Do You Need an MFA to Be a Writer?

This morning WordPress showed me a link to this post: You Don’t Need an MFA to Be a Writer by Roxanna Coldiron. Though I direct a low-residency MFA program, I couldn’t agree more. I liked the post, but there was no way to comment, so I decided to write my response here.

In her post, Coldiron says she received an acceptance to an MFA program 3 years ago, but didn’t go because life and bills got in the way. She was proud of the acceptance, but couldn’t make the commitment at the time. She seems to want to do an MFA because she knows it could help her writing — she’s definitely right, there — but the cost in terms of time and tuition is more than she could handle. Her post was from 2019, so maybe her situation has changed, but I think it’s a place a lot of people are in right now, maybe always.

So my first response is to say she’s right. No one needs an MFA to be a writer, though as she recognizes, being in a writing community, having your work read by professors and peers who are serious about their writing, being exposed to writers you might never hear of if you weren’t in this community, and learning from the writing of your other MFA colleagues can be incredibly rewarding and can take your writing life to new levels. But it’s not a requirement, and everyone should weigh the costs against the benefits. When the time is right, an MFA might be the best choice for you.

There are also many other opportunities for writers that don’t grant a degree, so they don’t charge tuition, though some do have charges for room, board, and instruction. Some also offer financial aid. These opportunities might be prestigious summer workshops that can last a week or more, such as Breadloaf, Sewannee, or other writers’ conferences. Or they may be writer’s retreats or weekend workshops that may be less well-known but that still foster community. You can build a career and form networks through these experiences and never need the academic degree, especially if you don’t plan to teach. But they may not be as sustained or as sustaining as a 2-3 year MFA program, where you will form friendships to last a lifetime.

So my other response is to suggest the low-residency MFA route. Most of the issues that Roxanna Coldiron mentions as impediments to her degree could be overcome or at least made less challenging with the low-res experience. Will there be tuition? Of course, though in a program like ours, students are able to attend part-time and keep their cost of attendance low each semester. One 3-hour class is still about $1,300, so it isn’t free, but it can be manageable. Many of our students take 6 hours per semester and either pay out of pocket or take out enough in loans to handle tuition and books. Most are working full-time and take as many classes as they can afford or as they can juggle with work and other commitments. Going part-time might also help her deal with what she describes as only having “so much energy.” I suspect she has a lot of energy, given her blog and other writing projects, but as she says: “Life happens.” The low-residency MFA is designed to allow students to combine life and school without moving across the country.

Earning an MFA may be more possible than you realize, on other words. I don’t say this to shame anyone for not doing it — everyone needs to decide on the right time and whether an MFA even is the right thing for them to do, and I respect that. But if you’d like an MFA and are worried about how you can make it happen, then the low-residency option may be right for you. And if self-educating, doing your writing on your own, joining writers’ groups, and attending conferences, workshops, and residencies is a better choice for you, then I wish you all the best.

There is no one right path to being a writer. An MFA is not required, but as Coldwater says, it can be an excellent opportunity and a way to improve your writing much more (or much more quickly) than you could on your own.

Update on Submission Tracking

Just over a year ago, I wrote a post, “Word Processors for Poets,” that talked about Open Office and Libre Office as open source alternatives to Microsoft Word that work better for writing poetry. I still haven’t gravitated to either for writing poetry. Old habits are hard to break, though Libre Office is getting more support, so I’m leaning that way. But as I mentioned in that post, I’m working on a way to use their database program, Base, to track my submissions.

Over the years, I’ve developed a fairly complex submission tracking program using first HyperCard and then SuperCard, as I described in my post “Tracking Submissions.” It works very well, though I know that it is ideosyncratic enough that no one else can probably use it. I have a card for every title and a card for every publisher, and they cross-reference what was sent where, when, and what the response was. I can also run several kinds of reports to see what is in, out, or accepted, for instance. I can use it to keep track of grants, and I even set up an invoicing system and a way to track my expenses and earnings. I’ve been working on this for over 30 years, and added a little at a time for quite awhile, though it’s been awhile since I did any programming in it, until now.

