My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Mailbox: Why Don't You Become a "Real Writer"?

You're pretty snotty about MFA programs. Are you afraid to become a real writer?

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer them each Thursday as long as I have enough to do.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox.  And if you write me bitchy little anonymous torpedos, it will be, as they say, "so on".]  

Anonymous writes:

You're pretty snotty about your disdain for MFAs in Creative Writing and the literary world.  Is that because we're real writers and you're not?  Are you jealous?  Are you afraid that if you tried to apply for an MFA program, you wouldn't even be accepted, never mind getting published if you had to face *GASP* a gatekeeper.[?] 

My Reply:

[Remember, I'm NOT anti-MFA. I'm really not. But when anonymous asscrumpets from the with-us-or-against-us brigade basically beg me to go to the mat, I've got some game.]

You know...if you had signed this, or had the courage to take responsibility for it in some way, I might have tried to slather some aloe vera all over this burn you gave me before replying to you, but I've been sick for nearly a week, I spiked a fever Tuesday night and since you decided to take a callow anonymous snipe, I'm not going to feel bad about unleashing the full fury of my crankypants. You will learn what apparently even an advanced degree among your own kind has not yet taught you: writers can be vicious if annoyed. I will not be kindly setting aside my writing persona to offer a sincere, conscientious reply.  Oh no. I'm turning this bad boy up to eleven.

So let's take your first question: "Is that because we're real writers and you're not?"

I realize that you're surrounded by people who are very busy sleeping with each other and attending every literary event they can find where there is free wine from a box, so you might have some slightly skewed perceptions about what your writing life is going to be like after graduation, but exactly what, to your mind, makes a writer "real"?

I wake up every morning and start writing. I write for four to six hours. Then I go about the business of my day, cleaning the house, reading, and maybe playing a video game or something.  Twice a week during the school season I go to teach English and ESL for night school at a community college, but every other evening involves a couple more hours of revision. Periodically, I will spend entire days in front of my keyboard.

I have passed my 10,000 hours more than three times over.  Much (but not all) of my writing in the last year has gone into this blog.  Writing About Writing is coming up on its first birthday and there are 417 posts averaging about 2-3 pages each.  If this were a book, it would be the length of War and Peace (and drafted in just under a year--suck it Tolstoy!). It wouldn't be as GOOD as War and Peace, but it would be as long.  I have also been tooling away on some fiction manuscripts when I'm not working on the blog.

Picture of me holding paycheck has been replaced
with a picture of just the amount part.
JUST in case the routing number or account number might
be something I don't want a picture of online.
This is a picture of a paycheck sent to me by Google for the ad revenue this blog has brought me.  I'm covering up the address to avoid stalkers, but rest assured that the cute groupie kind is welcome to message me privately. It's not much, but added to the "Tip Jar" donations, I could pay a bill. This month, it could even be something like the phone bill. My blog is largely creative in nature, including bloggers whose existence is somewhat questionable and events that may not have happened quite exactly the way I said them--like interdimensional wars and stuff.  Mostly it is what I want to write. It is not what someone else wants me to write. What this means is that I have made actual money from creative writing.

This is a picture of my analytics for the life of the blog.  As you can see, hundreds of people stop by every day. On really good days, I break a thousand. Eighty thousand people have come by my blog since I started it. I have articles on Stumbleupon with thousands of "likes" and by tracking my analytics I can tell you that I have lots of return readers and lots of people who find my site and then stay to poke around rather than immediately leaving.  If you look at a graph of my analytics, they look like a mountain that people would climb to prove how awesome they are. My fiction pieces, Falling From Orbit and Penumbra, have been read by hundreds.

So, let's take an inventory. I write every day, I'm read by thousands, and I'm even starting to make a little tiny bit of money at it.  So here is my question back to you, Anonymous:
Seriously? What bellwether? What yardstick? How are you defining this phrase "real writer" that I don't measure up? Is the self-congratulatory circle jerk within the Ivory Tower so cloistered that you've managed to actually convince yourself that your average grad student is the unsung literary hero of the writing world and that all other writers aren't "real"? Or is there actually some secret handshake definition you use that I'm missing like, "must use prose rhythm about being gay in as banal a world as possible and publish in a literary review" that I have failed to meet?

