Does MFA = Publication? WFMAD Day 21


All over America, college is getting under way.

(Note: this could be happening in other countries, too, but I don’t want to make assumptions about the collegiate calendar in places I’ve never been to, and if I stop writing to research this, I will be sucked into that swamp we call the Internet and won’t emerge for hours.)

So. USA. College.

This means that kids will start attending some creative writing classes. And a few kids and adults will start in on their MFA (Masters of Fine Arts) Writing program.

This worries me.

I divide the Academic Creative Writing Experience into two columns.

Column A    I know a number of people who had wonderful creative writing professors who created a safe, stimulating atmosphere that fostered creativity and led to growth. I know people who graduated with an MFA in Creative Writing and then went on to publish successful books. So far, nothing to worry about, right?

Column B   I also know people who stopped writing forever because their college creative writing professor was a bitter, unpublished writer who got his kicks out of making young writers cry. I have friends and fans who are tens of thousands of dollars in debt for their Creative Writing MFA, and who have not been able to land an agent, much less be offered a publishing contract.

I know way more people in Column B than in Column A.

Please do not take this as a personal attack. If you want to get a degree in creative writing, go for it. Have fun. Enjoy the gift of time and focus that academia offers. Write and dream. But I hope you enter these programs with your eyes open and your goals clear.

Publishers don’t care how many creative writing classes you’ve taken or what your degree is in.* All they care about is the quality of your work. If you can find professors and programs that will help you develop your writing craft, then it might be a good investment of your time and money.

Creative writing classes rarely, if ever, teach their students about the publishing business and the financial realities of being a full-time writer. (That’s why people are so stunned when I write posts like this one.) I’ve had a couple of heart-breaking conversations with writers who are drowning in debt because they had no clue how hard it is to make a living as a writer and they assumed that an MFA from a prestigious university would be their ticket to their dream career.

(John Scalzi has written a couple hard-hitting pieces on this and other weaknesses of MFA writing programs. Before you go into debt to get one of these degrees, I suggest you read what he has to say.)

If you want to be an engineer, you study for a degree in engineering. If you want to be a nurse, you go to nursing school. This equation, degree=career, is extremely fuzzy when it comes to the arts. Not just fuzzy. Swathed in yards of dun-colored cloth woven from dust bunnies, dog hair, and belly button lint. Just ask the theater majors wagging signs outside of a pizza shop.

Again – I’m not judging. It’s your life. Do whatever the hell you want with it. But be informed. Be a skeptical consumer before you plunk down hard-earned cash (or go into debt) for that degree. Know exactly what you are buying and take the time to calculate the true cost.

What do you think?

 *For the record, I have an A.A. Liberal Arts degree from Onondaga Community College in Syracuse, NY and a B.S.L.L. (Bachelor of Science in Languages and Linguistics) from Georgetown University, Washington DC. Number of creative writing classes taken? None.

Today’s Quote 

“All attempts at gaining literary polish must begin with judicious reading, and the learner must never cease to hold this phase uppermost. In many cases, the usage of good authors will be found a more effective guide than any amount of precept. A page of [Joseph Addison] or of [Washington Irving] will teach more of style than a whole manual of rules, whilst a story of [Edgar Allan Poe]‘s will impress upon the mind a more vivid notion of powerful and correct description and narration than will ten dry chapters of a bulky textbook. Let every student read unceasingly the best writers.”

H.P. Lovecraft 

Today’s prompt: Start with this opening line: “I had never jumped out of a window before, but…” Don’t stop writing for fifteen minutes. Don’t think, don’t worry, don’t edit, don’t plot. Just keep the pen moving, or your fingers tapping the keys. Stand back and let it flow.

Scribble… scribble… scribble…

Fresh Starts – WFMAD Day 20


That adorable baby in the photo is our first grandchild, born yesterday afternoon. Welcome to the world, Logan!!

It’s a good thing I got in about five hours of writing yesterday morning, because from the time we left for the hospital, my head has been a total muddle.

What do you do about your writing when life throws you a curveball? The entrance of a grandchild is a glorious, positive thing, but it does distract a bit from my intensity and focus on my novel. Getting bad news; a car accident, illness, death of a loved one, are even more distracting. If you are taken away from your project, it often feels impossible to find your way back into it.

First things first – give the people you love the time and attention they deserve. If you are caring for a sick child, or a terminally ill parent, that’s where your energy and heart goes. If it’s a joyful distraction, like a new baby, same thing, though in my experience, it’s easier to stay connected to creative work during the happy times than the sad.

