Teen Writers Bloc

A Blog by the New School Writing for Children MFA Class of 2012

New York City MFA Students: We’re Not All Idiots

Posted by Sona Charaipotra On December - 3 - 2010

kendra cover New York City MFA Students: We’re Not All IdiotsIt’s interesting that in the fallout of the expose on James Frey’s fiction factory in New York Magazine last month, New York City MFA students are the ones who come off looking like fools.

That is, at least according to MFA guru Seth Abramson, author of The Creative Writing MFA Handbook, who wrote all about why we’re apparently idiots for the Huffington Post last week.

“In seeking out young authors to exploit, Frey has done as much as anyone in the United States to reveal the seedy side of unfunded MFA programs,” Abramson writes. “Indeed, research done into MFA programs since 2006 reveals that Columbia University and The New School, Frey’s top targets for young, desperate literary artists, are distinctive in only two respects: (1) they host the two largest MFA cohorts in fiction in the United States; and (2) their fiction alumni are believed to have the highest graduate student loan burden of any MFA graduates anywhere.”

The case he’s making is that students at the New School and Columbia (and no doubt NYU, too, by default) are so desperate to earn their way out of their MFA debt that they’ll sign any old contract, panting breathlessly at the very thought of actually being published. Because apparently we’re that hopeless.

In reality, I think the students that did sign on for Frey’s dastardly deal are simply hedging their bets. Some percentage of a million dollar deal is a hard thing to turn down. Especially when advances these days are often pitifully low. But that’s a whole other conversation.

Really, I’d rather address Abramson’s allegation that New York City-area MFA students are idiots. As a graduate student in the MFA program in creative writing at the New School: A) I’m not going into crippling debt to pursue this. Yes, it’s an expensive endeavor, but I (and many of my classmates) do have some funding. We’re in New York City, the heart of the publishing industry and the known world. Of course it’s expensive, but so are many programs in other parts of the nation. B) I don’t have the the luxury of packing up my life and my family and moving to Iowa or Nebraska to pursue a funded degree. I work. I have a family. I have family in the area. I want to be in New York City. C) I truly believe you get what you pay for. And to me, this degree and the creative community that comes with it are worth it.

But also, having spent a semester in the program thus far, I also see that my classmates are far from being idiots for taking on this purportedly life-altering debt for a degree, as Abramson put it in another HuffPost blog, that is “at base, a non-professional, largely-unmarketable art-school degree that can’t get anyone a full-time teaching job (at least not in the absence of significant in-genre publications) and is not designed to ‘network’ graduates into magazine or book publications.”

In fact, I’d argue that the Writing for Children program at the New School is designed to be pretty much exactly the opposite of what Abramson presents. The class of 2012 consists of 12 students, a small cohort that’s designed to create a close-knit writers’ community. (Hence this blog.) It’s one of fewer than a dozen programs in the nation with a writing for children concentration, so the odds are, it’s building up the next strong group of instructors in this very specialized field (and with YA markets booming, the need for instructors with expertise in this arena is no doubt growing). Its focus is on creativity and the canon, so we know all about where we’re going — and where we’re coming from. It’s a diverse, intelligent, creative group of writers who no doubt represent the future of publishing in this arena.

And even more significantly, the networking element is crucial and a key component of the way this program is built. Case in point: David Levithan. A force to be reckoned with in the children’s publishing industry, and a best-selling writer himself, Levithan hasn’t simply put his name on the program. He’s an integral part of it. For one thing, he teaches every year, unlike some of the brand name authors that serve as MFA ambassadors throughout the nation, pulling students into their fold only to depart on book tours or sabbaticals, rather than teach. And it’s an education only he could provide, given his multiple roles in the field and his careful, articulate examination of it. He also advises students, and even publishes some of them.

Secondly, David and the other instructors in the program — all of whom are working writers and/or editors — play up the networking aspect. Just this past week, David brought in a cadre of eight working writers to class to “talk shop,” as it were. Among these were best-selling YA goddess and Printz winner Libba Bray and National Book Award winner Judy Blundell. We got to ask them questions about their process, craft, publishing, the highs and lows of life as a writer.