Your next question: "Are you jealous?"

Are you the creator of How I Met Your Mother (the early seasons), for you are making me laugh.

I've talked to a lot of MFA program faculty over the years, and asked about their program's success in generating writers who go on to some measure of success with writing. They all say the same thing. (After hemming and hawing and telling me about how they really teach "critical thinking within the field of humanities that come into play in any job" and "conveying the aesthetic of high artistic integrity" and something about "you should study what you love and let the rest fall into place".) The numbers are abysmal. Unless you're in a program like Iowa City, Ann Arbor, Madison, Brown, Cornell or some other program on the short list of awesomesauce, the number of writers who will go on to make a career from creative writing is something like one in every four or five batches of graduates. Not one in every four or five students, mind you. One person in every four or five graduating classes. 1% would be a Scrooge-on-Christmas-morning generous estimate. It's more like half a percent...or less. With programs LIKE Iowa and Ann Arbor, it is difficult to claim correlation proves causation as their programs are so hard to get into, it requires some pretty fierce dedication to writing and self-selection bias just to be there.

Fuck, the faculty at SFSU are still bragging about Anne Rice. She graduated before most of them even got there.

Lots of students publish a short story or two (I'm told that number is roughly around 25%) and a few even publish a single novel through small press (which doesn't pay) but very few keep writing after graduation and a fraction of a percentage of MFA graduates ever make money at it. Most take their MFA's and go manage restaurants or sell real estate. Many end up writing in some other capacity like freelance writing or tech writing, but not creative writing. Some get into the Creative Writing field as publishers, editors, or literary events managers but do very little of their own writing. A few will try to get into academia where they will compete with dozens, perhaps hundreds, of their peers for a single position. They will then struggle to be faculty instead of lecturer and make tenure essentially by outlasting their colleagues in a years long endurance race where they must tolerate the intense demands of their position teaching undergrads while making less than the janitors. They will be tested against each other in various "Survivor-esque" trials like power ass kissing and how fast they can tell undergrads that science fiction isn't real literature. They will also be up against a flood of recent graduates of the newly formed PhD of Creative Writing programs that are starting to pop up, so they may not even be considered to have the terminal degree appropriate to teach college within a few more years.

The average MFA publishes "a couple" of short stories, and I am assured that this is very much an average as most MFA students publish nothing (just wanting to get their degree and get out) and the occasional student publishes several. These are usually submitted to literary journals, which are prestigious publications with fierce gatekeepers who make Cerberus look cute and fluffy.  These journals are mostly purchased by other MFA students, graduates, proud mothers, and supportive friends and are very much "literary" in focus.  Esoteric would be a kind word. "Experimental or Avant Guarde" is more common. You can imagine what it's called outside the very insular world of literary fiction. I kind of like it myself, in small doses, but it's easy to see why it doesn't have much mainstream appeal. It is not because of the myth that there's no money in good writing either, as the sales for Catcher in the Rye or Catch 22 can attest to.

A good literary magazine will have a circulation of 2000-2500. Most are actually even smaller. A few are bigger, but those are very difficult to get published in. Usually you find that it is faculty of other institutions (not graduate students) publishing in them. They do this to keep up their publication requirements where they teach. Occasionally it is graduates who are still writing. The reviews most grad students get published in have even more modest numbers. And while it is a kick to see one's name in print, these journals often lose money for the universities where they are published, and are mostly considered to be a learning experience for the editors and staff rather than a revenue stream for the college. The literary magazine for which I was managing editor considered it a kick ass semester if they could keep their losses to only three figures. No one gets paid for submitting to these kinds of journals. Ever. Usually they get something like three to five copies of the journal itself. All these journals really give the writer is the promise of exposure and something to put on their resume. (And if that sounds vaguely, unsettlingly familiar, it's because it's the same thing people say when they don't want to actually pay freelancers.)

I would have to have published 64 stories in the last year into some fairly decent journals to get as many readers as I've had on Writing About Writing. (I'll assume that every proud mom and and supportive friend of all the other authors still read the lit mag cover to cover if you'll assume that everyone who stopped by my site for a herpes picture search read an entire article--each seems equally implausible.) That's more than one successful submission every week.  Most MFA's are feeling pretty writerly if they earn themselves a rejection slip a month. A REJECTION slip, mind you. But, by all means, please let me know if a thousand people a day are reading your work (and not just the folks who will fail the class if they don't).