Unfortunately, SuperCard is fairly expensive for the hobbyist. It’s really meant for software developers and is priced accordingly, though it seems fairly inexpensive if you’re going to market your programs. HyperCard was free, and that’s what got me hooked, and the transition to SuperCard was great when Apple discontinued HyperCard. But now, Apple has moved to 64-bit programs and SuperCard isn’t planning to make the transition from 32-bit anytime soon. It’s too difficult and too expensive for them, but it’s too expensive for me to upgrade. I’ve held off on upgrading my Mac so I can keep running SuperCard, but I won’t be able to do that much longer.

So I’ve been working on a program to export all my data to a semi-colon delineated file. (There are too many commas in my text for a true CSV file, but semi-colons also work.) This way, I can import into Calc, Libre Office’s version of Excel, and then into Base to set up a database to track my submissions. Here’s a little taste of that code:

It’s not that hard, really, but it does take awhile to decide what to put where so that it will correctly import into the database I’m creating. Last night, I accidentally clicked on the button to run the program when I meant to edit it. I let it crank along until the program crashed out in an error (in a part that I wasn’t finished with). Before it did, it exported the TitleExport file, and I’ve already found a couple of things I need to fix so that it works better.

I won’t bore you with those details, though…

The fun part, was to see that I have recorded submissions for 541 separate titles. A few of these are duplicates (such as a separate title for a book and a book query or excerpt), and many of them are translations. Not all have been published, though many have.

I’ll be curious to see how many different places all these titles have been sent. I’m sure that will be a much, much higher number, given that most titles have been sent to several magazines before getting published, and the book publishers I’ve submitted to probably number in the hundreds. Since I’m planning to keep a record of each title’s submission to each place it’s sent, the submission file will probably be in the thousands.

In the database, there’ll be one table of places to submit, since I’ll be combining journals, books, and contests into this one table, and one table that lists information on each title. A third table will cross-reference these and list only the title, the place, the submission and response dates, and the status of the submission. This ought to let me pull all the information I need about what titles are submitted where and which ones are in, out, or accepted, etc.

If that doesn’t work, I’ll have shell out the money for an upgrade and for the third party workaround I’ll need to keep SuperCard running — or I’ll have to limp along with my old Mac OS until I have to buy a new computer. Maybe by then SuperCard will have an upgrade, but in the meantime, it’s a fun challenge to see if I can make the export work and then get the database up and running the way I want. I’m in no rush, obviously, since I’ve been thinking about it and tinkering with it for the past year. But that’s only been in a few spare moments here and there, and this year those moments have been few and far between.

The Story Behind My Tennessee Williams Poem

This year’s Tennessee Williams Tribute in Columbus, Mississippi, will be held virtually and streamed on Facebook. When I was asked to take part in the poetry panel, I gladly accepted. I’ve done it several times before, and it’s always fun. When it came time to record my segment, I pulled out my copy of his collected poems to search for one that I wanted to read. It didn’t take me too long to find it.

I chose “Orpheus Descending” because I thought it would be appropriate for this year of COVID-19. Orpheus goes to Hades to bring back his wife Eurydice. If you don’t know the story, he’s not successful because he looks back too soon to see if she’s coming. She hasn’t crossed over into this life yet, so she has to return to the land of the dead because he looked, though he had been warned. Williams doesn’t write his poem with this familiar ending, though. He writes the poem of Orpheus’s journey to the underworld, and many of the images he uses are reminiscent of other fertility myths from Mesopotamia that I have taught in World Lit, so this poem spoke to me.

All the poets were also asked to share one of their own poems, so I chose “Ishtar,” a poem about moving to Mississippi set in the realm of the Babylonian poem “The Descent of Ishtar.” They seemed like a good pair, and I was pleased with the reading. It will be broadcast on Facebook tomorrow, Sept. 12, which also happens to be my birthday. The poetry part of the Tribute is supposed to start around 11:30.