Thirdly, given our locale in downtown Manhattan, we’re at the heart and the pulse of publishing every day. Another major part of our program — for all genres — is the writers’ colloquium, which mandates that we attend a minimum of eight author events and readings throughout the semester, either sponsored by the school (which offers a great line-up each year) or within the city. Of course, most students attend far more than eight, considering that New York boasts such readings and events on a daily basis with major names in publishing. One of the first such events I attended as a student was Salman Rushdie introducing new writer Tishani Doshi at the Brooklyn Book Festival, which was absolutely free. Another great one was one of David’s NYC Teen Author readings, featuring David and his Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares co-writer Rachel Cohn and YA icon Scott Westerfeld, amongst other teen lit all-stars.

And last, but certainly not least, are the alumni, who continue to support the program that brought them right into the heart of publishing. Next week, author and New School alum Coe Booth will be teaching our class — and teaching her books, Tyrell and Kendra (both published by David Levithan at his Scholastic imprint Push). She graduated from the New School in 2005, along with fellow published writers Jenny Han, Lisa Graff, Lisa Greenwald, Siobhan Vivian, Daphne Grab, Kathryne Alfred, and Caroline Hickey. (That’s right, the Longstockings.)Given the short history of the writing for children program, an astonishing number of its graduates are published and publishing. Not bad for a throwaway degree, huh?

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13 Responses to “New York City MFA Students: We’re Not All Idiots”

  1. Dhonielle Clayton says:

    Yes! Preach, my friend!!!

  2. Sona,

    The only problem with what you've written is that almost none of it is true. I don't think (and never said or implied) anyone is an "idiot" — in fact I quoted (and you conveniently elided) a Columbia student calling _herself_ and _her Columbia classmates_ "desperate" because of their financial circumstances. And I specifically singled out The New School and Columbia University because (as I said) they rank second-to-last and last in student funding in America (fact, not opinion) and are located in the highest-cost MFA locale in America, so (as the Columbia student quoted in New York Magazine said) they're in a particularly "desperate" spot. But NYU is much better funded than The New School and Columbia, and Queens and Hunter and Brooklyn College are cheaper public-school alternatives, so no, their students are _not_ in the same boat as you and those at Columbia.

    Nor did I ever call the MFA a "throwaway degree." I made comments that are accurate: (1) it's a non-professional degree (definitionally; this isn't a matter of opinion); (2) it's "largely unmarketable" in terms of securing a full-time position in higher education unless you have published a book or two. You don't seem to disagree with this, either. So I don't understand what your argument or concern is here. Of course good things are happening at Columbia and The New School; there are some good students here and there, and some students may occasionally receive funding of some kind. It doesn't change the fact — again, not opinion — that The New School MFA is the largest in the world. Yes, the world.

    Finally, me saying that MFA programs are not designed to be networking mechanisms doesn't mean networking can't or doesn't happen there — it means it's not the primary focus anywhere, and explicitly no part of the program whatsoever in most places. Given that Columbia and The New School are dropping rapidly in selectivity — according to the data, not my opinion — I don't think it's unfair, either, to say that both programs should really keep their focus on instruction and creating a mutually-inspiring community of writers rather than "talking shop" about publishing. Most MFA students — in NYC and elsewhere — aren't really ready yet to "talk shop" because, at bottom, the quality of work isn't there yet. That's one reason people seek the time and space an MFA provides. As to this–

    "We’re in New York City, the heart of the publishing industry and the known world. Of course it’s expensive, but so are many programs in other parts of the nation. B) I don’t have the the luxury of packing up my life and my family and moving to Iowa or Nebraska to pursue a funded degree. I work. I have a family. I have family in the area. I want to be in New York City. C) I truly believe you get what you pay for. And to me, this degree and the creative community that comes with it are worth it"

    –I think it smacks of provincialism, as does so much talk about New York by New Yorkers. We live in the Digital Age; New York City is as far removed from the cultural importance it boasted in its heyday as we could possibly imagine. Literary communities have gone online and have spread across the nation. That said, I've always said and written that those with particular reasons not to move to do an MFA are entirely exempt from any responsibility for knowing or adhering to popular wisdom (e.g., the "don't pay for an MFA meme," or the "best programs in terms of student quality are the fully funded ones" meme, et. al.). So of course someone living with a family in NYC should stay in NYC if they can do so financially, e.g. by attending one of the public schools or (say) an outrageously expensive place like The New School if they get funding or are independently wealthy or are being supported by someone else who is employed full-time (or other scenarios we can all imagine or relate).

