September 15th, 2011 / 6:30 pm
Craft Notes

Writing Outside of an MFA Program

Hello everybody, my name is M. Kitchell and I don’t have an MFA. In the height of all of the recent posts about MFA programs, teaching creative writing, etc (all very valuable posts), I thought it might be worthwhile to offer a dissenting voice, if only in the sense that I neither have an MFA nor do I have any interest in getting an MFA.1

My interest in making this post is not out of any sort of bitterness or idea that MFA programs are “stupid” or whatever, but rather an exploration of the alternative. While I was an undergrad student at a state college working towards a BFA in Photography, I was convinced that I wanted to attend an MFA program in creative writing. I was already writing, both on my own and in the limited number of creative writing workshops that my university offered, but I had no idea where to go from there: asking some professors I had a vague idea of how to submit to journals, but I had virtually no idea how the “industry” of publishing in general functioned.

My thought, being someone who wrote & wanted to eventually be writing things that people other than my peers were reading, was, at first, that it was necessary to attend an MFA program. I knew that whether I was in school or not I would keep writing, but the problem was I had no idea how to function as a writer. I don’t mean this in any sort of romanticized notion of “the writer,” clearly that pretense is dead. What I mean by this is that, rather than enrolling in an MFA program to “learn how to write,” I wanted to enroll in an MFA program to learn how to navigate the contemporary world of letters.

I thought that the inherent networking of an MFA program would be a necessary step towards publishing a book, that learning the ins-and-outs of submitting stories to various journals would result in more publications (and at this point I literally had not even tried to submit a story to a journal yet). I liked the idea of going to school for writing because I like writing, I like forced deadlines, I like having to produce work.

So, I applied to a limited (very limited compared to some of my peers) number of MFA programs. My portfolio was lackluster, I didn’t really manage to get the number of letters of recommendation I actually needed, and holy fuck my personal essays (or whatever they’re called) were atrocious. I was also applying exclusively to what I viewed as “experimental” programs that accepted a very minimal number of applicants while maintaining an enormous pool to choose from. Not surprisingly, I did not get accepted to any of the three schools I applied to.

At first I was like, “well fuck, I guess I’m not going to be a writer.” That’s stupid of course. After the disappointment wore off I decided to be a little more utilitarian about it. I decided that everything I actually thought I needed to learn from an MFA program, I could teach myself. I don’t want to ignore the value of a professor or the workshop environment, I’m sure for many people these are absolutely necessary things— but as I said, I wasn’t as interested in these aspects outside of my regular desire to continually be learning and honing craft.

The first thing I did was realize that it was writing that was important, and that the only way I could improve my writing was to, you know, just keep doing it. I think it’s hard, coming out of an academic environment (especially one that is ostensibly the art-school model) in which your creative pursuits are regularly shoved in other students’ faces and there’s a requirement that the work be talked about. It was really fucking hard to be not annoying at first; anytime I wrote something and considered it “finished,” I’d want to show it to my friends, I’d want feedback immediately. Of course, outside of the classroom no one is obligated to give you the kind of information that the workshop inspires a lust for. I basically wanted to be able to listen to whoever I had forced my story upon talk about my work for 15 minutes. Not only is this egomaniacal, but it’s also insane.

So the first roadblock that I at least had to get over was the necessity of trusting myself. Learning how to be comfortable with your own artwork, regardless of the medium, is something that I really think the workshop/critique environment makes hard. Everyone wants the approval of others. Even maligned goth kids need the approval of their angsty friends. It’s, of course, also ridiculously hard to accept the fact that you just spent what feels like an infinity of time on something that nobody seems interested in immediately interacting with. The unfortunate reality here is that there’s really no option other than to deal with it. This is still hard for me: when I finish something I want to show it to people. Sometimes I do anyway. I also like to see new work from people whose work I admire. That dynamic doesn’t change. But I certainly, generally, am not immediately ready to offer 20 minutes of discourse on the work I’ve read, nor do I expect anybody else to offer as much to my own work. That’s OK.