Interestingly, after reading the Williams poem, I began to think more about Orpheus, and ended up writing a couple of poems about his myth and about Eurydice. These went with a poem about Gilgamesh and another about Osiris. Though all are dealing with these myths of the underworld, they are also trying to get at the experience of 2020. If I hadn’t chosen this poem to read for the Tribute, though, I don’t know if my mind would have gone to these stories. It’s always interesting how what we read informs what we write, even though my poems are completely different than his. “Orpheus Descending” brought me back to my poem “Ishtar,” which led me on to my own take on the Orpheus story.

MFA Applications Advice 2020

It’s after Labor Day, which means another year of MFA applications are starting. Over the past five years, I’ve been writing advice on how to write a statement of purpose, what to include in your writing sample, how to find the best programs for you, etc. The fact of the matter is, from year to year that advice doesn’t change all that much. As our low-residency MFA program has grown and I’ve seen more and more applications, I’ve adjusted or added to some of my original advice, yet those early posts still get the lion’s share of hits, which is fine, since they’re still valid.

Over the years (our program started in 2015), I have tried to give advice, not just on how to get into a program, but on whether to do that and how to afford it if you do. I’ve written on the choice between fully-funded residential programs (great if you can get in and if they’re right for you) and typically not well-funded low-res programs (where you are able to keep your better-paying job if you have one). I’ve also pointed readers to my program’s Guide for Applicants, which combines a lot of this advice in one pamphlet that I hope is helpful for any program, though tailored for ours.

If I had to give advice to someone considering applying for grad school this year, I would encourage them to consider established low-residency programs that know how to deliver distance learning. Compare low-res programs for the two main types: the individualized mentoring model or the online course model (hint: ours is the latter) for their relative strengths and weaknesses and for the kind of experience you are looking for. In the age of COVID, many MFA programs have moved online for the fall semester and probably for spring as well, so it makes sense to compare resident programs with good low-res programs who have established practices. Look at how low-res programs are handling their residency requirements (many of us are holding virtual residencies) and see what resident programs are doing to provide that kind of content that used to be face-to-face.

Who knows what Fall 2021 will bring. Maybe things will be closer to normal by then — we all hope they will be — but if not, a program like ours that is built to work in a distance environment may be your best bet. On the other hand, if you can get funding for a resident program, even if that program starts out online, it may still be your best choice. Consider how you’ll work as a teaching assistant or what other duties might be associated with your aid if undergraduate classes aren’t face-to-face. Fortunately, there will come a time when COVID-19 is not the first thing we think of when making any decision, even if that is hard to imagine right now. Unfortunately, I can’t predict when that will be.

When choosing programs to apply to, don’t just go for the most well-known ones with the most glamorous writers. Do your research. There are many smaller programs with excellent teachers who may not be household names (are any writers household names?) but who will be excellent mentors and even friends, and who attract serious, committed MFA-student writers who will become lifelong writing buddies. Really get to know the programs you want to apply to, and you will write a better letter. You will increase your odds of getting accepted because you will apply to schools that are a better fit for you and you will present yourself appropriately. That’s really all we’re looking for: serious writers who have taken their application process seriously and who will be a good fit for the culture we’ve tried to foster in our programs.

Looking for more advice? Here are my 10 most recent posts in the category MFA Application.

A Writer’s Labor Day: Submissions

Labor Day should not be a day of labor, theoretically, though many use it as a day to take on a home project. In my case, I spent a good part of the day working on submissions. I won’t reveal exactly where I submitted, but I will say that I looked at a recent Duotrope newsletter to see what markets had recently opened — and there are a lot. Sept. 1 is a common start date for reading periods, and it’s good to get your submission in early, so Labor Day is a prime day for getting those submissions out the door or at least getting organized to do it this week.

I also had group of 7 new poems that I’ve been getting ready to send out, so this year was particularly fruitful. Those new poems, combined with a few others that aren’t out anywhere, gave me 3 submission packets that I could simultaneously submit to some of my favorite magazines.