    But the idea that "you get what you pay for" as to an MFA is, respectfully, asinine — no one in the history of the MFA degree, a 75-year history, has ever seriously claimed that programs like those at Iowa and Michigan and Irvine and Johns Hopkins (all fully funded programs) are of poor or poorer quality because they have found the resources to support all their students for the duration of their MFA years. You can't be serious in claiming that the fact that you've gone into debt for a degree that doesn't pay for itself 95%+ of the time somehow shows an initiative those who attended fully funded programs didn't show.

    In any case, I enjoy being quoted properly and fairly, and the idea that I think MFA applicants or students are "idiots" or that the MFA is worthless when I've committed more of my free time to doing work on behalf of applicants and students than (they tell me) anyone out there is insulting.

    The bottom line in all this never changes: If you're happy with your program, I am (quite sincerely and warmly) happy for you and don't believe anything I write about MFA programs can or should change your opinion of your own choices or experiences. And I'm sure it won't — which, again, is as it should be. Most of my articles are geared toward prospective MFA students rather than current MFA students, anyway. Be well,

    Cheers,

    S.

  3. Hi Seth,

    Thanks for taking the time to respond — I do appreciate it.

    The program I'm attending, and therefore referencing, is the smaller Writing for Children program within the greater MFA. It is one of the few such programs in the country, and given the caliber of instructors and the students themselves, I think it is worth the expense, as I mentioned. Also, as much as we may live in a digital age, I think there is something to be said for having a program with the strength — and the locale — that allows for a group of storied and seasoned writers to come chat in the classroom with us about the writing life. You can buckle down and really focus on your craft, but if you do so in a vacuum you're not really helping yourself.

    Perhaps this program represents a different experience than the larger program MFA program at the New School. In any case, we do represent intelligent, practical and creative writers who fully knew what we were getting into when we decided to attend the university. Most of us could not afford to commit to fully funded programs for one reason or another, whether it be location or fit or something else entirely, and we've made the decision that works best for us. I think my classmates will agree that here we have found a nurturing creative community that is focusing heavily on craft, canon and also what we will need to do to be publishing and teaching once we've completed our degrees. I do think the writers in the program can handle both aspects, the craft and the business, and in fact, we do have soon-to-be published writers within our ranks.

    Lastly, I never quoted you as saying directly that we're idiots for choosing our program — I made the implication, as you did. In any case, calling us out as desperate in response to the Frey fiasco is still unfair, and while you may not do so explicitly, I think the implication stands. But you're not the only one making it, clearly.

    Again, I do appreciate your insights and your research. Thanks for stopping by to comment.

    Sona Charaipotra

  4. [...] to go. It is, in one very fitting word, “awesome.” This time it involved Seth Abramson and Sona Charaipotra, a hot mama, New School Young Adult MFA student, TeenWritersBloc blogger, oh, and my wife =) [...]

  5. [...] To make a good dent in my apparently crippling grad school debt as I go along, I decided to amp it up. I’m about two years into building my own writing [...]

  6. [...] has been written about James Frey’s “Fiction Factory” and his company’s business practices, but I won’t be focusing on that aspect of The Lorien [...]

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  8. [...] To make a good dent in my apparently crippling grad school debt as I go along, I decided to amp it up. I’m about two years into building my own writing business, [...]

  9. [...] This time it involved the lawyer, poet, Ph.D. student, and blogger Seth Abramson, and Sona Charaipotra, a hot mama, New School Young Adult MFA student, TeenWritersBloc blogger, oh, and my wife =) [...]

  10. [...] The stats are daunting. According to the article, University of Iowa — the reputed cream of the crop — sees only about three-quarters of their MFA grads published. Other schools place the figure at as low as ten percent up to maybe 50 percent. Geez, doesn’t make a girl feel great about paying off all that apparently crippling student loan debt. [...]

  11. [...] According to the article, the odds are pretty bleak: University of Iowa — the reputed cream of the crop — sees only about three-quarters of their MFA grads published. Other schools place the figure at as low as ten percent up to maybe 50 percent. Geez, doesn’t make a girl feel great about paying off all that apparently crippling student loan debt. [...]

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