The second thing that seemed totally alien to me at the start was the idea of publishing. Clearly there are an infinitude of literary publications in the world, both online and in print. Like, I imagine, almost everybody, when I started submitting stories to journals there was little rhyme or reason to my tactics. I was submitting shit without reading the journal, mostly just throwing shit at the wall and seeing what I could make stick. This is also dumb. After a particularly intense 3 months of submitting multiple stories daily and not hearing anything back or getting rejected (I also had no idea how long an ‘average response time’ was for this shit), I realized that what I was doing was stupid. Publishing for the sake of publishing seems insane. I had to stop and try to figure out why it was that I wanted to be publishing these stories I was submitting.

Clearly the direct answer for this question is: I want to publish stories because I want these stories to be read. Excepting very few people in the history of mankind, I don’t think there’s anyone who intentionally writes stories that they don’t care if people read. I mean, especially if they’re publishing these stories. When I realized that I wanted to be publishing stories because I wanted these stories to be read, I started to consider context. I realized that, in reading lit journals (which, thank god, I had finally started doing), it almost never happened that I would encounter a story or poem that I loved in a journal that I loved nothing else inside of. When I was finding work that I was excited to be reading, it was generally within a context in which there was a lot of work I was excited about. I feel like this is a revelation that presents the status of the editor to the world (the world here, in personal experience, being my world of course). An editor plays an important role; that of the coordinator, that of the human being who curates the experience of reading. So, of course, there is a consistency. That is what the editor should be aiming for. Some editors say that the only thing they’re looking for is “good work,” but clearly that editor doesn’t exist in a vacuum of objectivity, so really that means the editor is looking for “work that he or she likes,” and generally that quality alone is enough to offer a consistency. Most university-run journals, excepting a few, were always boring to me; they were scattered and random and I had no interest in trudging on and on.

These things all seem so amazingly obvious to me now, but it’s shit that I needed to know desperately. Things that I thought I needed an MFA program to figure out. Clearly this wasn’t true. I don’t mean to imply that I’ve “made it” as a writer or anything, but I’m comfortable with my level of publications, where they are, how they exist in the world. I’ve never had a desire to teach; somewhat accepting the fate of the man with a job he hates that he pays the bills with while he makes art in his free-time. Of course, in the best possible world I’d be able to magically subsist based on profit from art alone, but that’s rare, I’m ok with that. When I consider what the difference would be right now if I had attended an MFA program instead of, you know, not attending one, I think (though who can be sure?) the primary differences would be as follows:

  1. I would be significantly further in debt. My initial plan was to only attend a graduate program that I received full funding for, but if I had been desperate to be in a program I imagine I would have eventually said “fuck it” and taken out the loans.
  2. I imagine my writing “style” would be different. It might be better, it might be worse, but if anything 2-3 years in an environment of peers and professors shaping my work, it would certainly be different than the style I have developed simply by writing what I want to write (while reading a shit ton).
  3. I would have read significantly different (and in all probability, fewer) books over the last 3 years. This is a situation where I’m glad I had the autonomy: I love reading and read a ton, but I like to read what I have the whim to read when I want to. Shit doesn’t affect my head-space as well otherwise. Sure, I could have discovered something fantastic that I wouldn’t have read otherwise while in an MFA program, but clearly the reverse is true as well: if I were in an MFA program and had my reading basically laid out for me, I would have never had the opportunity to spend the time that I have spent finding new shit to read.
  4. I’d probably still be just as unemployed as I am right now. It seems to me that fewer and fewer people are getting hired as professors or instructors out of Creative Writing MFAs, especially as more and more English & Creative Writing PhD programs pop up. This seems extremely fucked to me, but that’s a story for another post.

All in all, I’m fully satisfied with the decision I ultimately made to not attend an MFA program. But, I do want to emphasize that that was my decision; it doesn’t need to be yours if you don’t want it to. I just wanted to offer the idea that you don’t have to attend an MFA program to consider yourself a writer. You just have to write.

