who has recently decided to go back to school to obtain a graduate degree in writing and pursue a career that fits my personality type. Needless to say, I could use some direction and encouragment from someone who knows the ropes. If I'm interested in being a columnist or writer with a political/current events slant, what specific degree do you think I should be applying for? Would it be an MFA in creative writing? I would sincerely appreciate any assistance you may be able to provide.


Lizzy said...

Hi Dan,

I think the type of degree you pursue has to be something you research and choose for yourself. A graduate degree requires a serious commitment of time and effort, and it will be in your best interest to find a program that fits your unique needs.

Because I don't know you or your background, I just can't offer advice that is much more specific than that. However, as someone who knows the agony of having to make life-changing decisions without feeling totally confident about my direction at the start, I can share the following:

One general plan of attack that works well for me in tackling bigger problems is to prepare like crazy, and then let my instinct lead the rest of the way. You say you're a dreamer? I say 29 is a good age to be dreaming and looking for more out of life, if that's what you want. I was just about that age when I realized I wanted to live more authentically--and I don't mean that in absolute terms, writing is no more authentic a way to spend your life than cleaning windows or building rockets, if that's what you choose--I mean "authentic" in a way that's personally meaningful. That, at least by my count, takes a lot of work.

In practical terms, I think you might want to try and talk to a couple of people who have the kinds of careers that you think you might like to have for yourself. I did just that. I got in touch with people-- sometimes out of the blue, sometimes through contacts or mutual friends--and talked to them about myself and asked them about their lives. Most of the time people are happy to talk to you. But be prepared to ask specific and relevant questions. Don't ask the big-city beauty editor what it's like to report for a rural newspaper. Be prepared, too, for the brutally honest answers you'll likely get. One publisher I spoke to (to whom I wrote out of the blue, by the way) told me that he recommended I stay out of publishing by all means, and explained just how terrible the odds and how meager the pickins. However, he went on to say that he absolutely loved his job and would not trade it for the world.

It does sound like you have a solid idea of what you'd like to be doing eventually. Have you looked into journalism school? Journalists train to write within a very specific framework of gathering/reporting/editing/presenting what's newsworthy. Then again, there are gray areas everywhere. What about op-eds and commentary and the like? Do they fall under journalism? Or...?

On the other hand, if you think you're interested in a creative nonfiction approach to writing about current events, then I'd say the MFA is the way to go. Keep in mind, though, that many writers that start off doing one thing, writing in one genre, eventually venture over into another. Where you take your writing career will, I think, depend more on where your creativity and vision carry you than on what type of degree you get.

One last thing, if you're interested in teaching creative writing, the MFA is probably the way to go, as it is (still) considered the terminal degree in the field.

Does anyone else at this blog have suggestions for Dan? Please do let us know.

Wishing you the best and signing off for now, Dan.



You might be interested in some of the discussions on the topic of journalism school vs. CWMFA and on how to prepare for the MFA, over at Poets and Writers.;search_string=journalism;#245654;search_string=journalism%20school;#250206;search_string=journalism%20school;#247815

Dan said...


I appreciate your comments and insights regarding this matter. You hit the nail on the head when you referred to living more "authentically", which has led me to pursue further education. I have been in sales positions for the last several years, and have often wondered why I experience so much discontent.

Consequently, I picked up a book that utilizes the Myers/Briggs personality type in finding lasting career satisfaction. Well, what might you think happened when I "typed" my personality? You guessed it. I was in the wrong career, working with untapped natural skills and abilities! It was so refreshing to know that I wasn't going crazy, I just needed a new direction. That leads me to where I'm at today (Looking for graduate schools for programs that help me use those natural skills and abilities).

After reviewing the differences between an MA in journalism and an MFA in creative writing, it appears that an MFA focuses more on helping students develop the process of writing itself (whether that be fiction, nonfiction, poetry), as opposed to specific media journalistic skills. I understand that there will be some overlap here. As I examine my intentions, I can say that I'm not interested in being a cold, hard facts news reporter (although this may work for some). Teaching creative writing is also not in my cards at this point. Rather, I would enjoy working as a columnist/editorialist, commenting on culture, society, politics. One writer who I admire and whose career I would like to emulate is Andrew Sullivan, the popular critic/internet blogger. So correct me if I'm wrong, but wouldn't an MA in journalism with a cultural criticism supplemental be more appropriate than an MFA in creative writing? Again, considering the fact there are gray areas between the degrees? I appreciate your thoughts.


JR said...


FSU is my MFA dream school. I need to talk with you in private about the admissions process. Please email me:

Thank you.

Lizzy said...

Hi Dan,

I was poking around the Columbia J-School website, as well as that of the J-School at the U of Missouri-Columbia, and (at least at these two schools) there are BUNCHES of options available to people who want to specialize in writing and editing, not necessarily through the reporting route. Didn't Andrew Sullivan begin his career editing The New Republic, by the way?

Keep in mind that labels--editor, reporter, writer, journalist--are flexible, somewhat. You won't necessarily end up editing a magazine just because that's what you studied in school. Really, labels come almost after the fact, I find, and anyone who can put words together and capture the attention of audiences/readers--regardless of education--can consider himself a writer, in my opinion.

As a writer, you create a voice for yourself, and you work to find a space for it. For example, I would never have dreamed of calling myself a "commentator" until I did my first piece for radio--I was a nervous wreck at the microphone, believe me. When the program aired, it felt strange to hear myself being referred to as "commentator Lizzy So-and-So." I didn't feel like a commentator, and it was only a week since I'd written to the show's producer, on a lark, then pounded out a 400-word mini-essay on the beauty of the night-time city. In fact, I haven't been on the radio since! But for the four minutes that the show devoted to my writing, I was a commentator. And I'm not closing the door on, somewhere down the line, acting as a "commentator" again, just because I'm studying fiction now.

It's, you know, the journey of a thousand miles beginning with one small step. Along the way you may change direction, meander, retrace your steps... You'll have opportunities to build on or divert away from past work, in time, as your career evolves, too. Nobody's going to be Andrew Sullivan or John McPhee overnight, but we can start small and build on to see where our work takes us. Does this make any sense?

Anyway, and this is IMPORTANT, you should also be taking honest stock of your own writing skills at this time, and looking at programs that are going to offer you the best fit.

So... Keep doing your research, keep your options open for a little longer--if you're not ready to apply this year, that's fine... Keep marinating in your intentions, keep investigating your options. Things will fall into place for you.

Good luck and thanks for the great questions.


Lizzy said...


My e-mail to your address bounces back undeliverable.


Lizzy said...

Postscript to Dan:

Some MFA programs offer options for certificates in editing/publishing and the like. Some also offer/require serious study of literature/cultural criticism, etc. Also, I would imagine that MFA programs strong in nonfiction (University of Pittsburg has a program with a strong reputation for NF) could offer you tons of opportunities for working with topics that interest you.

writer/literary lover said...

I'm 30 going on 31 this september. I am working on a memoir and a novel. I am looking to apply to MFA programs next winter because I was an actress/stand-up comic and delayed finishing my undergrad. I know I am not guaranteed a job, or to be published through my MFA, so I have a realistic attitude about the degree. I definitely want to get teaching experience in the program, and plan on applying to fiction and non-fiction programs. However, I think the MFA will be the best program for me, and wanted to know if you could email me at to tell me about FSU...they are one of my choices...