Seeking the Work-Life-Writing Balance Post-MFA
Kirsten Clodfelter | December 2014
The rumor isn’t exactly a new one: After you graduate with an MFA, there’s a chance you might find yourself shelving the novel draft, or maybe even completely regretting your MFA in the first place, because it’s just too difficult to balance a viable work life with a viable writing life. Does this sentiment merely reflect the difficult job market that MFA grads face? Yes and no. This article explores who’s successfully navigating work-life-writing balance, and how.
In a Q&A last May for the website MFA Day Job, Cutting Teeth author Julia Fierro candidly discusses her post-program difficulties after completing the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a struggle that surely resonates with many other MFA graduates:
My first few years post-MFA were very difficult, definitely some of the darkest years of my life, and I do think this is in large part due to my unrealistic expectations…. When those dreams of instant publication and instant employment at a university did not come true after I graduated (I was very impatient), I lost my confidence and motivation.
There’s much to laud about MFA programs, chiefly the academic and creative communities they facilitate, the time and space they encourage for expression of critical thinking and improvement of craft, and the exposure to new voices and literary advocacy they help promote. If MFA candidates are fully or even partially funded, the value of these benefits only increases.
But what happens after the theses have been bound and graduation-cap tassels have been turned? In her interview, Fierro goes on to comment that she worked as an adjunct instructor at a few different NYC universities for several years after graduating from Iowa, eventually deciding “to work at just one university and supplement with editing work.” Says Fierro, “Many years later, I am still ashamed to admit that I made a little over 11,000 dollars a year at that university teaching an 8-credit load.”
And many adjuncts across the country might even find Fierro’s compensation a relief from their own deplorable earnings and lack of benefits. So why teach at the adjunct level? Most MFA faculty are up front with their students from early on about how hard it is to succeed in academic careers. Despite this, there are plenty who still seem focused on teaching as the natural (if admittedly not ideal) route of employment post-degree. And so, for many graduates, adjunct work seems like the only avenue into this world of higher education until a first (or second, or third) book has been published and more favorable teaching positions become available.
But after taking on a bevy of classes that can be cut from semester-to-semester because of fluctuating enrollment or budgetary whims, or managing multiple courses at several different campuses up to an hour or more apart, there usually isn’t much time or energy left to give to the burgeoning manuscript (and that’s if there isn’t also a second part-time job, kids, ailing parents, or other responsibilities thrown into the mix).
Adds Fierro on this phenomenon:
Too many MFA graduates feel they have to teach, and, as we all know, teaching can be consuming. Teach only if you need to, if it is your passion. There are other ways to pay your rent—more lucrative ways that won’t deplete the creative energy you’ll need to focus on your own writing.
But what are these more lucrative ways? For Fierro, it was seeing the growth of her intimate creative-writing salon, The Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, which she launched around her kitchen table in 2002, as it developed over the last decade into a robust staple of the Brooklyn writing scene, serving more than 2,000 authors since its inception.
For others, it might take the form of income cobbled together through freelance writing and editing, tutoring, or consulting work. Some graduates may pursue or return to a 9-5 desk job in direct or related fields, for which the communications expertise developed through an MFA may provide an advantage. Additionally, the growing trend that shows a merge of humanities education with training and work in STEM industries is also promising.
For recent MFA graduate and author Megan Burbank, who considers herself fortunate to have found meaningful full-time work running communications for a reproductive-rights advocacy nonprofit that boasts the added benefit of health insurance, the solution is to build writing time around the structure of the 9-5. First, “use your commute,” she suggests in a piece for Luna Luna magazine, “It’s one of the only times of day you don’t have to talk to anyone but also can’t go anywhere. Commutes are a great time to jot down ideas, go deep into a book you’re reading, or even write or edit.”
Burbank also advises fellow writers to dedicate their paid time off to their craft. Her plan: “Go on a writing vacation. If you’re working full-time, you probably get vacation. And if you get vacation, you should take it. And if you can, you should take it for writing.”
But how do graduates go about doing any of this? It’s not necessarily the responsibility of a creative writing program to provide correlative experience for job placement after graduation, and there are good arguments to be made about the importance of education for its own sake. Still, until that post-secondary education is free or at least affordable for everyone, this enlightenment ideal is lovely but hardly egalitarian. No matter how much an individual may want to nurture his or her writing talents, there’s still a pressing need to be able to afford groceries, and there are likely few candidates hoping to complete graduate school as only a brief interlude before returning to life as a career barista.
In 2012, Forbes rated Master’s degrees in English as the second worst return on investment in terms of both mid-career median income and job growth, based on data collected from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and Payscale.com. Students pursuing higher education to learn information systems, electrical engineering, physics, nursing, or healthcare administration all fared much better. One would think this news is hardly a shock, but many bright-eyed writers from a variety of backgrounds enter MFA programs with the belief that the degree they’re seeking will translate meaningfully to an industry-related career. Fierro admits, “I knew university positions were few and selection was competitive, but I had no idea how competitive.”