1Note: To be fair, if an MFA program would like to specifically invite me to enroll in their program without me having to spend any of the money I currently don’t have to do as much, and then offer both to pay for my full tuition and also provide a stipend to pay rent & buy food with, I’ll be there in a god damn second. I think you’d have to be an idiot to pass up living for free for a couple years.

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  1. Leapsloth14

      I like this. An MFA–or any academia connected to writing–is only a tiny subset of a writing life. No needs to study writing at all to write. Period. I mean writing is what makes a writer better. Write.

  2. karl taro

      don’t got me no mfa

  3. Sara Habein

      Agreed with your footnote. 

      I couldn’t even afford an undergrad degree, and I had already racked up $5000 in debt just going for one year. I thought that I didn’t need to go further into debt for an English degree, and that was that. That’s not to devalue dedicated study, but it just wasn’t for me.

  4. lorian long

      yeah i’d say the best part of finishing grad school is getting to read whatever the fuck you wanna read and tons of it. sweet post, mike. i feel less anxxious abt all these MFA discurrsions round these parts.

  5. Anonymous

      Why u hatin’ on the goths, bro?

  6. M. Kitchell

      i’m goth as fuck, no worries 

  7. stephen

      I don’t have an MFA either. I have never seriously considered getting one. I didn’t think getting published without NYC connections and/or luck was possible until I found this site, which is the root of all the literary stuff in my life. If one wants to get published online and then by small presses and doesn’t want to be in academia, a MFA seems unnecessary to me.

  8. MFBomb

      I think this is a great post and that an MFA is not required to write–I tell this to my undergrads all the time–but are you suggesting that an MFA gives one “NYC connections”? Because that’s mostly mythology. 

  9. Flemingcolin

      Nor I!

  10. Anonymous

      I worry about goth’s fucking too, sometimes. 

  11. MFBomb

      Also, despite its many good qualities, there’s nothing more incestuous in the literary world today than online publishing. One, it’s easier and cheaper to maintain an online journal and the same people remain in charger for longer.. Two, it’s easier to connect with other writers online.  Three, one and two are why I see so many online journals with editors publishing their friends left and right, sometimes entire issues. Don’t you run a journal that basically runs on the concept of “connections” to the extreme? 

  12. M. Kitchell

      I think it’s been said plenty of times on this site, but the idea of nepotism re: online publishing seems like a moot point to me.  If I like someone’s writing I will probably attempt to become friends with them online b/c that possibility is open to me.  If I like someone’s writing I probably want to publish them.  The issue here is that “I” am not publishing my friend because he is my friend, I am friends with this person because I like his writing.  

      Secondly, it still seems to me, specifically in our current cultural zeitgeist, that far more people are reading web journals than print journals:  they’re free, you don’t have to find them in a store or order them online, and they don’t take up shelf space (these are sentiments coming from someone who basically fetishizes print books btw)– but the point is I at least am far more likely to check out something completely new when it’s easy and free than I am will to order a magazine with work by absolutely no one who I’ve heard of.

  13. MFBomb

      But it’s not a moot point when many of the people who consider themselves online publishing mavericks decry these so-called connections in MFA Land run journals with “invite-only” submission policies or issues filled with friends.  

      And while I believe that YOU are honest, I do see subpar or mediocre work online all the time and ask myself, “if this person’s name wasn’t well-known on the Internet, would his or her work really appear in this journal edited by his or her friend? Am I at a disadvantage as a submitter to this same online journal because people in the online literary world don’t know my name? Did I really have an advantage as a former MFA student when my story to that print journal with a 0% acceptance rate on Duotrope was accepted by some grad intern who will only work at the journal for a year and doesn’t know me from Adam?”

      Your last paragraph: all well taken.  

  14. Guest

      MF? you are banned from commenting in this post / you are an idiot

  15. Guest

      and read

  16. MFBomb

      Let’s see here, Guest.  There’s nothing disrespectful about any of my posts on this thread. I gave credit to Kitchell. I respectfully replied to Stephen’s post.  You, OTOH, resort to name-calling and want me banned. Rich. 