Most publishers will gleefully tell you they have absolutely no interest in the CV of a writer. None. They are interested in the writing itself and maybe past publication. This isn't like professional theater where the question isn't IF you have an MFA, but rather where you got it from. An MFA will not raise anyone's chances of getting published. And, in fact, many MFA's who do go on to writing success will tell you the MFA itself was pretty damned useless to them beyond just the continued structured writing practice, something most writers need to learn to do for themselves at some point anyway.

If all that doesn't convince you, I have written a list of reasons NOT to get an MFA in Creative Writing. Please feel free to take a gander at it if you still have some sort of doubt about how much my heart really, REALLY does not yearn to be fettered to most MFA programs.

Oh my goodness lord, I almost forgot. An MFA is about $30,000 (on average) and takes two to three years at minimum.

So...I have more people reading me by an order of magnitude.  I'm a year into my career efforts instead of a year into a 2-3 year degree that will probably produce nothing more than an unpublishable thesis in a genre I don't enjoy and no actual job prospects.  And I am up by roughly $30,000 bucks.

Oh wait...$30,000 plus a cell phone bill, actually. My bad.

So am I jealous?  No.  No, I am not.

Am I afraid of gatekeepers?  No.  Mostly I feel sorry for them, for their power is in rapid decline but they're still acting like...well important gatekeepers. Some have managed to walk into the new century and make careers that even involve these newfangled internet contraptions, but many still seem to think that writers have no back alleys or cobblestone paths around those gates they're so busy keeping, so they can be as eccentric and anachronistic as they want. And when they get port rounded by something like The Martian, or Cory Doctorow, they scratch their heads...again....and again...and again. They aren't noticing that electronic media are changing everything and are acting exactly like the music industry did about ten years ago when they thought they could do anything they wanted.   Some of these fucking fossiles won't take submissions electronically or update their websites OR EVEN KNOW THEIR OWN SUBMISSION GUIDELINES.

I made a very deliberate decision to approach writing in a way that factored in the many changes to the industry that are happening RIGHT NOW.  I listened closely to the cutting edge people explain how market shares were shifting into e-publishing, electronic readers and multimedia, and paid a lot of attention to how the old guard sounded as they denied the changes. ("Oh, I don't publish my writers on Kindle. Who would want a book they couldn't smell?" Then later: "Well...sales are down. People just don't read as much anymore!") And what the new guard said. ("Well if you account for Kindle sales, up to 20% of the market and growing, book sales are actually up from five years ago.") I heard cutting edge publishers talking about how zines were not the stigma of a decade ago, and many writers lament that it is actually their worst work, rather than their best, that readers will find from Googling their name. And I listened to several people tell me about marketing in the new world through electronic media. It wasn't fear that motivated me to start a blog. It was a very deliberate, "maximum yield" calculation.

Honestly it's more like I have 80,000 gatekeepers now. My art is out there and people can either love it or hate it without any ONE person ever having to decide if it's going to make money and/or advance their personal aesthetic of good art. No one approved it before it went out, but sometimes that means there's no real quality control either. I get feedback--good and bad--from all over the country and even the world. And if you think that any gatekeeper, who can still maintain a semblance of professional decorum while rejecting something, would be as uncivil and juvenile as, say, a nasty anonymous comment asking me if I'm jealous of "real writers," you would be very, very wrong. I am ten times more nervous about anonymous comments than submission replies. That shit stings.

As to your last question:  Am I afraid that I wouldn't be accepted into an MFA?

No. I'm not. I graduated Summa Cum Laude with a 3.94, so I could probably get into most graduate programs with a couple of cleaned up stories, and I even have a few from my undergrad efforts that aren't "nasty genre" that I could revise and have professionally edited for my portfolio. I already teach too, so I could probably even get a fellowship and not have to cover so much of the cost myself. No, that's not what I'm afraid of.

