Monday, July 16, 2007

Is It Worth Doing?

Rodion wrote in a previous comment:

“I am a young professional, fairly successful in (yet utterly unhappy with) his occupation…does it make sense for me to quit my job, go further into debt (my loans from my previous degree have yet to be cleared) over the next two years by embarking on a process which makes no guarantees of success (getting published) in a vocation where success itself is subject to so many variables?”

My first job out of college was for an internet firm in San Francisco. We had catered lunches, went to the movies at the Sony Metreon, had a miniature golf putting green in the office, and everyone there thought that we were going to be gazillionaires. Until the company tanked and we all got laid off. Dreaming one day of owning the Giants and 49ers and then worrying about not making rent the next day, man, that’s tragic.

Regarding my latest job at a wine company, I came out on top. I left a growing, successful company in the wine industry, one that afforded me a very privileged lifestyle, just so that I could become a full-time student. Some parts of that job, I loved, and am forever grateful, and some parts spawned a few disdainful emoticon faces over my IM. It definitely would have been an easy choice to stay and continue on with my life in SF, making money, going out to hip bars and posh restaurants. A safe choice. A comfortable choice. An I’m-happy-withdrawing-cash-from-the-ATM-and-drinking-Newcastles-for-dinner-and-meeting-girls-at-random-bars choice.

But I made the decision to dedicate myself to academia, make a contribution to the arts, focus on my creative work and embrace my peers and their work, and had I not, then THAT would have been tragic. Will I be successful? Depends by what parameters are used to measure. Though, according to the vision of Leland Stanford who, shortly before his death, penned a letter to the university’s first president, “The imagination needs to be cultivated and developed to assure success in life”, I might be on the right path.

Is it worth doing? It’s worth being able to look back and say that I took a chance, I gave it my all. For me, it’s worth not having regrets.


Unknown said...


For me, coming to an MFA program has been very exciting and has sparked a new understanding of myself as a writer. Success is something that you have to define for yourself. I am happy to have been given the opportunity to teach in exchange for studying, even though the salary works our to be slave wages. To someone else, that might seem unacceptable.

What I gain, though, makes me feel rich beyond words: time to write seriously in a setting where writing is appreciated; and so much more that is meaningful probably only to me.

I have been careful, though, not to come to this experience with stars in my eyes. I tell myself that, chances are, I won't be able to make a full living as a writer, things being what they are. But I also leave enough room in that for the element of surprise and my sheer doggedness as redeeming factors to keep it exciting and appealing for myself.

Best of luck.

Unknown said...

How will you measure your success? That’s the hurdle you have to leap over! Do you want to write the book that will be on the NY Times bestseller list? Or do you want to write what’s in your mind and in your heart? I’m writing this response as someone who was rejected by the very program that you are currently enrolled in and it sucks. Subsequently, I’ve increased the number of MFA programs that I will be applying to for next year.

Now, I didn’t attend Stanford U. I attended Loyola College in Maryland. I’ve kept in touch with my peers. Several of them sped through college in hopes of becoming successful attorneys. Guess what! They are attorneys who are working insane hours. That’s their goal. With this in mind, what’s so awful about taking two years to improve your craft or work on your own goal?

Conor Robin Madigan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Conor Robin Madigan said...

MFA programs are to teach you how to cultivate and push your art and craft to be better. Of course programs want their students to become successful writers, but most are satisfied beyond elation when a writer comes to their voice, their true candor. Success is the one unpardonable sin against one's fellows. I'm kidding, of course, but only partially. If you're after success and not after good craft then I think you have no business in an MFA program. You need to be there for the other writers in your program, to help them as well as learn from them.

Seth Abramson said...

Conor makes a great point: when it comes down to it, you're going to spend two years largely attending workshops with your peers, and there's something to be said for taking the time to consider whether you'd be a good (i.e. attentive, constructive, insightful, patient, good-natured) workshop-mate.