  17. Guest

      yes, you belong in Roxane’s post/ so stay there

  18. MFBomb

      Thanks, but I’ll post wherever I want until a mod bans me for not breaking any rules, over-defensive-friend-of-someone-else-on-this-thread.

  19. Guest

      you forgot to add ”straw man”

  20. MFBomb

      The Survivor South Pacific Premiere with Andrea Boehlke 20 minutes ago

      wow Tiki, come on. I think Andrea explained herself pretty well – there really was no chance with some of the people she was working with. Especially when Ashley and Grant thought they could beat Rob – and they would have in final tribal. 

      it all came down to the final comps at the end of the season, and Rob won those over Grant and Ashley. if those had gone differently, Rob wouldn’t have won.

  21. Guest

      I’m sure you also would like to hear / James Patterson made $84m last yr. / no need to respond / you are banned

  22. Mike Parish

      Nice post, Kitchell. I like all the points you hit. MFA’s seem great for the person who wants to buy some time to write but if you can’t afford to buy some time to write you should just write in the free time that you have. It seems crazy to think that you need to go to an MFA program to become a writer (though like you said, the deadlines of academia and the peer/educator feedback certainly help one to write). But what the fuck does ‘become a writer’ even mean? It seems irresponsible to assume that at the end of the two years you’ll be anything more than in debt. It’s probably a great experience, getting an MFA, but yeah, unless someone invites me and pays for the time, I don’t see myself attending anytime soon.

  23. stephen

      Hi MFBomb. I am not suggesting getting an MFA gives one NYC connections, although I have zero firsthand knowledge of MFAs and basically none re NYC. Those things are not very connected in my head. I just thought at the time that one needed to be at certain parties in NY with publishers in order to get published at all, unless one was lucky and/or very talented and got picked out of a slushpile. I don’t think that anymore because of my experience with the online literary world.

      I do think an MFA might help one to write fiction that a major house in NYC might be more likely to publish, and I think MFAs are good for your resume maybe if you’re trying to get published by major houses (?).

      I don’t think of “NYC connections” or luck as bad things to have. If my goal is to have something published by as big/successful a house as possible and NYC connections and luck will help me, then I would want those things. I don’t see anything inherently bad about having those things. I don’t believe it’s common that people get a popular or widely-praised-as-“good” book published without some luck, connections, and/or effective self-promotion.

      I wouldn’t use the word “incestuous” to describe online publishing, only because it has a negative connotation. I agree that there is a lot of friends publishing friends in the online world, and I don’t have any problem with it. To me it’s very very good that it’s easier to connect with other writers online. Publishing goals aside, I would want that anyway. 

      My magazine is mostly composed of solicited contributions. I try to make friends with the people whose writing I like. Therefore, when I solicit writing from them, I am basically publishing my favorite available stuff, which is what most other editors try to do as well. I think I could find other writers I’m not personally familiar with or who I haven’t read much before if I had open submissions, but I don’t feel like doing that, 1, and 2, I think the collective identity/social element of the magazine would be diminished (I do ongoing promotion/coverage of many of the writers I publish), and I like those qualities. Another thing to add is I like when writers have identities beyond the page. 

      I don’t understand why a magazine would be run like a contest. I don’t want my editorial position to resemble that of a committee handing out prizes or admitting applicants into a grad program. 

      Why should a magazine be “fair” or equal opportunity or “objectively edited,” relatively speaking? It’s my magazine, and I’d rather read stuff by people who excite me that I think might excite other readers too, and whose online presence makes it possible for one to get into their writing like one would a band or filmmaker.

  24. MJ


  25. Darby Larson

      i dont have a mfa either. i dont have even any degree in the arts. i think there’s something about not having it that kind of drives me harder to put effort in also? or maybe i just like approaching everything autodidactically.

      here’s my advice for if you want to do the equivalent of an mfa. first read every book in this list:, then spend fifteen years writing only one short story. at the end of the fifteen years, you can then start writing for publication.