I like using Duotrope as a reminder of places that are reading right now and that I might otherwise overlook until well into their reading period. Several of the places I submitted do not use Submittable, which is another advantage. As much as I like Submittable, I also realize that everyone else loves it, too, and sending to some journals who are not in that ecosphere can help my prospects. A few of my submissions yesterday went through Submittable, though. It’s not like I avoid them; I just try broaden my horizons, even preparing one submission to go out by mail. Here’s hoping it gets there before election day!

(PSA: If you haven’t registered to vote, there’s still time.)

I even sent out one book manuscript to a great open poetry collection contest, and I have my eye on a few others. I’ve been working on revisions to my fourth book, incorporating the new poems and also rearranging some of the sections. And because I’m a professor, of course, I spent some time prepping for classes and even held my night class because the students voted to do that. But it was restful and energizing to devote several hours to writing and sending out poems.

Book Review: Memorial Drive by Natasha Trethewey

Memorial Drive: A Daughter's MemoirMemorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir by Natasha Trethewey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Trethewey’s memoir recounts her life with her mother and her odyssey to understand her mother’s murder at the hands of her stepfather. It is an exploration of memory and of the narratives we tell about our lives to make some sense of them even in the face of enormous tragedy. We are confronted with her mother’s death from the first page, yet we also see Trethewey’s own experience growing up in Mississippi in the sixties with both the safe haven of family and the constant threat of racist violence, and then her experience of her mother’s divorce and remarriage in Atlanta, and her mother’s attempts to free herself from the abusive relationship. Trethewey struggles with her own survivor’s guilt and with her attempts to retrieve the past that in the immediate aftermath of the murder, she had done her best to jettison and forget. It is a haunting story, masterfully told: at the same time highly personal and universal. It is a story that will remain with you long after you’ve turned the final page.

View all my reviews

Why I Delete Click Bait

A little rant about emails with false or misleading subjects.

I just got one with the subject line “Ruth Bader Ginsburg.” The message went on to say that Justice Ginsburg would not be confirmed by the Senate today. On the one hand, that’s undoubtedly true. Mitch McConnell, the true subject of the email, probably wouldn’t allow any nomination like hers through, but he won’t get a nomination like hers and we can hope there won’t be a need for any Supreme Court nomination before the election. On the other hand, it’s a pointless argument and a waste of my time, even though I’m generally sympathetic to the argument that Mitch McConnell needs to be defeated. This email won’t cause me to donate money, though.

Instead, what seem like hundreds of these emails get sent to my trash every day. I don’t read them, and they make me generally disinclined to donate. Even the good ones that nonetheless have dramatic subjects like “If we don’t meet our fundraising goal tonight, ALL IS LOST!” get trashed. I highly doubt that tomorrow those same groups won’t be back with similarly urgent messages. So I trash them after a brief scan of subjects and senders to see whether there might be something I actually care about (a rejection or acceptance from a publisher, for instance) luking in the weeds.

I trash them without reading and without caring. The less I read, the less angry I become at groups that I actually do care about. I’m angry at the marketers who use aggressive and proven tactics that flood my inbox with junk. I try not to be angry with the politicians who have stooped to these tactics — they could be courting billionaires, after all.

But I’ve chosen to give to the candidates and the groups that I choose, and to do it on my own timeline, not on their arbitrary deadlines. I won’t respond to or even open those emails (they can tell when it’s been opened) as way to discourage these marketing practices, which is no different than screening every call with Caller ID. I won’t give to every candidate; I tend to focus on national campaigns and on my own state races, plus some for the party funds for House and Senate.

Has this reduced the number of emails I receive? I doubt it, but at least they don’t make me as angry and I feel no guilt hitting delete.

First Day of School

Remember all those pictures of kids on their first day of school? The pictures may be a little different this year. Yesterday was the first class day at Mississippi University for Women, where I have taught for 26 years, and though campus was abuzz with activity (at least compared to being a ghost-town during quarantine and over the summer, when I was often the only person in our building).