The news isn’t all grim, however. In a January 2014 article from AWP’s Writer’s News, a recent study from the Association of American Colleges and Universities in conjunction with the National Center for Higher Education reported the following:
[C]ollege graduates with Humanities degrees actually achieve higher salaries at peak earnings ages ($2,000 higher annual earnings for workers of ages 56 to 60) compared to graduates with professional or pre-professional degrees, such as nursing or business majors, which have higher starting salaries.
With the goal of teaching students to grow as better writers (often by way of creating more careful readers and increasingly thoughtful observers or critical thinkers), MFA programs are hardly a waste. Still, the obvious reality is that not every Master’s thesis becomes a debut novel or an award-winning first collection. Many graduates never publish a first book at all. And even for those who do, the advance or royalty payments aren’t necessarily enough to negate the need for a day job. For a few literary celebrities, advances might tip the scales at over six figures, but for most writers, several thousand dollars for a first book seems lucky.
In a piece for As It Ought to Be discussing the ways we might improve MFA programs, author Okla Elliott, a comparative literature PhD candidate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, suggests one way writing programs could broaden their reach to serve students better in the long term, both as writers and as jobholders:
I would like to see more graduate certificates and graduate minors offered…. If a student wants to become a historical novelist, a certificate in history could be quite useful; if one wants to write polemical articles about current affairs, a certificate in law or perhaps political science could prove helpful; if one wants to go into editing/publishing, perhaps a certificate in design or nonprofit management should be pursued….
Beyond the boon of a greater diversification of interests with this sort of model, graduates would find themselves better positioned to transition from a program to part- or full-time work in related fields, allowing for writing time squeezed into a daily schedule that at least enables budding authors to successfully make rent.
Freelance writer, teacher, and doula Carrie Murphy, whose second poetry collection, Fat Daisies, is forthcoming this December from Big Lucks Books, had her own thoughts to add about how to enrich otherwise successful MFA programs:
I think it would have been awesome to have some “post-MFA life” discussions or talks put on by the university or even informally by students. It’s unrealistic to think that everyone who gets an MFA will (or even wants to) get a job in academia, isn’t it? It’s my hope that discussion about post-MFA paths will become more common, both in programs and in the writing community as a whole.
Despite many incredible and generous MFA programs across the country, only several dozen out of the hundreds that exist are notable for already working to bridge the divide between creative and professional writing. Some, like William Paterson University, afford candidates the opportunity to earn an MFA that focuses primarily on their creative craft while still adequately preparing them for non-teaching work in a professional-writing capacity. Others, such as Saint Joseph’s University, boast a “graduate writing program [that] combines a traditional literature-based master’s program with a creative writing program by offering a wide variety of courses and prospects,” but the curriculum culminates in an MA (in Writing Studies) rather than in an MFA.
Another possibility that may strengthen preparedness for work-writing balance once a degree is conferred is through a low-residency program. Kristen Stone, who graduated from Goddard in 2011 and published her first book, the poetry-essay hybrid Domestication Handbook, with Rogue Factorial in 2012, champions her low-residency experience, explaining, “Goddard actually prepared us very well for being working writers.”
Stone, who worked on farms in Michigan and helped run a summer camp while earning her degree, found that, “It was never a matter of, Oh, I'd sure like to find the time to write this book, but I'm too busy, because the program (not to mention the student loans) sort of made you be accountable and learn how to do the lonely work.”
Now working part-time on a Master’s in Social Work in conjunction with a full-time day job as a youth advocate at a domestic violence center, Stone exemplifies how well her rigorous training paid off, saying:
It’s weird to balance being a writer and something else, but I find that working and writing are a good complement for each other and provide a sort of productive tension. Although I'm not writing for three hours each day anymore (I wish!), I do still have the discipline that I developed back at Goddard.
A low-residency program might help create a more welcoming transition as writers move from their entrenchment in a supportive, dedicated writing community to career work. But perhaps if a greater number of MFA programs in general were able to provide a stronger foundation for career pursuits outside of academia, or even if more program faculty came to the table with comprehensive resources for students about how to meaningfully earn a living and still write beyond a program’s completion, NYC’s anti-MFA crowd wouldn’t be as quick to thumb their noses at the legitimately good and valuable work these programs are clearly doing.