  26. MFBomb

      Hello, Stephen,

      I think you should be able to do whatever you want with your magazine.  The same goes for any other editor. I wasn’t criticizing your approach, more than suggesting that the same wonderful opportunities presented by online publishing can and often do encourage nepotism. If it’s easier to connect, it’s also easier to clique-up. In terms of magazines/journals, I don’t think there’s any doubt that nepotism is more common in online journals than in print journals run mostly by interns who leave after a few months.  

      As for your points about MFA programs/connections, I couldn’t tell if you were implying that attending the average MFA program, which would be pretty much every program other than a few, somehow gives one connections to an NYC publishing world that is currently crumbling and firing most of its employees.

  27. MFBomb

      Nope, I’m still here, darby! 

  28. Blake Butler

      that thong thong thong thong thong

  29. Darby Larson

      s’not me dude. i abhor anonymity.

  30. Guest

      Finally!! / I love you!

  31. Cassandra Troyan


  32. Guest

      Uh oh / the cool kids have arrived

  33. Darby Larson

      what is your name sir

  34. John Minichillo

      Love this.

      I’ve had students tell me they applied and didn’t get in and I worry they’ll quit writing or see it as a measure of their worth.

      I think it’s gotten a lot harder to get in in recent years and students will often only apply to top tier programs, or they’ll send the story they just finished, the one they’re currently in love with vs. their best work. And they apply as soon as they graduate instead of going off to live for a few years.

      If folks do want to teach, they should go do that for a few years and work on something to submit as a writing sample. Because English grad students sometimes have a bad reputation in the classroom, I know for a fact my teaching experience, more than my writing sample, got me into an MFA program, and got me the teaching stipend. This approach probably wouldn’t work at the big-name schools but it did get me in a good program. I was as clueless as Mike, only I got lucky, and I don’t know if I’d have handled not getting in as well as he has.

      I think all the MFA discussion has made everyone a little defensive and it’s nice to see some balance. Of course the MFA’s not the only way to become a writer.

  35. MFBomb

      Sorry, but I have to respond to this: 

      ” It seems to me that fewer and fewer people are getting hired as professors or instructors out of Creative Writing MFAs, especially as more and more English & Creative Writing PhD programs pop up. This seems extremely fucked to me, but that’s a story for another post.”

      *That’s not necessarily true.  The number of MFA programs has skyrocketed in recent years–like, we’re talking, quadrupled–so you can’t ignore the fact that there are more MFA grads graduating than available slots. 

      *MFA people with 1-2 books are hired all the time.  For the best jobs, it’s sill all about publications; this hasn’t changed. 

      *PhDs have changed the game, but the degree itself coincides with the increase in CW as an undergrad major and the subsequent need for professors to teach in multiple areas at non-MFA institutions. An MFA doesn’t adequately train someone to teach college-level literature courses. 

      *PhD “CW” programs are nothing like MFA programs and a writer such as yourself would probably like a program that isn’t constantly sealed in a workshop echo-chamber, one where students are well versed across a range of areas and bring those areas to their writing.  

  36. Guest


  37. MJ

      As a guy who got his GED, went to college but flunked out due to a shit-ton of a lot of drama and lack of money, and who ended up getting certified in IT and working w/ computers all day while I cut records, act, make films, write my tail off, and w/ the look of all these people I know going into MFA programs and then, almost like a light switch, they’re “career” (?) as a writer taking off… it makes you think.

      This post resonated with me. I can relate to this.

      ” I basically wanted to be able to listen to whoever I had forced my
      story upon talk about my work for 15 minutes. Not only is this
      egomaniacal, but it’s also insane.” — …. HILARIOUS. I laughed out loud. Not LOL. I mean, in real life.

      I know people who have their PhDs, MFAs, etc etc, and I know people who don’t. And when you look at the “creative writing industry” (?) and notice how well its cultivated to its own means, and within this industry you have people creating awesome ass art, but the art of others (such as gang members or homeless people, to name) who are maybe some of the most talented people ever, are put off by the air of… yeah, here it goes…exclusivity. I dig this post a lot. As a young man writing, and writing hard, this means a lot to see another person repping like me.