That being said, try to keep a window into your creative soul open. You might hear lines of poetry in your head. Drawing might soothe you. If you have enough concentration, look at a small piece of your work-in-progress. Just a chapter, or maybe a scene. Polish it; add some detail, trim the dialog, make sure your transitions are solid. The key is to stay connected with your work in a small and consistent manner.


Today’s Quote

“The one thing that you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can.”

Neil Gaiman


Today’s prompt: Look at the photo of a newborn (say, for example, that incredibly handsome and intelligent fellow above) and write a list of possibilities for his life. Instead of the “what ifs” you’re writing “what could bes.”

Then take a baby photo of someone you know well, someone whose life story you are familiar with. Pick one or two of the possibilities you already listed, and freewrite about how that possibility did or did not develop for the person you know. Don’t feel compelled to stick to the facts at hand; if your imagination takes off and invents a fictional character, run with it.


  Scribble… scribble… scribble…

The Money – WFMAD Day 19


So I promised that I would talk about money today.

Such a depressing topic.

It’s not that money is evil. In fact, it’s rather lovely, especially when your children are hungry, or they have outgrown their sneakers for the third time in a year or they want to live in something other than a tent, especially when it snows.

But money, as Mother was so very fond of pointing out, does not grow on trees.

So you get a real job to earn money. That takes about 40 hours a week. Plus commuting time. And if you have family, they take up an addition 100,000 hours a week. And then you have to make time for things like dentist appointments, getting the car inspected, taking the hamsters to the vet, etc.

And then you have to make time for writing. Right?

Many people (like me) feel that if they could just get their novel published, it would be the end to their money woes. So in addition to all the creative pressures they feel when writing, they add financial pressure. And then? And then? Some people shoulder even more burdens. They hope that the novel they’re writing will let them get a divorce, it will stop the bank from foreclosing, it will cure their smelly feet, it will make a lost love return to their arms.

Those kinds of expectations will destroy your writing and break your heart.

This post does a pretty good job explaining the math of publishing. It is rather dreary. If you prefer to focus on the success stories of J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer, go ahead. I don’t blame you.

Looking at my experience and that of other writers I know who are making a living and paying the bills from writing, this is how you can get there.

   1. Write a great book.

   2. Get an agent to represent you.

   3. The agent sells the book to a publisher.

   4. You celebrate, but you don’t quit your day job.

   5. Over the next decade, write and sell five more books.

   6. And sneak in whatever kind of publicity you can in your free time so that…

   7. All of your books earn out their advances and you have a steady royalty stream.

   8. Calculate how you’re going to pay for health insurance.

   9. Decide to keep the day job a while longer

   10. After 15 years and 8 or 9 books, take a deep breath and quit the day job.

(Note: if your significant other has a great job, you obviously have more flexibility.)

Are you still with me? Still want to be a writer?

Now that you know the icky part, what questions do you have about the money and publication side of things?

Today’s quote

 “The arts are not a way of making a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.”

Kurt Vonnegut


Today’s prompt: Write your success story, the People magazine version, about how your novel is going to put you in the ranks of  J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer. Be sure to include the wording of the note that you’re going to send me when you prove this blog post completely wrong!


 Scribble… scribble… scribble…

Attitude Adjustment – WFMAD Day 18


This picture? Elephant playing in waterfall? This should be you writing.

No, that is not an unkind remark about the way you look in those pants. I am not implying that your life is that of a caged animal forced to entertain strangers and attend to all bodily functions in front of a crowd that throws peanuts.

 I am pointing out that many writers get caught in the “tortured artist” mindset. And if you are a product of the American work ethic (i.e. you don’t feel like a good person unless you are working, nose to the grindstone eighty hours a week), then you are likely to slip into a frame of mind in which you regard writing as laborious, exhausting, work.

This is compounded by the neurotic tendencies many of us have about the quality of our work, and made even gloomier if you are hoping that what you are writing might one day pay the bills.

Sound familiar?

I’m not judging. I recognize this behavior because I fall into it all the time (as do my closest writer friends, who shall remain nameless because I love them).

The trick is to be aware when you stumble into the Bad Attitude Sewer Hole.

If the act of writing is not its own reward then why bother? Life is short, you’re going to die, the world is full of beauty and adventures. There are about a gazillion things that you could be doing with your writing time that would be fun and rewarding.

