We Need to Talk About Money

A black and white image of a man reflected through illuminated panels.

My poor mother. For a woman prone to worrying about her children’s financial futures, it certainly doesn’t help that her youngest son chose two career paths infamous for their associations with financial insecurity: public teaching and fiction writing. No doubt my mother has spent many a long night googling questions like, “How do you write a book that actually sells?” after which she emails me to say that although she has read my last story, she really thinks I should include more dragons and adventure.

In the early years of graduate school, I was easily able to forget my mother’s concerns about how to support myself with an MFA degree. None of the other students or teachers seemed particularly concerned about it, at least not enough to bring it up. Sure, we sometimes discussed the odds of landing an adjunct position in another writing program or being selected for a prestigious fellowship after graduation, but rarely did we discuss how to actually make a long-term living as a writer. Everybody’s focus was trained on one thing: writing good stories. The unspoken assurance seemed to be that if you kept your artistic ambitions pure and untarnished by questions of compensation, good things would eventually come your way. Of course, “good things” doesn’t necessarily mean money to pay your bills.

In many ways, this approach of focusing primarily on craft seems to make the most sense. The students in these programs are, after all, still very much in the learning stage of their artistic pursuits. Moreover, the percentage of students who will actually go on to sign a major book deal that will cover their living expenses is extremely small, and the field is growing ever more competitive as MFA programs continue to proliferate. But there are other ways for writers to seek out remuneration, and the idea of making a living as a writer should not feel like a shameful fantasy. I am a much better writer because of my time in an MFA program, but there is still a lot of uncertainty looming on the horizon. As I approach graduation and the impending job search, I’ve started asking questions about how MFA programs can better prepare students for the future, not only out of concern for my own well-being (and my mother’s), but because I fear that as long as students and teachers steer away from explicitly discussing career options, these institutions will continue to woefully lack in diversity.

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I recently sent out an anonymous survey to MFA students who had either just graduated or will this spring. I asked a series of questions about respondents’ socioeconomic status and their assessment of how well the program had prepared them for a profitable future career. Only 23% of respondents said that they ever had a serious discussion with a faculty member about how to seek out a literary agent or submit a manuscript for publication. It was not surprising, then, that those who had had such a conversation were also the ones to say that they envisioned a bulk of their financial security coming from a major book deal within five years (30%). Those respondents were also the ones who rated the program a 4 (30%) in preparing them for a career in writing. (The scale was 1-5; nobody responded with 5.) That leaves us with 70% of students saying that they either did not discuss how to get their work in the hands of a major publisher or they only “sort of” discussed it. That also leaves us with a lot of students not feeling especially prepared for the future.

In response to this data, some might say, understandably, that pursuing art has always carried a degree of financial risk, and that it’s a good thing graduates aren’t going out into the world with naive expectations. Some might also say that making it as a writer requires, among other things, a tremendous amount of natural talent, and it would be misguided to treat everyone as equally capable. I would argue that, while it’s certainly true that not all writers are equally talented, every MFA student should feel that they have access to the same opportunities and information, not only because they’ve been admitted to a program that presumably believes in their potential, but because that is, presumably, one of the things they’re paying for.

I would actually take it a step further to argue that openly discussing the traditional publication process is only half the battle. The reality for most writers, even the crazy talented, is that it will take a raft of different hustles—publishing e-books, freelance journalism, Kickstarter campaigns, book reviews, advertising, podcasts, adjunct reading, copy writing, copy editing, blogging, genre writing, community workshops, etc.—to make a living. It’s a daunting and precarious world to step into and surely entails years of missteps, time that only those with a certain degree of class privilege can afford to sacrifice. MFA programs would serve their students well to hold discussions and workshops on alternative writing career paths and to bring in writers who have found financial success outside of traditional publishing. Likewise, it would be great to hear from former MFA students who now consider themselves financially stable in whatever careers they pursued with their degree. Odds are most MFA students will need day jobs to support themselves while they continue to write. (Some may even think it makes their art better).

Talking about career paths and financial security isn’t nearly as exciting as breaking down a dense piece of literature, and it shouldn’t take the place of valuable time spent honing one’s craft. But it is still important and has wide implications. One of the most telling pieces of data from my survey was the fact that 100% of respondents described themselves as “Not Financially Independent,” meaning that they were at least partially supported financially by an outside source, usually their families. There is nothing wrong with a graduate student (including myself) being supported by their families, but if MFA degrees are only pursued by those who can count on that privilege, programs will continue to be sorely lacking in racial and socioeconomic diversity. The centuries-long practice of institutional racism in our country means that the vast majority of generational wealth is held by white families, and it is overwhelmingly people from these families that are pursuing degrees in Creative Writing.

I am certain that there are countless brilliant writers who do not have the luxury of ignoring financial anxieties for three years while they write good stories. There should be a place for them. Many programs already go a long way toward making the MFA degree more affordable and accessible to working-people through scholarships, fellowships, and the availability of part-time course loads. But the only way programs can attract candidates across the socioeconomic spectrum is if students feel more confidence in their ability to make a living with their newly-acquired skills and knowledge after graduation. They need to feel supported in finding work to pay their bills while they write their blockbuster books replete with dragons and adventure. Or whatever else they choose to write about.