I couldn’t have read MFA vs NYC at a more crucial moment in my presently New York-centric life: My first book, a collection of interviews, was published late last year; I’d just been rejected by a literary agent; and my first royalty statement actually left me owing the publisher $89. (I’m just shy of paying back the small advance.) With a lot to consider, I decided to visit Iowa City, where I’d earned my undergraduate degree at the University of Iowa eight years ago.
The years of “real-world experience” that I so longed for in college had informed the concept for a nonfiction book that I’ve started researching in New York. It’s a plausible book, and it could be potentially relevant to a lot of people. Good. But in returning to writing-writing (as opposed to interviewing-editing, which I spent the past few years doing), I realized that — and this is weird to admit, especially in a review of a collection of essays about writing — I’m rusty. So what’s the best way to re-immerse myself in the writing life?
Here, in Brooklyn, should I keep my room in a relatively cheap, three-person apartment, work part time, maintain a daily writing regimen and read books that will inform my manuscript? What if in my isolation, I lose discipline, go off track or give up hope?
Maybe if I entrench myself in an MFA program, I’ll have structure and communal support to not only better my writing, but really get this manuscript up to snuff. This would entail assuming tens of thousands of dollars in debt to leave Brooklyn so I could attend an MFA program somewhere far-flung, like the University of Wyoming, or possibly some small college I’ve never heard of in cities I’ve never thought to move to, say Tucson or Wilmington. And would this move constitute a true investment in myself as a writer or would I only be throwing a lot of borrowed money at my fear that my writing career won’t ever take off? I guess being 30 and pursuing an MFA sounds more promising than being 30 and doing who knows what to support a writing routine that, in terms of the money it brings in, more resembles a pastime.
Tough stuff. These considerations are central to MFA vs NYC, a collection of essays that chart the peaks and valleys of the writerly life. Inspired and introduced by n+1 editor and novelist Chad Harbach’s titular essay, MFA vs NYC gives shape to the split in the road that most writers, particularly fiction writers, must confront:
Do you go down the academic route, writing and publishing books not as a means of income, but as a way to advance up the academic totem pole — the more reliably sustaining institution for writers?
Or do you slog it out in New York, hopefully writing something well enough to get an agent on board and try your luck with the publishing houses?
Split down the middle, a half-dozen writers sound off from across the MFA-NYC divide. Representing the MFA school of thought, we have writers including George Saunders, the late David Foster Wallace, Alexander Chee, Maria Adelmann and Eric Bennett. On the NYC side, we have Emily Gould, Keith Gessen, Carla Blumenkranz, Diana Wagman and others.
Given my undergrad years at Iowa, I jumped ahead in the collection to Eric Bennett’s lengthy “Pyramid Scheme,” which details how the CIA’s financial contributions to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop were fundamental in sculpting the post-war psychic landscape of the generations of writers to matriculate, their manuscripts in hand, all bleached of any potential Communist leanings. The revelation was surprising to me, but only because the IWW casts such a majestic shadow over the Iowa City writing culture that it’s easy to forget that, like museums, universities depend on government or corporate contributions. In praise of the IWW, however, Alexander Chee’s “My Parade” is a warm account of acceptance by not only the Workshop but by Iowa City, despite his being, by his own description, defiantly politically gay. Illustrating how the environment encouraged him “to be a writer like none before,” his piece is a rejection of the allegation that the IWW and MFAs in general have homogenizing effects.
But just because an MFA vs NYC writer pertains to a category, that doesn’t mean he or she is its defender. In “Application,” Diana Wagman recalls an exasperating, status-anxious experience teaching at a low-residency seminar, where some students (well-off housewives) looked down their noses at her for adapting one of her novels for a movie that went straight to DVD. (“Oh, you’re the screenwriter.”) Eli S. Evans’s “A Partial List of the Books I’ve Written” describes his life bouncing in and out of academia as he writes and fails to sell novel after novel, living in a heatless warehouse with holes in the walls in “nowhere LA.” His is a funny, beautifully written and therefore all the more devastating look into a resignation that virtually all writers will have to make: Even if we’re proud of our work and even if that work gets published, we may never make a living writing. Maria Adelmann’s “Basket Weaving 101” is herein useful as she describes her writing and publishing as one facet of an otherwise expressive and meaningful life. It’s her love of literature that prompts her to create meticulous paintings of her bookshelves, which after printed on cardstock, becomes a surprise hot-seller at bookstores — once earning her over $10,000 in less than a year. While still pursuing her writing, Adelmann says, “Now, when I’m not making as much money as I need to be, I email bookstores hoping for card orders—I usually get several.”
Back to NYC: Emily Gould — a writer whose burgeoning career at Gawker I monitored with a mix of awe and envy as a college student — and Keith Gessen describe how fast both advances and self regard can be blown despite achieving the publishing dream. I mention the two in the same breath because not only do they find ways to write about each other in their respective pieces, but because both writers also ask a great question: What does it mean to succeed? Gessen cites a sadly still-apt 1946 quote from Malcolm Cowley: “Most writers lived as before, on crumbs from a dozen different tables. Meanwhile a few dozen or even a hundred of the most popular writers were earning money about at the rate of war contractors.”
In all, it’s almost dispiriting to read such beautiful accounts of very hard-working and talented writers’ failures and, sometimes, abject poverty, but then again, as anyone who’s spent a night in jail knows, the severity of your circumstances often depend on your company. And MFA vs NYC, regardless of which side of the divide you fall on, is ultimately very heartening company.
I admit, though, the book confirmed a course of action I had already settled on. During my recent visit to Iowa City, I met with a favorite writer and associate professor in the University of Iowa’s English department who I studied under. To use Chad Harbach’s way of thinking about it, my former professor encouraged me to go the NYC route — in as much as I’m already here — until I amass a manuscript, ideally by this December. Not only is that a good, semi-distant deadline, but it’s also around when most MFA programs’ application deadlines fall. Once I go to those lengths, I think I’ll be relieved to find that I’ll have a much clearer idea of what my options truly are.