Is It Okay If I Don’t Care About Making Money from Writing?
The Blunt Instrument on what to do if you aren't ready to quit your day job
Dear Blunt Instrument,
I’m a young writer who has spent the past three years learning to balance a full time job with writing. Last year I applied—unsuccessfully—to a few MFA programs. At the center of my personal statement was a writing group that has been an immense gift to me both as a writer and as a person. They were all saddened to hear that I didn’t get into any MFA programs, but one of the few perks of not getting in was that I got to continue being a member of this group.
Now, as I’m considering applying again, I’m stuck on something a friend, who has an MFA, said to me: that amateur writers are the enemy of MFAs (and by proxy, I read into this, the “professional” writers). This was said after the friend had read my personal statement and I couldn’t help connecting it to what I had written about the group. I know this was probably an offhand comment, maybe even a way of implying I was not an amateur, but in addition to making me feel a bit embarrassed for including a community writing group in my application, it’s made me think a lot about my professional aspirations as a writer. The problem is—I’m not sure they exist! While I love writing and see myself continuing to write all my life, I’m not sure if I see myself going the adjunct/teaching route and I know it’s extremely unlikely I could ever support myself through sales. I’m also struggling to find any writers who feel like career examples for me. For instance, over the past few years I’ve loved books and stories by writers like Kelly Link, Zadie Smith, Rachel Cusk and Alexander Chee, but none of these writers have career paths (opening a press, being a famous bestseller, professoring) I feel I could, or want to, follow.
I’ve come to realize that the writers I actually see most of myself in are the other members of my writing group. Working professionals, a retiree, a journalist, a rabbi, a college student. All of them write around constraints. And while they achieve varying levels of success (one member’s first book was nominated for a Lambda award this year!) they are, in the scheme of things, small fry. Maybe I’d feel differently after years of unsuccessfully trying to get a book published, but part of me also feels okay with being a small fry, if it means I can write and share with at least a small community.
I guess my main question is: is it naive to think that I deserve a spot (and therefore implicitly a slice of the resources and support of the literary community) at an MFA program when I’m unsure if my future involves a long career in the literary world? When I don’t even know what kind of writer I want to be? Or do I need to get some career aspirations?
Maybe you can also point me in the direction of some writers who don’t fall into the traditional career paths of teaching or selling books by the ton and are, like me, out here winging it.
Dear Winging It,
No offense to your friend, but what? That comment about amateurs makes no sense to me. The people in MFA programs are by definition students, not professionals, and most people who are already making a living off their writing wouldn’t bother getting an MFA. Maybe your friend was using “amateur” in the secondary sense (dilettante? inept?). But that still makes no sense! If you’re committing years of your life and any of your money to a writing program, then you’re not a dilettante, and you’re committing that time because you want to get better. MFA programs are looking for writers with promise, writers who can benefit from study and development. There’s no expectation that everyone in an MFA program is already working at the absolute top of their theoretical game.
I see no reason whatsoever to be embarrassed about including your writing group in your application. MFA programs are basically institutionalized writing groups. The most valuable thing I got out of my MFA was a group of like-minded friends, people I’ve continued to talk about writing and reading with for years—we’ve gone to each other’s weddings and fortieth birthday parties; we’ve started presses and written books together. Your group sounds wonderful—cherish those people. If you don’t end up going the MFA route, they can provide you with many of the benefits you’d get from a program, for free.
That said, there’s no reason you can’t get a master’s degree, or should worry you don’t deserve one. These programs, especially the ones with funding, are competitive, and it’s not rare for writers to have to apply multiple times before they get a spot. Note, also, that to my knowledge, your writing sample is much more important than your personal statement. A great statement or letter of recommendation can give you an edge, but in completing your applications, you should be most focused on making your sample as good as you can make it.
I love that you’re looking to your group for models of how to be a writer. There are many other writers who don’t work in academia or qualify as “professional writers” by typical standards. I know a poet with a couple of full-length books and a bunch of chapbooks who is a partner in a law firm. I know a novelist who has a municipal job in a small town in Illinois. I know a poet and essayist who’s currently in medical school. I know a handful of writer librarians. And there’s me—I got an MFA fifteen years ago. Since then I’ve had a full-time, non-academic job. I teach a class here and there, but not for the money. Only in the past few years have I started making significant income from writing endeavors—but even so, it’s not enough to allow me to drop my other career. (It would take a lot to get me to leave it; it’s stable and lucrative and provides health insurance for both me and my husband.) I love writing so I work around work; nights and weekends are for my writing life.
Every writer has an uncertain future. In an interview published earlier this year, Maggie Nelson wrote:
For what it’s worth, none of my books have ever had more than one offer at a time. I’ve been lucky in that there’s always been one sucker willing to publish each one. But most of my books had to shop for a home for quite some time; some, like Bluets, were rejected all over town, despite my pleas to the world of mainstream publishing (well, my agent’s pleas) that it was PROSE and that it was GOOD. (Eventually I gave it to Wave, a poetry publisher, who did a perfect, beautiful job with it). Norton, who published The Art of Cruelty, passed on my next book, The Argonauts, so I had to move on from there as well. With the exception of The Red Parts, none of my books have sold for any money that mattered.
I recently looked at the Goodreads page for Bluets; that book has over 13,000 ratings. It has a higher average star rating than Hamlet. People love that book! My point is, there are different kinds of success. Nelson herself, in the same interview, says she feels “allergic to the word ‘success’” and cares most about writing good books. Nelson has been a useful model for me—as someone who bridges the worlds of prose and poetry, as an approachable intellectual. She does work in academia, but I don’t really care how she makes money; I’m interested in her books.
Basically, I think your friend was wrong and you should get their comment out of your head. Think less about your “professional aspirations” and more about your writing aspirations—your writing is your career. You can have a full writing career even if you make net nothing in terms of money from your writing. If you love Kelly Link and Alexander Chee, look to them as writing models and forget about their jobs.