      “Of course, in the best possible world I’d be able to magically subsist
      based on profit from art alone, but that’s rare, I’m ok with that.” — ….

      It is? Seems like its pretty un-rare. But I think if we dial this down to specifically the literary industry, you are correct. If you believe you must fit into the current model of how to make a living w/ your writing. It is very possible. And very easy. I did it in Long Beach a few years back. Got chapbooks printed at Kinkos and just went to town. Like I said, hard as fuck. But if you combine your crafts instead of regulating them into sections, I think you can make it Mitchell man. Combine photography and writing (not saying it hasn’t been done before, but unless you, specifically, you haven’t done it before, then it hasn’t been filtered through your energy, and that right there, is the point). Anyway, so, yeah.

      I think I’ve done pretty well so far w/ publications and such. And I think this needs to be discussed more. Especially in, lets say, Poets&Writers magazine and the like. It is safe to say that a lot of writing that isn’t cultivated within the academic community has a harder time being published due to the simple fact of style. That is not to claim every graduate of a CW/MFA program has a specific style, but it has an influenced style. And that influenced style is apparent to the cultivated (and likely) subconscious tastebuds of those accepting and publishing work in “important/respected” journals that all grant awards and the like gravitate toward. Which leads to conundrum of sorts…

      [Your work is good and ready to be published because it is what I like, and it is what I like, perhaps, because it was what I was taught how to enjoy it].

      No, not clowning MFA programs or MFA writers. In case you forgot and let your emotions get nuts, I know people out of these programs. This is just an observation of an obvious truth that few seem to want to acknowledge. Or when you do, it carries claims that Mitchell mentioned and avoided in his post already (notice how he had to reiterate he wasn’t trying to clown MFA programs? Why did he have to do that? Analyze).

      To confirm, I did not set out to write this fucking behemoth of a comment.

  38. MFBomb

      So you’re not a rabid fan of Big Brother and Survivor?

  39. Darby Larson

      maybe try something less obviously androgynous

  40. Ethan

      I like how MFBomb replies to MFBomb.

  41. Ethan

      Also, despite its many good qualities, there’s nothing more incestuous in the digital world today than people replying to themselves.

  42. Ethan

      Also, despite its many good qualities, there’s nothing more incestuous in the digital world today than people replying to themselves.

  43. M. Kitchell
  44. MFBomb

      I don’t think having sex with oneself qualifies as incest.  That’s usually called something else. 

  45. Ethan

      True, bro. Let’s do it.

  46. Pat the Guest

      you should be sorry

  47. MFBomb

      u r so funnee, bro-dawg

  48. Scottmcclanahan

      Nice post M. Kitchell.

  49. deadgod

      Il n’y a pas de hors-programme.

  50. Tummler

      I am not disagreeing with you that connections via online publishing can potentially encourage nepotism or the formation of literary cliques, but I have come across more instances of like-minded writers coming together (and being frequently published together) on the basis of a shared consistent appreciation for each other’s work (examples: the blog experiential-experimental-literature, the journal Otoliths) than instances of like-minded writers coming together on the same basis but then gradually succumbing to solely their connections with each other (example: Muumuu House, even though I am a fan of most Muumuuvian authors–but in my opinion, the nepotism behind Muumuu House is not as bad because it is mostly lighthearted anyhow [what with the publishing of their Gmail chats and other transcribed interactions]).

      There have been plenty of times when I have submitted to the journal of a writer that I discovered and befriended via the Internet with the expectation that my submission would be accepted because of our previous interactions, only to face a sort of vexing disappointment once rejected. Just because you have formed a connection with someone via online publishing because you liked their writing does not obligate you to like (and accept/publish) everything written by that person from then on.

  51. Brooks Sterritt

      yes. i like your phrasing “how to navigate the contemporary world of letters.” i’ve heard a lot of MFA kids complain how the program wasn’t preparing them in that way. i think it took getting an MFA for me to realize i didn’t need an MFA (in and of itself). but then again, i know i learned a lot while getting the degree that didn’t take place in class but sort of in the air around it.