I never understood the notion of writers being competitive within their program: what are you competing for? Attention of professors? A little sad, I think. Fellowships and the like? Likewise, a little sad, isn't it? Who cares about the accolades one accrues in any educational program, in the end; how many times do prospective employers ask you about the internship you did or fellowship you won at 22, when you're 35? Frankly even those obsessed with "success" will only care about publication, which can't be secured through the program anyway: instead, it's a massive competition primarily with folks from across the country you've never met and may never meet. Classmates are a resource and a source of inspiration, not a stepping-stone or an obstacle. So, when The Atlantic (in their current article on MFAs) quotes a professor as talking about competitiveness in MFAs, I'm a little stumped. That just seems like the most pointless brand of competition imaginable (not that I'm a competitive sort under even the most conducive of circumstances).

What I never hear anyone talking about is the academic aspect of MFAs. I come to poetry from a non-academic background, in the sense that I've never taken a class in creative writing and never studied contemporary poetry in an academic setting. To me, going to an MFA is a great opportunity to fill gaps in my knowledge of the poetic tradition while also working on my craft. Why should one assume that two years working creatively--without any attention to actually building upon one's base of knowledge--is going to be productive? It's one reason, frankly, I focus on the MFA as a "professional" degree of sorts: I think it emphasizes that there is knowledge to be gained, and not just "time" and "space" for writing. Honestly, those who say the MFA is only about time and space seem to be inferring that workshops and mentors are useless, that academic study of the subject is useless, that learning how to occupy/inhabit the role of the artist (e.g., learning how to give a reading, how to edit your poems and those of others, et. al.) is useless...I respect that some feel that way, but I've just never understood it, you know? Time and space could be gained by backpacking across Europe, too. No need for federal loans.

I guess I just don't think the MFA is for one thing only. I think it's complicated. And yes, somewhere in all there (for some of us) is the desire to become educators, and I don't see anything wrong with that either--it's one of the few avenues, frankly, for a poet (say) to be able to spend all day every day doing what he/she loves, in some capacity at least. You can't do it as a public defender, I promise you(!)

And, too, the notion of "success" is a tricky one. Call it "money," and we all find it boorish and disgusting. Define it as "a broader audience for your artistic vision," and I think it becomes a bit of a it wrong to want as many others as possible to read one's work? Some of the biggest anti-MFA poets I've come across are presently hawking second and third books on, so...maybe everyone who believes in their work wants, on some level, for others to be exposed to it and believe in it too (assuming, for the moment, that everyone's work also could stand improving, hence the MFA)?


Lincoln Michel said...

I never understood the notion of writers being competitive within their program: what are you competing for? Attention of professors? A little sad, I think. Fellowships and the like? Likewise, a little sad, isn't it? Who cares about the accolades one accrues in any educational program, in the end; how many times do prospective employers ask you about the internship you did or fellowship you won at 22, when you're 35?


There may be a little of what you describe, but I think the main source of competition comes from something more basic. People are by definition egotistical and artists perhaps more so than average. There is a lot of ego involved in the publishing world and it is inevitable that some people will be trying to establish themselves at the top of a pecking order.

I personally haven't noticed this that much and I don't think it is anything horrible, but it exists to some degree. Is it sad? Maybe, but like I said I think this is a human quality that is present everywhere. An MFA program is just a close-nit group of people in the same field constantly showing their work to each other, so it may highten things sometimes.

Brian said...

Also, as far as competition goes, there's just a lot of competition inherent with writing.

I mean, from the MFA application process to publication to teaching positions etc. - the rejection rate is very high and, like it or not, we are all in competition with each other.

I'll admit, during the dark times of MFA applications I would find myself sitting in workshop thinking "Well, if I'm not the best writer in this class, how could I hope to get accepted into X program which only takes 1% of all applicants from around the country?"

But of course thinking like that is rarely very productive. And I have found my workshop experiences to date to be very supportive, with only a hint of ego and competitiveness glimmering under the surface.

Far Away From the Maddening Crowd said...

I just want you to know that you are not alone pondering these questions. My greatest loves were writing and acting, but I took the safe conventional path. I've spent fifteen years as a carpenter.

I now have a job at the University of California at Berkeley building sets for the theatre department. I have retirement and full benefits. I also have $45,000 in student loan debt and pain in my wrists and forearms from a repetitive stress injury.

I want to apply for MFA programs next year. I am afraid to leave my job, but I may be more afraid of spending another 15 years asking what if.

I want to improve my writing and I have reached the point where I feel that I really need mentors and community to go to the next level.