What I'm afraid of is that I would be bored...for the entire three years. I would be bored by workshops where people haven't really read my work (and then only because it's required for the class--not because they wanted to). Bored by the fact that I'm grouped up with readers not by mutual interest or writing style, but by where I chose to sit on the first day of class or my last name. Bored by the transparent ways in which people who simply don't have a taste for what I'm writing, and try to twist it to be more like what THEY'RE writing. Bored by the homogeneous writing that is being produced in MFA programs today that somehow manages to be linguistically "experimental" and still all alike when it comes to tropes and cliches. Bored by the hyperfocus on language and character and disdain for plot and setting.  Bored by tiptoeing around departmental pedagogy that forbids genre fiction despite its considerable merit. Bored by how the hazing process for Creative Writing faculty is so long and difficult and filled with such sycophancy that the end result becomes cookie cutter faculty with no real fresh blood or ideas. Bored by being told what to write and precisely how to write it rather than simply being given skills to write anything I please at a higher quality level. Bored by spending two to three years in a program that won't actually give me a skill set that might improve my chances of employment. Bored by being told what I ought to like rather than the tools to make my own informed decisions in that matter. Bored by the elitism of people who think that because they're not commercially successful, it somehow makes them better writers. And mostly bored by people like you, who have their heads so far up the asses of this arrogant, elitist, circle jerk mentality that they think they're in a position to decide what makes for a "real writer."

Hope that answers your questions.

If you're enjoying this blog, and would like to see more articles like this one, the writer is a guy with a rent and insurance to pay who would love to spend more time writing. Please consider contributing to My Patreon. As little as $12 a year (only one single less-than-a-cup-of-coffee dollar a month) will get you in on backchannel conversations, patron-only polls, and my special ear when I ask for advice about future projects or blog changes.


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks! And DAMN, thanks for that in-person gush. I'm still blushing.

    2. bet you the person who sent in the original bitching didnt even read ur reply

  2. Wow. Some random MFA has is sitting in front of a computer somewhere having their face melted off Raiders of the Lost Arc style.

    1. I'm really much nicer when people don't write nasty anonymous notes. I swear!

  3. I have such a crush on you right now.

    1. Chris reply: That's high praise coming from you. THANK YOU!!! ~blush~

      W.A.W. Chris Persona Reply: Well all my groupie slots are currently open, so...shoot me an email. ~eyebrow waggle~

  4. You had me at 'I'm turning this bad boy up to eleven.'

    Also, I want to have your babies.

    1. First I have to have Neil DeGrass Tyson's. Then I'm all yours.

      You know.....after the science stuff.

  5. Anonymous, that noise you're hearing is the tearing sound that comes from being ripped a new one.

    Fuck, that was beautiful.

  6. Advantage Anonymous.


    Advantage Brecheen.




    Nicely done.

    1. Thanks. I've got some friends who sometimes do the "duce"/"advantage" thing when friends are debating near them. Would you be one such friend?

  7. I have a question...which maybe you have answered elsewhere in the blog, I don't know. But. Is this what you *want* to be doing? Is it all about numbers of eyes? What's your end goal? Just curious.

    1. I'd love to answer this as its own mailbox question if that's okay with you. :)

    2. Hey Kest, can I answer this question as its own mailbox this Thursday?

  8. This is just....beautiful man. ~sniff~

    Unfortunately I HAVE an MFA, and other than pushing the students to write more and cultivating in them a sense of "high art" that is basically "good examples of what WE like to read" they don't have much more going for them. You WOULD be bored.

    1. Yeah, I actually have several friends who have done an MFA program. With the exception of the ones who really WANTED to learn to write in the "literary genre" they universally regret doing it.

  9. Holy crap. That was like watching an octopus eat a shark. You are my God.

  10. This post is delicious the second time around, too.

    1. Thanks Amy. That makes me feel uberawesome coming from you! :)

  11. Super :)

    I had a friend who was just as pretentious as your anonymous assclown. she only read literary stuff and wrote in literary styles. Even her fanfiction, ffs. If I still knew her (we stopped talking in 2006 for reasons on both sides), I'd point her to your Nano article. One year she'd entered a contest to write a novel in three days, and gave me a patronizing part on the head and an "Oh, isn't that cute!"statement when I said I was doing Nano. I agree with your article, and I imagine one could take what your Nano article (why it's a bad idea) and multiply it by ten for what she tried.

    1. Three days? What the hell is anyone supposed to do in three days???

    2. Wow, I believe it's almost humanly impossible to write a good novel in just three days - unless you are Agatha Christie, of course.