  52. karl taro

      some creative writers seem to view journalism as this very illegitimate business compared to “real” writing. but i think it’s a good way to become a writer—certainly a tried and true non-mfa way.
      i took creative writing in college but my college transcript and lousy writing chops at that point precluded my going on to an mfa. and back then, it seemed like going into journalism was a legit way to learn how to write, so i became a magazine writer and spent about 15 years doing that—and publishing a couple of memoirs and non-fiction books. five years ago i was having lunch with the editor of a tip-top literary journal and he told me he was having trouble finding good short stories (seriously). i went back to my office at the magazine and wrote a short story and sent it to him and it was published in that journal. (btw, the only short story of mine never to get rejected.) that’s how I began to write fiction.
      what does this mean? it seems like there is this idea that one reason to get an mfa is to network. i met editors by writing for magazines all the time. that’s what put me in new york and allowed me to meet some folks in the business—and to get an agent.
      journalism is not a bad way to make a living and it forces you to become a better writer—it kind of forces you to BE a writer.
      That said, I am kind of tired of it . . . 

  53. Amber

      Nice post, Mike. Thank you for speaking for those of us who don’t want/need an MFA–we just want to write. I’ve actually been thinking about writing about this same sort of thing. There’s just such a stigma when you talk to some people and they find out you don’t have an MFA, it’s like they’re done with taking you seriously as a writer. I’ve always found that so weird.

  54. Paul Jessup

      I don’t have an MFA, and I have four books out. One by Chronicle Books, the rest by pretty well respected small presses in the US and UK. I’ve been published in lots of magazines, and etc etc etc

      It’s no only doable, but you can be decently successful too.

  55. Anonymous
  56. Flemingcolin

      Good stuff, this. If it makes anyone feel any better, I went to a regular enough college and got nothing but Fs, Ds, and Cs as an English major. Just about every professor told me I was the worst writer they’d ever seen. One said I was so bad that he sent me home in front of the class after stating that I was so terrible at writing–and this was merely an English major class–that I didn’t deserve to be there. And you know what I thought? I thought all of these fuckers were only there because they had failed, and my big problem was that I wasn’t writing boring ass shit which was what they really wanted. So I started writing professionally as an undergrad. When I got out, I worked the worst jobs. I worked at a hardware store, I worked as a bouncer–and even got urinated on, in one instance. And not by a woman. Which would have been, at least, better. And I wrote at night, and I read at night, and I thought about what I wrote and read at work, and it was all I did. I worked, or I sat somewhere by myself, and really worked. I didn’t have a single connection. No relative, no friend, no passing acquaintance. I lived in Boston. I’d never heard of ARP or whatever it is. A few years in, I start to write for some decently big places in the UK and in NYC. Now, about ten years in, I write for almost every place. At a bunch of them, I’m the only non-staffer to do so. I went to NYC and talked my way into buildings, into offices, and I thought, fuck this, there is no way on fucking earth I am not going to have this, somehow. Some are all about the connections, with basically no exceptions. Like the London Review of Books. And I’m fairly certainly I’m banned for life at the New Republic when it comes to their literary section. People have no clue how petty and evil publishing really is. But just about everywhere else, I’m in. I publish a lot of fiction too. But I don’t think I’ve ever had a piece of fiction that wasn’t rejected 100 times. And then it lands in The Iowa Review, or Boulevard. Or wherever. That batting average has a lot to do with what I encountered in college–the selectors want writing that mirrors their own, or that has certain hallmarks–of the workshop, of the classroom. It’s for an audience of writers and would-be writers, not an audience of readers on the street. And then they bitch about lack of funds and how nobody buys their magazines. That’s why, captains of industry/poxy arbiters of taste. But worst case scenario, you could not be coming to the battle armed with less than what I had, if we’re talking degrees, academic credentials, connections, etc. But to really get anywhere beyond where those things take you–and where do they take you, really? A few webzine publications, a story in some former classmate’s magazine with a circulation of 1000–it’s about talent, and even more about determination, creative solutions–in other words, you need to do the thing that no one on earth but you would think of doing in a given situation, in order to get the outcome you want–strength, will, fight, and an ability to get off the mat more intense and more determined than you were when you ended up there because it wasn’t eleven in the AM and you’d had ten rejections already, thirty pitches that went nowhere, an idea stolen, and someone rescinding on payment. Then you fucking get after it. Or you find ways to get out of the slush. Because almost all of what is published is not coming in through the slush at the lit mags you find in bookstores, even if that is the publicly stated policy. Funny little footnote: my alma mater houses a well-known literary magazine. Well, well-known in these circles. They reject everything I send them. But they don’t even send the little automated note. I have to go looking for my rejection. I wrote several people affiliated with the magazine over at the English department at this college. Just asking if they could fix the bug so I could get my rejections rather than have to log-in and look for them every few months. One of the editors runs a well-known bookstore in the area, which hosts many readings. I wrote her at that address. No one cared. They knew I was an alum, and just about the only one who lives by his writing. It was weird–on those two occasions when I did inquire about this, I received an email from the school saying, “Once you’re an (insert mascot) you’re always an (insert mascot), and (insert mascot, plural) always look after other (insert mascot, plural). Now send us money!”

