Follow Harriet on Twitter
Journal, Day Three
On Writing Programs and the Profession
I attended two writing programs: the poetry program at the University of California at Davis, where I worked with Sandra McPherson, Francisco X. Alarcón, and Clarence Major; and the fiction program at Arizona State University, where I worked with Jewell Parker Rhodes, Alberto Ríos, and Melissa Pritchard. I have always championed the idea that a serious writer should attend a writing program for the following reasons: it provides a writer with a diverse audience (i.e. the professors and the other students with other histories and in other disciplines), it provides a writer with a community of other writers, and it provides a writer with time (and an incentive) to write. I also know that a person can write and grow as a writer without a writing program. But I also know that to enter the profession nowadays, a writer needs those credentials—the MFA degree, the teaching experience, and those connections made within the networking walls of academia. That will not change no matter how much we all hem and haw. So I encourage young people to think seriously about enrolling in a writing program, either as students or as professionals in training. And yet I offer a warning: take your time. And that’s what a writer has in a writing program: time. In the post-graduate world there is no such thing as the luxury of time because there are so many other responsibilities that are not writing poetry. I can say all this from experience.
And I can also say this from experience: being an academic poet is not for everyone. This statement is rather obvious for people who live in communities like New York City, where academic positions are so few that artists have to thrive while holding jobs in banks, offices, museums, department stores, etc. or while advancing their careers in other professions. But for those in other territories (or willing to relocate to them), academic jobs are ideal because of the access to resources or flexible working schedules, and the possibility of becoming mentors and shaping the next generation of writers. But it also has its other expectations, like administrative responsibilities and committee work, which are not as sexy but are necessary. And for many, a first job, tenure track if they’re lucky, is an overwhelming step into a heavy teaching load. No matter what, it’s time-consuming work, but with the pleasant reality of school holidays and summer breaks. Some can do it, others can’t. I didn’t think I could.
After graduating from ASU I was at a loss about my future. But I did know one thing: I didn’t want to leap right back into academia as a professional. Yet that was the world I knew and liked, so I enrolled in a PhD program at the University of New Mexico. I loved Albuquerque, but I wasn’t feeling the scholar’s calling, so I dropped out after a year—the same year my first book was selected for the National Poetry Series. I was encouraged by peers and mentors to compete for a job now that I had a book, but I wasn’t feeling that either. So instead I worked at a dance studio and at a daycare center for a summer. I fell in love with another writer and moved to New York City (where I have lived off-and-on since 1998). I worked as a document translator for St. Vincent’s Hospital, as a teacher of Spanish in an adult education center, and as a literacy specialist for an after school program. Three years later, I broke up with this other writer and moved out of New York City, traveling the world under the dime of the Guggenheim—Spain, Brazil, Italy, Mexico, Costa Rica, Scotland. I invested every last dollar in travel and in time to write. And when the funds ran out, I admitted to myself that academia was a better fit for my itinerant nature via visiting professorships: The New School University, two years; the University of Toledo, one year; and currently, Queens College.
Interestingly enough, I’ve had nice offers for more permanent positions but I either turned them down or determined, after a brief stay, that we were not a good match. Such was the case with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I had three wonderful colleagues there: Tayari Jones, LeAnne Howe, and Tyehimba Jess. And the program was promising enough, with its generous resources, but, well . . . let’s just say I moved on.
Can I stay away from academia? It’s difficult. I do like being around extremely literate people and I do enjoy guiding thought and discussion in a classroom setting. And every once in a while I come across a piece of writing that knocks me off my chair. I believe that’s why writers teach. Or rather, what makes teaching writers worth it.
And much concern has been expressed about the proliferation of writing programs. Too many programs. Too many writers. My response is that the world cannot have too many artists and thinkers. In fact we need more, especially during war time, when the language of governments aims to deceive and conceal. Poetry seeks truths. But developing more programs should be done with the understanding that students of writing be informed about the realities of an MFA: that the degree offers no guarantees except the guarantee of space and time and guidance. I believe faculty in writing programs have a responsibility to speak honestly about the post-MFA life before students leave the university and to show them other avenues for employing those writing skills since not every writing student aims to become a writing teacher. And not everyone will become a published writer. What I’m advocating is for students of writing to be clear about what they want and for writing programs to be clear about what they can provide. Only then will proper matches be made.
The good news is that students can gauge these issues by asking the following questions (among many others): Who teaches there? How often do they actually teach classes? Are these professors writing or did they used to write? Why would you want to work with those professors? Who graduated from this program? What was their experience like? Do they recommend the program? What resources are available? What types of funding do they provide? What are the advantages of the location, tuition fees, and curriculum? Will these professors be good mentors for budding writers and/or budding professionals? (Good mentors also have good reputations.)
So potential students, start your inquiries. Invest in your art, invest in yourself. Different places will be different fits, so conduct your research widely and wisely. And I must add that there are two new writing programs on the horizon you might take a look at. One is at Queens College and the other is at Rutgers University in Newark, where my former colleague and fabulous novelist, Tayari Jones, now teaches.