“If you’re already worried about publishing, you’re not serious,” sniffed my writing professor—whose own work was regularly featured in The Paris Review and Harper’s.
Finishing my graduate creative writing degree in the 1980s, I didn’t even know how to craft a cover letter to submit pages I’d spent two years perfecting. Another professor I hounded helped me land an assistant job at a magazine, which led to my freelance journalism career.
Later, teaching feature writing at a journalism school in the 1990s, I invented the course I had needed to take years earlier. The goal was to write and sell a great piece by the end of class.
Yet my boss insisted I drop short assignments in favor of an 8,000-word term paper.
“Nobody will publish such long pieces,” I argued. “Students learn to write better at a restricted length that editors might buy.”
“We’re not a trade school,” he snapped.
I eventually left that program. Alas, U.S. graduate writing programs have long ignored employment concerns while their students went into debt in hopes of future success. Fifty-four percent of traditionally published authors and 80 percent of those who self-publish earn less than $1,000 a year for their work, according to a 2014 survey. And no wonder: My alma mater, New York University, discouraged any discussion of financial aspects of the field.
Has anything changed? Asking colleagues and recent graduates struck a nerve.
“My program put no effort into publishing,” says Lucy Huber, a 2013 University of North Carolina MFA grad paying off $12,000 in student loans. “It’s frustrating that I still have little idea how to get published.”
“There was admiration for students who didn’t submit work. Someone trying [to get published] meant they were more focused on an audience than the purity of writing,” says Jackie Sizemore, a 2016 Boise State University MFA graduate. “Earning money from writing was seen as this unnecessary dream.”
Boise State funded Sizemore’s $10,450-a-year program, and she tutored to cover the costs of her Idaho relocation and expenses. Waiting years to publish didn’t line up with her financial reality. “I’ve gravitated to internet groups for freelancing info,” she says.
Academic instruction in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry has surged in popularity over the past four decades. In 1975, there were 15 creative writing MFA programs; now there are more than 200. Many journalism schools teach creative nonfiction or literary reportage as well, for a cost of up to $45,000 per year (plus expenses). So why the lack of guidance on how to make a living?
“There’s a serious bone of philosophical contention within academia,” says Tom Zoellner, an English professor at California’s Chapman University. “The old view is that graduate creative studies is for pure study of the craft, where a writer develops a style separate from the marketplace.”
Zoellner says he doesn’t want his graduates “having the Tinkerbell illusion” that getting published is easy. “I’d say 5 percent of their time is now spent learning about literary commerce.”
“There is a slight shift towards helping students publish,” says Phillip Lopate, director of Columbia University’s nonfiction program. “In the old days, such interventions were frowned upon. Columbia didn’t want to be seen as a trade school; high standards of literary art were emphasized.” That’s changing, Lopate says. “We now offer nuts-and-bolts courses in criticism, reporting, food, humor writing, evenings devoted to life after the MFA, and agent mixers.”
While the dreaded “trade school” label still resurfaces, some writers in charge of graduate studies are modernizing their programs for the future.
“We got zero publishing encouragement from faculty,” recalls Erika Meitner of her 2001 University of Virginia MFA. She took a different approach when she became the MFA director at Virginia Tech. “We bring in editors and disseminate information about publishing.”
“Ten years ago when I arrived at NYU, there was a reluctance to talk about publishing,” agrees Deborah Landau, the writing director there. “However, students wanted to know how to get their books into the world. So we now offer resources, support, panels with agents.”
Luis Jaramillo, a graduate of the New School’s MFA program, has headed it since 2014. “We’ve made a conscious shift to be more useful,” he says. “We push students to be part of the literary community, writing for school journals, taking weekend workshops with agents and editors ... There’s a big demand.”
Today, writing students and graduates who need more practical guidance than their schools offer can also turn to unaccredited programs like the online Writer’s Digest University or attend workshops such as the one run by the literary magazine Tin House, which offers concrete advice on publishing literary fiction and poetry, according to its founder, Rob Spillman.
Kevin Kelley, a current University of Wyoming MFA student, believes that picking up industry knowledge is partly volitional. “I chose a program with successful faculty to be around actively working writers,” he says, and he spends a $300 stipend on fees to enter contests and submit to journals.
Back in the 1990s, happily, a different school approved my realistic teaching bent. Editors spoke to my classes and I organized professional panels, and half my students got into print each term. Dozens of them have landed book deals, many with five- and six-figure advances.
As graduate school costs skyrocket and elitist attitudes persist, it turns out that many writing students love getting practical—and getting paid.