  57. dole
  58. dole

      duh lol didn’t scroll down this page nvm

  59. Cvan

      Hey, Kitchell.  Bill Gass agrees with you.  From “The New Fiction” in 1971 and “Conversations with William H. Gass”:  “My advice for beginning writers is first to recognize that writers differ a great deal in their own natures and in the nature of their talent, and that little advice which is general can be of much value.  Learn not to take advice.  Look to yourself.  Make yourself worthy of trust.  No art can be taught, though some techniques sometimes can.  Writing classes help some, don’t others…It wouldn’t have worked for me, and I am personally suspicious of them”

  60. MFBomb

      Fair enough.  Good response!

  61. BoomersMustDie

      An MFA program might have taught you how to use paragraphs

  62. deckfight

      somebody make this guy a regular contributor

  63. Pat the Guest

      boomers teach MFA programs / asshole / who gives a fuck about paragraphs

  64. MFBomb

      I see medication in your future. 

  65. bobby

      I love that list. 

  66. Pat the Guest

      past future present

  67. BoomersMustDie


  68. BoomersMustDie

      He’s a pushy prick in real life… 

  69. BoomersMustDie

      (Colin Fleming that is, he sends tons of shit over the transom)

  70. Pat the Guest

      reader’s failure/zoomer/not the writer’s

  71. Lilzed

      What about taking out a loan–to–not attend an MFA program–but–to–finance a year of focusing exclusively on writing? Isn’t that kind of (KIND OF) similar? Maybe chepper too?

  72. Lilzed

      Next time try, “hi I’m a writer, but not a ‘real’ writer,” and they will understand and leave you alone.

      Or . . . they’ll coo, “why do you SAY that? You can be a ‘real’ writer w/o an MFA,” and you can say, “no, I meant to say that I am a real writer, just not a ‘real’ writer,” and they will say, “so you’re really a writer?” and you can say, “for real I am a writer” and they can say, “huh, what makes a writer real anyway?” and you can say, “well that is one thing about not going to an MFA program, it can make you more real,” and they can say, “why do you SAY that? You can be ‘real’ with an MFA,” and you can say, “yes and now we agree completely”

  73. Literary Man

      For whatever it’s worth, in defense of the Columbia MFA AND its insanely high tuition:

  74. Noah

      Thanks for posting this, Mike. The MFA thing is always something I have had in the back of my mind. The biggest part of the MFA that I seem to miss out on is the community aspect, the “workshop/critique environment.” This is something I have never had though.  And sometimes I think because I am not affiliated with any academy or “writing” circle I missing out on something. 

  75. Craig

      Thanks man, I really appreciate this post.  As a college student trying to learn how to wend my way through things, it’s great to hear success stories from people who set out without any extra degrees.  There are no road-maps in outer space, as the saying goes.