Posts Tagged MFA

On Craft, Career, and Cabernet

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.

Tonight I crave the company of this community, the way it keeps the spirit of writing pure and its language real.

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.

Sources:

* 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.”

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On Revision

“This morning I took out a comma and this afternoon I put it back again.”
~ Oscar Wilde

Here we sit, my novella and I. It’s dusty and yellowed from spending a few sedentary years on the bookshelf. It was half-buried under a growing stack of magazines and portfolio clippings I’m too lazy to digitize, the articles, newsletters, and case studies pushing the thesis and its stories further down, out of my line of sight.

A friend reminded me recently of the story I’d written for my MFA thesis, suggesting I revisit the work and see what happens.

It’s been a good 5 years since I’ve done any real writing. That “thing” that makes the stories happen is dusty and yellowed, too, it seems. But we’ll see. (Never mind that I’m here with this blog post rather than re-reading…)

While procrastinating, I made a few observations to help wrap my brain around the project ahead. Because that’s what the older me does. Makes observations first. (And will that hinder creativity?)

  • About 95% of the actual words need to be rewritten. It no longer flows off my tongue.
  • On the other hand, every once in a while there’s a turn of phrase so delicious that it shapes an entire chapter. (Oh, admit you like your own work sometimes. Don’t reject the manuscript before you submit it.)
  • And even with those few delectable pieces of prose, there’s always just one more little tweak to make. With every reading.
  • The revision process is interesting from the perspective of the writer’s relationship to the text and to the reader, and even more, how the revision process fits into that paradigm given that the writer then becomes her own reader.
  • Either the perspective or the structure of the narrative will change in the next draft. In other words, I see the story differently now, as both reader and writer.
  • There are at least two subplots that had not been explored at the time of thesis binding. (Or since then, of course, but it sounds better to blame the print medium for a story abandoned after it printed ‘cause the ink’s already dry.) How will this affect the overall story?
  • I “hear” the narrator more clearly now, and she may have grown a few years older, too. (She’s about 17 or 18 in the current version.)
  • If this thing ever does get published, how/will it affect my professional writing career? Would I care?
  • This project is long overdue.
  • Do I have to read the whole thing before getting started? (It’s called The Raining Tree, if you’re curious.)

There will never be a final draft of any writing, of this kind. Even if it’s something as simple as Oscar Wilde’s comma. it matters because it’s part of how we get there—to that thing we create, the conversations we start, the questions we ask, and the roads we travel.

Thanks, tt, for reminding me to clear the dust.

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Lanes of Learn’d Bastards

Digging through stacks of dusty old notebooks, manuscript piles, and ancient issues of Writer’s Chronicle, I actually found the object of my lazy and nostalgic adventure in office archaeology. But that’s not what I’m writing about here.

Even better was finding the little poem a few of us MFA grads wrote while sitting through the commencement speech and role call. I won’t say how many years have passed since then, but it has been enough to make this seem an artifact. So here’s the poem, written by KC, Athena, John, and me. It doesn’t have a title, but it doesn’t seem to need one (how very postmodern). And it speaks of learn’d bastards with greatest affection, as that’s what we all strive to be (or, unconsciously become).

Eight graduates with Fine Arts Masters,
Commenced ‘tween lanes of learn’d bastards,
Clad in gown and caps,
Collectively thinking, perhaps
‘twould be better if this thing
would go faster.

More love for the MFA degree can be found here.

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Tight Lines: 12 Reasons the MFA is a Solid Degree in the Technology Space

Tonight I had the pleasure of sitting around a table drinking wine and sharing crème brûlée with some friends from graduate school, specifically the MFA program in creative writing at Minnesota State University Moorhead. Pulling up in my minivan I realized it had already been a good 5 years since my last writing workshop around that blessed, beat-up and beloved table in Weld Hall library.

One discussion stood out over the Cabernet and custard, perhaps because of where I’m at academically, professionally, and personally. It was whether an MFA degree had any value in today’s workplace for those not interested in teaching at the college level, and how those skills might be applied in the workforce.

At the table for tonight’s conversation were four MFA graduates and a faculty member. The grads included a software developer, a local magazine editor, a PhD student/professor, and a marketing director. Not a bad as products of the program, I’d say.

This post outlines some key areas where the MFA program directly relates to the creativity, critical thinking, and communication skills that are very much in demand in today’s job market. It’s time to start that dialogue around how those of us in the arts and humanities can create some pretty kick-ass careers for ourselves.

The perspective here is from a fiction writer (as opposed to poetry or nonfiction), and it’s from the marketing point of view (versus a visual art like design or a sales role such as business development).  It deals mostly with applied professional writing—as a “creative” on an in-house team or at an agency, for example. (I’m sure the linguistics or communications theory-laden post will soon follow.)

One more disclaimer is that I have split personalities when it comes to writing about marketing.  I’m a B2B marketer marketing an advertising product to folks who market B2C. But at the end of the day, we’re all fucking human. Write that way and you can sell a product or service or otherwise inform and persuade an audience. That’s all we really need to do.

Here’s that list, from my own experience as an MFA graduate with a pretty sweet career. I may not have been placed on that path because my credentials state this particular degree, but the skills needed to get there tie directly to experience in a creative writing program.