It’s important to note, too, that MFA candidates share some of the burden of this responsibility. Incoming students should assess vigilantly how individual programs are outfitted to meet the potential need for career-focused endeavors beyond the degree. During the application process, attention should be paid not only to the writing styles and publication credits of program faculty and former graduates, but also to a program’s other available resources, including preparedness for teaching or other professional pursuits, as well as proximity to accessible job markets (like programs in or near major cities). In this way, graduates may find themselves better armed with real possibilities for how to earn a living while working on their breakthrough books.
Perhaps most importantly, incoming students should earnestly examine the realities of post-MFA employment opportunities in order to begin their time in a program armed with appropriate resources, such as AWP’s annual Job Market Report, and an open mind. When professors (quite appropriately) lament the adjunctification of higher education and the oft-somber job market that likely awaits them, candidates would be wise to take heart and listen. After all, the degree isn’t a Master’s in How to Make a Living as a Writer.
For the students who enter a program with this in mind, often a secondary education in how to create a meaningful career-writing balance emerges. For example, Ashley Ford, a graduate of George Mason University’s creative writing program and a senior designer with IWS (a media/branding outfit based in Washington, D.C. and Phoenix), notes that the most helpful professional course she took while pursuing her degree was in magazine writing:
We had to produce our own web magazine for the semester; we had a few regular magazine writers visit the class to talk about pitching articles and making a career out of freelance work; and we had to think a lot about audience if we wanted to do well in the course.
In light of how meaningful Ford found this class, she goes on to suggest:
In every MFA program, I think there should be an optional freelancing-as-career primer course that serves as a practical business course about everything from pricing to resources to possible tax-write-offs to finding your market, plus a focus on producing samples of creative work you could actually get published and get paid for.
Leah Kaminsky, a freelance writer and consultant writing for Write By Night, acknowledges that MFA candidates are often encouraged to either “get a teaching position or get an easy desk job” when it comes time to talk writing and careers. But Kaminsky argues it isn’t as simple as landing a conveniently low-pressure full-time job and coasting until the novel manuscript has landed on the desks of agents across the country: “Let’s ignore the fact that some of us (namely, me) slip into depression when we’re not stimulated at our day job,” she posits. “We can’t just skip on home from a day of mind-numbingly boring work to create the next masterpiece.”
It’s not impossible to earn our MFA-cake and eat it too. Degree-seeking candidates come to writing programs from varied backgrounds already—some don’t leave their full-time jobs to attend, some enroll with young children at home, some take on the task of learning how to course-plan and teach for the first time as teaching assistants. Perhaps, in part, MFA programs serve to strengthen the craft and habitual discipline of writing regularly for exactly this reason, to instill early in each new class of writers that life is always going to happen around our art, and it’s important we learn as we go how to do both.
To further facilitate this reality, MFA programs could continue to extend their reach in helping students assess the many fluid parts of achieving a work-life-writing balance beyond the degree: securing stable and fulfilling work that provides a livable wage, blocking daily or weekly time to continue honing our craft, remaining engaged in literary citizenship and an artistic community, and being meaningfully present in our familial or social lives is possible, though certainly not easy. (And then, maybe, post-MFA writers won’t have to dread the possibility of meeting an old professor who they know is going to ask, "So, are you still writing?")
Exactly what might help cultivate this balance? First, courses or seminars on working for presses or more internships and apprenticeships with university or local publishing houses should become program staples. Second, awareness about and training for professional writing, editing, and publishing opportunities inclusive of glossy print magazines, regional or trade publications, online writing and blogging, and in-house work for nonprofits and other organizations need to be more readily available. Finally, more frank discussions from program faculty, former graduates, or working writers from the community at large about how creative writing skills might apply more broadly to the field (both inside and outside of academia), as well as beyond it (in other industries), should make up a fundamental part of every MFA program curriculum.
No matter how joyful and rewarding writing is for the many students each year who earn an MFA, it hardly seems worth the time and money spent on a program to hone a craft that one must give up after graduation if one never manages to build a viable career alongside a fruitful writing life. Still, program directors might want to think about making a few small, key tweaks that could go a long way in aiding the difficult transition to maintaining an artistic life inside or outside of work in academia. And with those changes, better-prepared writers (and more of them) could more quickly and skillfully perfect their craft while also securing gainful employment. The creative writing lifestyle is one we are all more than happy to pursue, even with the sacrifices it sometimes requires. In order to keep the post-MFA writing life accessible, though, we should work together to create more ways to ensure we can enjoy it after we have received the degree.
Resources for Work-Writing Balance:
Kirsten Clodfelter is a freelance writer and the author of Casualties (RopeWalk Press, 2013), a chapbook of homefront and war stories. She serves as a contributing editor of As It Ought to Be, where she writes on the intersection of gender and feminism in popular culture and runs the small press review series At the Margins. Her fiction and essays have been published in Salon, the Good Men Project, the Iowa Review, Narrative magazine, Green Mountains Review, storySouth, and Brevity, among others.