Driving downtown to meet some writer friends, I roll down the windows, hoping the breeze will carry away the acronyms of my day (ROI, KPI, CPM, CPA, FFS), sprinkle in a few verbs, and drop them into a marketing plan.
I pull around to the back of the building, find a spot in the bank parking lot. My ride these days is a minivan, and it doesn’t fit in the compact parking spaces along Broadway like the little black car of my graduate student days.
It’s been five years since then, my last writing workshop around that blessed, beat-up and beloved table in Weld Hall library.
This whole writing thing—the impulse to create, revise, destroy, and begin again—is something that stays with us long after the MFA program, no matter the shape of our postgraduate careers. The craft and its dialogue are our pomegranate seeds, and those of us who ate at that old table would never really leave.
We’ve followed the trail of pomegranate seeds across the river and to another table. This one is dimly lit, filled with MFA alumni rather than students, drinking Cabernet instead of the viscous vending machine coffee on campus, gathered again to discuss current writing projects, curse creative hurdles, and pray for manuscripts submitted.
“It depends on how we define ‘professional,’” one of us would say, “and of what we’ve become the master.”
We’re discussing whether a creative writing degree has any value in today’s workplace for those not interested in teaching, and if so, how those skills might transfer. Participating in that conversation are a software developer (genre: screenplays), a local magazine editor (genre: poetry), a PhD student/professor (genre: fiction), and a marketing director (genre: fiction), all of us MFA program graduates. An interesting mix of viewpoints, to say the least.
Ours is just one of many conversations contemplating the merit of creative writing programs and the MFA degree. Popular arguments against it include the perceived homogenization of writing or the studies heralding a poor academic job market. Most certainly, the fact that academic jobs advertised in the English discipline have declined by 39.8% from 2008 to 2010* is cause for concern.
But the graduate writing experience amounts to more than “sedentary toil/And…the imitation of great masters,”* sealed with an advanced degree that may or may not lead to a professorship.
In fact, the degree is but a byproduct of an MFA program for the majority of those who attend them, writers driven instead by the craft itself, its exploration and promise of perfection. In an article contemplating what brings people to the table some 70-odd years after the first MFA program (Iowa Writer’s Workshop) was founded, poet/attorney Seth Abramson cites a recent survey finding that “fewer than 20% of MFA applicants consider the credential itself to be their top reason for pursuing a graduate creative writing degree.”*
Given that an advanced degree is typically required for teaching college-level courses, this sentiment signals a new generation of writers with designs on a nonacademic career, seeking the MFA experience in order to further develop the creativity, critical thinking, and communication skills that are very much in demand in today’s job market.
Daniel Pink argues in his book A Whole New Mind that “the MFA is the new MBA.” His logic makes sense: the routine entry-level tasks that help an MBA break into the job market are being outsourced overseas, and there’s an increasing demand for the kinds of people who can provide the “high-concept” thinking and strategy behind these inputs. Pink writes*:
…that something first must be imagined or invented. And these creations must then be explained and tailored to customers and entered into the swirl of commerce, all of which require aptitudes that can’t be reduced to a set of rules on a spec sheet—ingenuity, personal rapport, and gut instinct.
Though industry job openings might not explicitly state “MFA degree required,” the skills learned in graduate creative writing programs are transferable and quite employable.
Is there a large percentage of MFA degree-holders seeking academic jobs? Of course. But, unscientifically speaking, there are just as many who have no desire to teach. The program is driven as much by the trifecta of technique, art, and talent than by any professional goal, academic or otherwise.
Some of us simply focus on our writing. Others go on to become software developers, magazine editors, PhD candidates, or marketers.
Only the writer can determine how best to transfer her craft from workshop into the workplace. Like anything else, it is what you make of it.
The results of a postgraduate survey* from the creative writing program at MSUM , home of that beat-up table in Weld Hall, provides some interesting insight into the professionalization of the MFA degree, even if it’s just a microcosm. Here are some highlights:
- An equal number of respondents have attained postgraduate employment in a professional/technical writing capacity (44%) as those who hold teaching positions (44%).
- Of those teaching, 38% have attained the rank of Associate Professor or higher, including one Dean.
- 48% of the industry-employed MFAers are at or above the mid-management level in their careers.
- Common job titles include marketing, communications, public relations, and technical writing. The most interesting is perhaps “Teacher, Mortician.”
- Not reflecting freelance writing, 8% of respondents work full-time in publishing, either as editor, journalist, or publisher.
- Everyone has published something.
- 34% of those surveyed did not respond. We like to think it was because they were too busy writing.
Eat Here and Stay Forever
It’s late in the evening. The wine is gone, the crème brulee and coffee on the table, and we realize none of us have actually graduated the MFA program together. We were, in fact, barely classmates.
But we share the same experience of sitting around that table, where together we got to taste the seeds binding our community to its particular craft, to travel that underworld where ideas are translated into art and process is revered over end product.
Exploring the craft of writing before that forbidden lawn of unbridled creativity becomes unfamiliar or impractical is an experience that we’ll draw from inevitably in our careers, whether in teaching, corporate storytelling, or mortuary science.
The MFA graduate develops a mindset that allows for creative, critical, and analytical thinking–a stage on which to practice freedom in our art, engage in healthy debate and discussion, and advance our writing abilities both technically and creatively, all while participating in good conversation and community.
* Modern Language Association. (September 2010). “Report on the MLA Job Information List, 2009-2010.” MLA Office of Research. Web. November 29, 2010. p 1.
*Yeats, William Butler. “Ego Dominus Tuus.” Yeats’s Poetry, Drama, and Prose. Ed. J. Pethica. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000. Print. p. 66-68.
*Abramson, S. (2010). “The New Face of the Creative Writing Master of Fine Arts.” The Huffington Post. Web. Posted: October 28, 2010; Accessed 12/1/2010. Survey conducted by The Suburban Ecstasies.
*Pink, Daniel. A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future. New York: Riverhead Trade, 2006. Print.
* Minnesota State University Moorhead (December 2010). Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program Postgraduate Survey. Conducted online, November 1 – November 25, 2010.
*Tsetsi, Kristen. (2010) “Owning is a sloppy second to knowing.” this i believe. Web. Published March 17, 2010. Accessed March 18, 2010. Fellow MSUM MFA graduate Kristen Tsetsi writes, “I no longer know the grass of forbidden lawns, because I drive past it.”