Still, with only one or two classes at a time in our building and class sizes for most face-to-face classes at 10 or fewer, it was nearly impossible to take a photo of students in the hallway. They can wander in a few at a time and follow the arrows on the floor to their classrooms. We have 1 class per day in each room of our building, and most of our classes are online, especially the larger ones, so we feel pretty comfortable.

Chairs and desks have been moved to create work spaces for students that will keep them at least 6 feet apart, and if the instructor is wearing a face shield rather than a mask, then the front seats are left empty so we have at least 10 feet (probably more like 12) between the instructor and the first students. All classrooms have webcams and microphones for Zoom broadcast of a class to a student who can’t be present or recording if they can’t be there at the same time.

With these measures, the number of students in our building and the number of students who are living on campus has been dramatically reduced. We hope that we can go for some weeks and maybe until Thanksgiving before we have to send students home. But we don’t know what students will do in their free time or who they may come in contact with when they’re not on campus. Ours is a commuter campus and not primarily residential in a typical year. Students often go home on weekends, so there are many uncertainties.

Nonetheless, we’re doing what we can to reopen safely. If anyone is interested, you can view our campus renewal plan. It’s far from perfect, but for a small, regional public university, we are doing our best. One thing that has helped us is that we have been involved with online learning since the beginning. I’ve been teaching online for nearly two decades, longer if you count the supplemental online discussion boards I set up before we ever got our first LMS (does anyone remember WebCT?).

This year, we’re experiementing with more synchronous online classes, which I’ve been doing in our MFA program for years. But now we can finally list a class as synchronous on the course schedule and list the timesthat a student is expected to be in class. It will take some re-education of students to train them what to look for: some thought they had to come to a classroom since a time was listed (but no room), and some probably think they can do any online class asynchronously.

We know there will be challenges, but if some of the measures we have implemented work and if we learn from the ones that don’t work. We should be able to move to a slightly more normal semester by Spring 2021. And if it all goes to heck again as it did last semester, we will be better prepared to pivot to all online learning.

The Value of Rejection

I’d like to start by thanking Alan Squire Publishing @alansquirepub for their thoughtful rejection of my book. I mean it. I don’t expect every publisher to leap at the chance to publish me, and I have come to expect the cursory form rejection. Alan Squire took the extra step to write a personal rejection letter that, though it didn’t go into great detail, did acknowledge the value of my manuscript and the work that went into it, even if it ultimately wasn’t right for them.

I’m also an editor and and educator, so I get it. We’re all strapped for time and overwhelmed with the number of submissions, so it’s impossible to give everyone personal attention. On the other hand, when something stands out enough to warrant an extra nod, then it makes a difference to the writer to have been noticed.

Was it that extra sentence or two in the brief exchange of emails about rejection that made the difference? Or was it just another in a series of rejections (this is normal folks; I’m not complaining) and the thought of where to submit next that got me thinking about revision? I may never know, but the morning after receiving their message, I sat down with the manuscript and put it through the wringer one more time.

It may also have been the result of working on a few more poems. In our MFA residency, I had done some warm-up excercises with my students: one was Rattle’s ekphrastic challenge. I responded to the image and wrote a poem to submit to the contest. I have no delusions that it will be chosen, but if it were, I’d be happy, and if it’s not, I’ll keep submitting the poem elsewhere. Then another poem came to me on a subject that had been bugging me. This led to a third, and with a little rearranging, I brought a fourth poem from elsewhere in the manuscript to create a new, final section that probably needs two or three more poems, which I’m working on now.

Moving that poem suggested moving others, and soon the balance of the book was thrown off enough that I felt at liberty to shuffle more. I thought the first two sections had too many poems and needed to be broken up more, but this resulted in combining two later sections that weren’t as long. I’ve also brought in a couple of poems I’d set aside but was able to fit in with significant revisions, and even found one poem I’d forgotten all about writing that fit well in this collection.

None of this would have been as possible without the new poems, and those poems wouldn’t have been possible before the current moment. Strictly speaking, I don’t think of those as pandemic poems, but they do respond to the lives we’re all leading.