Copywriting

1. Tight Lines. These people have the ability to write tight lines that are both creative and persuasive. In fiction, the writer needs to create believability and truth, or verisimilitude, in the story.

2. Plot Lines. Web copy, for example, needs to drive a visitor along a certain navigational path that results in that person taking an action, whether it be submitting a contact form, calling a business, or even moving on to the next page. Creative writers, too, drive their visitor—their reader—along with intent. The audience is brought on that proverbial journey, as the business writer strives to both pull a prospect through a sales funnel and engage them in interactive content, and a fiction writer so convincingly delivers a narrative that can pull the reader along the story’s path without question of the reality or the characters created—they simply must get to the next part of the story.

3. Buyer Personae. This one is huge, but it’s covered in the Marketing/Sales Cycle section below.

Public Relations

4. Positioning. PR positions the company, setting the scene for the action to take place. It’s important in PR to be completely transparent, to stay away from embellishment, but this is where command of English language comes in handy.

5. Storytelling. These are the folks that tell the company’s story, and they need to do it well. Hire a storyteller. Or become one. Enough said.

Marketing/Sales Cycle

6. Audience. Identifying and understanding a target audience for marketing efforts is akin to developing characters for a work of fiction. You know who they are, what they make a year, their educational level, where they eat and shop.

3., Part Deux. Buyer Personae. The ability to serve up content that’s relevant to the business audience is critical to everything from generating interest to keeping a customer. To do this, marketers need to create what’s called a buyer persona to guide their efforts, to know what makes that target audience tick. This is literally an outline or profile of a character—for me, it’s all those characteristics scribbled on sticky notes across my desk and color-coded to indicate mannerisms or role in the story. But again, working within the framework of buyer personae is where the ability to create and develop characters in a fictional work becomes a skill that transfers nicely.

For these writers, it goes well beyond the numbers that identify age, location, and income— the ability to create and give voice to these buyer personae, understand their pains and how to manage their egos, and bring them along on that storied journey are inherent in those who’ve spent time writing fiction in first person or as a member of the opposite sex, to name just one exercise in character development.

7. Lead Generation and Nurturing. Think like the characters do. Where would you place the ads that would reach you if you were that character? Where would you be located? And engaged in what media? Where and how do you participate online? Think of what content gets the most downloads, and later, analyze what content was downloaded by the most qualified prospective customers and focus your editorial efforts accordingly.

8. Content Strategy. Oversimplified, this is creating, running, managing an editorial calendar.

In addition to providing the right content for your audience, this includes understanding how to work with people in order to elicit guest posts and suggest changes that keep the contribution on par with the quality of other writing on the site while maintaining author’s style. Experience in MFA program workshop dialogue, copyediting, and working with any published or up-and-coming authors are all great ways to develop a foundation for business content strategy and how to execute on it successfully.

9. Engaging. For marketers, this means creating dialogue around a topic or issue, whether in person or online. For MFAers, it’s the ability to deconstruct, put back together, and discuss what we read. “Nice work” is a comment that brings nothing to the table.

10. Case Studies and White Papers. The former is an in-depth profile that tells the story of how a business solved a problem or made more money using your solution. The latter is a paper that also solves a problem, typically research-intensive and from a thought-leadership perspective looking at improvements that can be made overall in an industry (and of course, in the About section in tiny print on the last page, how the corporate author is positioned to solve those problems).  Naturally, these are my favorite pieces to write.

Software Development

11. Stories. Using sticky notes and whiteboards to piece together the story of how functionality or a process will work in a software application is similar to performing this exercise in order to piece together a novel, story, or poem, or even the core argument for an essay (for the creative writer, it’s possible the whiteboard is instead a Moleskine®). This also applies to telling the story from the end-user’s perspective and the actions they take during the software testing/QA process.

12. Complexity. Being able to understanding complex processes and communicate them is useful skill. The correlation? A research paper on something like “Burnt Norton from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets or Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire.

Other Skills

  • Interviewing for a job (MFA: Engaging conversation and defending position in MFA workshop.)
  • Taking (and applying) feedback and critique of professional work (MFA: Feedback from professors and peers during workshop.)
  • Working independently (MFA: We write alone.)
  • Write simple code for web development, design, and animation (MFA: Knowing how language works.)
  • Research skills (MFA: If it’s out there, we can find it.)

Thus ends my preaching—for now—on the virtues of an MFA degree for those who aren’t ready to or have no plans to teach.

It’s interesting to note it wasn’t until later in the evening that said software developer, local magazine editor, PhD student/professor, and marketing director observed that none of us had actually graduated the MFA program together and were, pretty much, barely classmates. This attests to the community surrounding writing programs such as these and the craft itself.

If you do nothing else in life, perfect your craft. If you have a talent, use it. Get involved with the community around it. As fellow MSUM MFA graduate Kristen Tsetsi writes, “I no longer know the grass of forbidden lawns, because I drive past it.”

Exploring the craft before that forbidden lawn of unbridled creativity becomes unfamiliar is an experience that we’ll draw from inevitably in our careers, whether we realize it or not. We MFA grads had the opportunity to develop 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.

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