    3. Wow, I believe it's almost humanly impossible to write a good novel in just three days - unless you are Agatha Christie, of course.

  12. That's a fine comeback.
    However, my experience tells me that there's no understanding with this type of dirt. These people are so, soooo self confident, that your words cannot even reach their limited, pseudo intellectual little heads. And they don't deserve the time one spends on replying.
    I enjoyed this, though:
    "I realize that you're surrounded by people who are very busy sleeping with each other and attending every literary event they can find where there is free wine from a box". Made my day. Thank you ;)

    and I have no idea why this thing is making me anonymous, I'm from here:

    1. Yeah, I figured it was probably a waste of time to reply to the person who wrote it, but it gave me an excuse to put on a show for everyone else.

    2. True, there is a perverted pleasure in burning them for all eyes to see ;)

  13. Oh. I am not anonymous. I'm just new at this. Very well then.

    1. No worries. I can see who you are from this end without any trouble.

  14. Terrific post! Just found your blog today.

    I emailed you about my MFA dilemma.

    1. Did I reply? I'm not seeing anything in my inbox from the seventh, but life is sort of a blur these days.

  15. Thanks Chris. I used to be a member of the National Association of Science Writers...yes, I actually wrote loads of medical news articles. But at annual meetings, it seems that upwards to 70 percent of attendees had never written a thing. Could never figure out why they attended!

    I just finished a blog piece, an essay, on what I termed a 1950's fairy tale. It's the true story of a lion cub who was thrown against the bars of her cage by her mother at the Port Defiance Zoo (Tacoma, WA). A Washington couple rescued the injured cub and raised her in their home, where she became a 350 pound tabby cat. Totally tame, vegetarian, rode unleashed on parade floats, and helped sell cars for a local auto dealership. My grandfather made visits to the rescue ranch, hence the story. The role of fairy tales, even modern ones, play such a role in a young child's life.

    If you have time (and I know you may get this request a lot, so I understand) go to: thisandthatbyjudy.com My graphic artist deserves great credit for designing the template/site. Never under-estimate good graphics when it comes to publishing stuff on the web!

    You have a wonderful FB page...

  16. Am I the only one offended by your stereotype of the janitors? I mean. Honestly man, let’s not disparage the entire profession eh?
    J/k that was the best article I’ve read in a long time. Every bit of it. Don’t pull the punches, you’ve got all words, use them! And don’t ever feel bad about it.
    Also-super excited to view myself as a gatekeeper-it’s like I got a life promotion just for reading! Yay me.

  17. Coming here from a 2017 rerun.

    Thanks for this. For years I felt I couldn't wrote the way I wanted and felt self conscious because I'm not a "real writer".

    Blogs like yours help a lot. You're awesome

  18. So came here from the rerun link... and grinned at the figures you quoted!

  19. Here (again) for the rerun. Can't remember if I read this when it first ran but I know I've read it before and it never fails to make me laugh. I'm thankful I've never gotten any indignant messages from "real writers" (or maybe I have, I don't check my email that often...)

  20. I'm gonna bookmark this page and send it to whoever asks me when I'm going back for my masters next. Love it so much. Thanks for writing, keep it up!

  21. Longtime reader, first-time commenter.

    I desperately wanted my MFA but settled for a BA when it came time to decide if I wanted my first job (as a newspaper editor right out of college, back when newspapers were still a viable source of employment) to pay for another degree or rent on a place that was anywhere but my parents' house.

    Not going for my master's was the best decision I ever made, hands down: While my advanced-degree pals were facing mounting debt and zero job prospects in the face of the recession, I was accruing real-world writing experiences for my resume and portfolio, which kept me employable--and able to say that my 12-year career has been entirely spent in writing and editing.

    Do I still want an MFA? Well, yeah, but only because the classroom is more enjoyable than an office (and also bragging rights). But having writing awards and a portfolio full of articles on glossy pages and a steady income tgat comes from word-slinging makes me feel way more like a writer than a $65,000 piece of paper does.

    Thank you for this post, both for the sentiment and the aspirational levels of burn you showcased here that were one helluva jpy to read.

  22. You’d think a guy with an MFA wouldn’t need to be schooled so hard.