I have two degrees, English with a focus in creative writing and theatre with a focus in playwriting. When I finished college, I considered myself a playwright. With the exception of two classes, my English education had been crap1, 2
. Of my required creative writing classes, I had the same professor for all but one and she was just there for the paycheck. I learned absolutely nothing from her other than, yes, there are bad teachers out there.
While I had dreamed of writing novels when I was younger, I found plays more fulfilling3
. I planned on going to graduate school, and maybe teaching writing while writing plays of my own4
. That derailed in the spring of 2000 when my college best friend asked me to move to St. Louis and help him with his business. There went grad school and St. Louis doesn't have a strong theatre community. A few oases in the desert, but nothing like Boston. A decade later and I'm back to pursuing fiction publication.
The thing is, I'd still like to get a higher degree. Not because I think it'll make me a better writer (my college classes certainly didn't), but because I said I was going to. I don't like that hanging over me. I told my college mentor on two separate occasions that I was going to go to grad school and here I am 11+ years later without a single graduate class under my belt.
I don't pursue that impulse. Time is a factor. Add in the strong desire to never have homework again. Then season that with I don't think graduate programs teach writers what they need to know. I run into a lot of writing graduate students. Most of them have rolled into the program directly out of college. They're 21, wet behind the ears, and no everything. As any old man will tell you, someone that young can't know everything. You have to get to our age before you know everything.
Joking aside, graduate writing students love to talk about the business though few of them have any experience with it other than submitting a short story or poem to an online magazine. A couple might have been published once or twice5
, but they all know how the industry works. What kills me is when they start telling me how the industry works, they're so often totally and inextricably wrong.
Frankly, they'd all be better served by a week of intensive reading of blog archives by Kristin Nelson, Nathan Bransford, Moonrat, and the other heavy hitters of the publishing blogosphere. The thing I hear most often is that it's not how you write but who you know6
. There are claims as to costs and midlist authoring and querying.
Oh the querying. I think college professors intentionally teach their students how to query wrong to diminish competition against their own works that they're still trying to get published. I can't figure out why else they would tell them to do the things they do. (One student talked about the importance of listing his MA at the top of the query so that the agent would know they're weren't just any writer, but someone truly talented. He did not appreciate it when I started laughing at him.)
I try to set them right. I try to pop those bubbles that I can. I tell them who to Google and what blogs to read. Listen, student, you seem like a nice person. I'm not trying to rain on your parade, but you're spending graduate level dollars on information that will net you nothing in return. You'd be better served getting a library card and signing onto the internets where they keep the truth. You're in for a rude awakening. Prepare yourself so you can be the first of your classmates to successfully navigate the rocky shoals of publishing.
This leads to the inevitable, what have you published? Me? Well, I have three completed manuscripts, two of which received full requests. I have a fourth I'm about to start querying, but I have not published a novel yet.
And that seals the advice of my fate. If I don't have the bookshelf to prove myself a better source than their instructors, they'd rather believe what they already believe. Don't take my word on it! Just go to these blogs. Look through the archives!
They never do, of course. They have homework, after all. This irks me only a little, but I probably would have done the same in their situation. I feel bad for the older students, though. The ones that aren't still claimed as a dependent by their parents, but have a spouse and kids and a job on top of their school work. They're draining the family funds for an experience they think will ready them for publishing.
Writing readies you for publishing. Reading readies you for publishing. Information readies you for publishing. You can get all this without a graduate program. You don't need to spend 150 grand for an MFA, only a dollar fifty in late charges at the public library.
Folklore and Advanced Writing: Poetry, in case you were wondering (and no, I'm not a poet).
My Shakespeare English class (as opposed to my Shakespeare theatre class I took the semester before) was so atrocious and factually inaccurate ("all Shakespearean plays are tragicomedy") that I complained about the professor to the department. My grade was then dropped from an A to a B.
There was a play my senior year that--while pretentious--had a woman scream while the lights were out. No movie, audio recording, or any other medium of delivery had ever evoked such a strong response from me. She reached into my stomach and tore out my intestines. I almost came out of my seat it was so powerful.
You think it's hard to get a book published, try the theatre. The people that make a living in that art are not only incredibly talented but wicked lucky as well.
This demographic is obviously changing as more and more young authors are published as undergraduates and even teens. Hannah Moskowitz had a good blog post on what it's like being a published author as an undergraduate
Knowing the right person can open a lot of doors, don't get me wrong. It can be maddening for those of us who don't. But in the end, if your writing isn't up to snuff, you better know the owner of the publishing company or it doesn't really matter.