Last week my Twitter stream lit up with reviews and excerpts and analysis of a book called MFA vs NYC. It wasn’t quite a #sharknado level of traffic — closer, perhaps, to #amtrakresidency — but it was still undeniable: something about this book was grabbing the attention of writers all up and down the line.
But what I think we need to talk about today isn’t really that book. It’s the perception of that book, and my worry that writers will see the dichotomy MFA vs NYC as some sort of choice we’re all forced to make.
Jennifer Weiner very smartly put it this way:
Biggest issue with MFA vs NYC argument — no acknowledgment that vast majority of authors don't go either route. http://t.co/B1Ttozwl0f
— Jennifer Weiner (@jenniferweiner) February 26, 2014
Writers: you do not need an MFA. You do not need to live in NYC. As a matter of fact, although I think all paths to writerdom are valid and there is nothing to gain by telling other people what to do, if you said to me “I want to move to New York and live by my wits alone so I can be a real writer!” my immediate reply would be OMG DO NOT DO THAT YOU ARE NUTS.
The funny thing is, I have to admit: I have an MFA. And I live in NYC. (Worse, even; brownstone Brooklyn! Ready the pitchforks and kale!) And yet neither had much at all to do with my road to publication, and I would not necessarily recommend either to writers looking to a) write an amazing book and b) get that book into the hands of as many readers as possible.
My MFA helped me write my first novel, get enough experience teaching writing to know I didn’t want to do it as a full-time career, and work on my craft at a sentence level. What it didn’t do: teach me how to actually plot a book-length work, get me an agent, get me a publisher. It took 10 more years of work for me to get that far.
Living in NYC, also, is hardly a path to sure success. As I understand it, the “NYC” of the book MFA vs NYC has more to do with participating in the machine of modern publishing than it does with being physically located in New York City, but I hear the misunderstanding so often: “Oh, I can’t get an agent because I don’t live in New York City. I don’t have any connections there.” To which I say: fiddlesticks.
Connections are nice. Ninety percent of the published authors I know got where they are without them.
If “MFA” and “NYC” are equally irrelevant to my path — and the paths of many, many writers I know — then what’s the third point of the triangle? If we had to render it as an airport code?
Easy enough: DIY.
Do it yourself. Figure it out yourself. Work hard on your craft and get smart about the business. You can do both of those whether you live in Mesquite or Milwaukee or Moosejaw. You don’t have to spend a dollar on an MFA to be an amazing writer — although I highly recommend writers’ conferences if you can afford them, and critique groups either online or off.
No one path is more valid than another; there is no one degree or activity or achievement that makes you a “real” writer. All a writer has to do is write. (And admittedly, some days we don’t even hit that bar, but in the long run, that’s all that’s required of us to qualify.)
Writers: are there three letters that characterize your path so far?