The next time you find yourself acting like a dramatic third-grader flinging herself on the couch, back of hand to her forehead, moaning about how hard it is to be a third grader and nobody understands and she hates doing it and she wishes third grade would just be finished magically and she needs a piece of chocolate cake now or she is going to faint…. stop.

Creating is fun. It’s a blast. Exercising our boundless imaginations feels magnificent. It changes our reality and strengthens us.

Yes, there is much about the publication process that is discouraging. (I’m going to talk about the whole Money Thing tomorrow.) Yes, it takes longer than you want to write a novel and it is confusing trying to keep all those pesky chapters straight.

But you are playing. It’s OK to enjoy writing. If you do, the chances you’ll make time for it everyday increase dramatically.


Today’s Quote

“Writing gives me such enormous pleasure, and I’m a much happier (and therefore nicer) person when I’m doing it. There’s a place in my head that I go to when I write and it’s so rich and unexpected – and scary sometimes – but never ever dull.”

Julie Myerson


Today’s Prompt: Think of the most duty-bound or boring person you know. (Or make one up.) Think of an incident that will snap that person out of her daily drudgery and recognize that there is more to life than working and having folded sheets in the linen closet. Write the scene that changes this character’s life.


 Scribble… scribble… scribble…

Oprah and Me for Twenty Years – WFMAD Day 17

In 1992 I was a stay-at-home mom with a 5- and a 7-year-old. I worked part-time as a freelance journalist, writing for magazines and the Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper. And I watched a LOT of the The Oprah Winfrey Show. It had been a lifeline to sanity from the days when I had a newborn and a toddler who resisted toilet training. It gave me a sense of community. It reminded me to read. It nudged me along my spiritual path. I adored it.

My life as an author began on September 7, 1992. (I’ll post more about that red-letter day in a few weeks. Probably on September 7.) That was the day I put my youngest daughter on the bus to first grade. That was the day I committed myself to becoming an author.

I kept writing for the newspaper, but I began to tell people that I was trying to become a children’s author. Most people would look at me with the kind light of pity in their eyes and say, “But don’t you want to write a real book?”

(In their pointy heads, real = for grown-ups.)

I made every mistake a wanna be writer could make. I sent out first drafts. I wrote what I thought would be published instead of what was in my heart. I collected hundreds of well-deserved rejection letters, until finally, FINALLY, I got The First Phone Call from an editor saying that Henry Holt want to publish a picture book of mine. That book, Ndito Runs, came out in 1996.

Most people looked at me with the kind light of pity in their eyes and said, “That’s nice, but when are you going to write a real book?”

My mother-in-law, Anastasia, never did. She said, “I bet you’re going to be on the Oprah Show. She likes all kinds of books!”

In 1999, Speak was published and named as a National Book Award Finalist. That was also the year that Oprah Winfrey was awarded the National Book Foundation’s 50th Anniversary Gold Medal in recognition of her efforts to promote reading. I saw Oprah across the room at the cocktail party for the authors before the dinner. I was too chicken to do anything more than steal glances and admire her shoes. (She looked amazing.)

I knew that I’d never have a book featured on Oprah’s show, though I will admit I’d fantasize about it. I kept writing and writing and eventually I was getting more contracts than rejection letters. Anastasia’s faith in both Oprah and me never wavered, not even when I divorced her son. (One of the most peaceful divorces in the world, btw. That’s also a post for another day.)

Well, Anastasia, the day you told me would come is here.

Chains was chosen for Oprah’s 2012 Kids’ Reading List!!!


(Excuse me for a moment while I get up and dance wildly around the house again!!!)

There are many other wonderful books on the list, too, so be sure to check out all of them.  Haven’t read Chains, yet? Then read this new review.

I lift my mug of tea and salute Anastasia and Oprah for two decades of encouragement and support! Thank you!

This extremely glamourous photo is of me and Anastasia the morning of my daughter Meredith’s wedding a few months ago.

Today’s Quote

“The biggest adventure you can ever take is to live the life of your dreams.”

                                                                                                                                          Oprah Winfrey

Today’s Prompt: Write down this date: August 17, 2032. How old will you be? Next, jot down five of your writing dreams. Pick the most outrageous of those five dreams and write a paragraph or two – from the perspective of August 17, 2032 – and describe how that dream came to life. Then list the three things you can do TODAY to bring yourself one step closer to that dream.

If you haven’t talked to your mother-in-law recently, give her a call or send up a prayer to her today.

 Scribble… scribble… scribble…