This isn’t the first time it’s gone through major rearrangements. If I look back at my files the collection has gone through four titles and probably five or six major changes in the three years I’ve been sending it out so far. I printed a copy of the first version to give to my mother and one for myself, knowing full well it would change, but announcing to myself that it was a book and not a bunch of poems on my hard drive.

I’ve sent it to 36 publishers and contests so far, and only a few of those are duplicates. I’ve also sent out several queries without the full manuscript. It’s even been accepted once by a publisher that I turned down once I saw their contract was far from standard. Given that a lot of these submissions are to contests, I fully expect it to take awhile and to double or even triple the number of submissions before I find the right place. Poets: that shouldn’t be depressing, it is just reality for many of us.

With each revision, the manuscript gets a little better — or at least that is the hope. Sometimes the revisions have been to meet a contest’s page requirements, but often they are insights gained through rejection as I think about what could make the collection stronger or grab a reader’s attention sooner. I’ve taken poems out and put them back in as I ultimately have to justify to myself what the arc of the book needs to be.

I’ve also written other poems that won’t go in this book, and I’m constantly looking forward to my next projects. But a rejection, especially one that takes you seriously, causes you to look back, and with the distance that comes with time, a manuscript keeps evolving. That and the resolution to keep sending it out are the value of rejection.

WordPress Payments Block — Promising, Yet No Thanks.

This summer WordPress.com announced a new feature that seemed promising. I tried it, but I don’t think it will work for me. Here’s why.

I use WordPress Personal, and have always had the option to upgrade to WordPress Premium in order to do sales. The problem is, all I want to sell are a few copies of an out of print book now and then. It wouldn’t be worth it for me to pay the upgrade just to do that, though if I decide I want to go Premium for its other features, then it might be worthwhile.

That’s why it seemed promising when WordPress launched the Payments Block for Personal plan users. Here was a way to accept payments on a limited scale without going Premium. The email I received and the help made is seem like you could use this to allow people to purchase goods as well as services. All I had to do was set up an account at Stripe to accept payments.

I looked into Stripe, and saw that they take a 2.3% cut per transaction. There is no fee associated with it other than the transaction fee. That’s good because I don’t anticipate having more than one transaction a month, probably many fewer than that. This is not a way to make money; it’s a way to send people books without losing money. I’m not planning to charge much more than the cost of postage and an envelope: just a couple bucks to make it worth my time going to the post office. I can live with a percentage per transaction, but I can’t justify an annual or monthly fee. So I set up the account, which was a little more involved than I wanted (they ask a lot of questions), but took maybe half an hour.

Back to WordPress to try out the Payment feature. I could add the Payment block to a page, but when I tired to connect to Stripe with the button on the block, nothing happened. Reading help again, I learned that I could set up payment through the Earn tab in my WordPress app (or the web interface). I also learned that WordPress will charge 8% of the transaction, something their email or help didn’t indicate. But okay, I could live with it and build it into my charge, so no problem.

Using Earn, though, things got worse. The Payment feature there won’t let me use it for goods, only for recurring payments. There were two options, neither of which looked like it would be right for what I want to do, and one other for selling goods that requires the upgrade to Premium. So I ditched Payments for now and am probably going to cancel my Stripe account unless I can find another use for it.

Instead, I’ve put on a Contact form on Landscapes & Architectures so people can email me if they want the book. It will automatically send to my email address with a subject like “Buy the Book,” and then I can send them my Paypal link. If I want to, I can add the Paypal link to the form to send them directly to where they can pay. Paypal will also notify me that a payment has been made. That seems to be the best solution to meet my current needs.

If I were doing a lot of sales, this system wouldn’t work, but to sell one book now and then, it should be enough to meet my needs.

If I were trying to set up a premium content area on my site or to charge people for a newsletter or other electronic content, then the Payments app might be just what I need. But for a few sales of physical content, i.e. books, it’s still not the right tool.