The Road Less Trav­eled


Poets and Writers - - Features - by thomas mullen

Mak­ing it with­out an MFA.

WARN­ING: I do not have an MFA, teach cre­ative writ­ing, or live in New York City. For these rea­sons alone, you should prob­a­bly ig­nore any ca­reer ad­vice I of­fer. Best turn the page to an­other story, quickly.

Still here? Then I should also note that I’m a nov­el­ist, with five pub­lished nov­els so far, and have been a full-time writer for eight of the past twelve years. That may seem like an un­be­liev­able plot twist, but I’m here to in­form you that it’s pos­si­ble to make it as a writer with­out an MFA. As ap­pli­ca­tion sea­son draws near, and you’re de­bat­ing whether or not to at­tend grad school, you should know that go­ing with­out an MFA has se­ri­ous down­sides—but so does tak­ing out big loans for an arts de­gree in to­day’s econ­omy. Ob­sta­cles abound on ei­ther side of this choice.

I never set out to be an ex­cep­tion to any rules. At first I didn’t even re­al­ize there were rules to be­ing a writer. Like so many oth­ers, I was con­vinced I would be pub­lished in my early twen­ties. Yet

THOMAS MULLEN is the au­thor of Dark­town (Atria, 2016), which was short-listed for the Los An­ge­les Times Book Prize, the Indies Choice Book

Award, the South­ern Book Prize, and two CWA Dag­ger Awards and was named an NPR Best Book of the Year; The Last Town

on Earth (Ran­dom House, 2006), win­ner of the James Fen­i­more Cooper Prize and USA To­day’s Best De­but of the Year; The

Many Deaths of the Fire­fly Broth­ers (Ran­dom

House, 2010); and The Re­vi­sion­ists

(Mul­hol­land Books, 2011). His lat­est,

Light­ning Men, will be pub­lished by Atria in Septem­ber. He lives in Atlanta with his wife and sons. as my twen­ties passed and the re­jec­tion let­ters and failed manuscripts piled up, I wor­ried I’d made a fa­tal er­ror. I re­al­ized a lit­tle late that MFA pro­grams, once rare, had be­come com­mon­place and that a Stan­dard Road for Writ­ers had been blazed: col­lege, MFA, pub­li­ca­tion, teach­ing job. I had un­know­ingly ven­tured down a less trod­den path rife with thorny un­der­brush, snakes, and oc­ca­sional mud­slides. An MFA had not been an op­tion for me. I grad­u­ated col­lege in 1996 with dou­ble the av­er­age amount of stu­dent loan debt. My fa­ther’s busi­ness had gone un­der dur­ing my ju­nior year; my par­ents de­clared bank­ruptcy and our fam­ily lost our house, so I was lucky to even grad­u­ate. Given this fright­en­ing fi­nan­cial in­se­cu­rity, I couldn’t con­sider go­ing into fur­ther debt so some writ­ing pro­fes­sor could teach me about irony. While I knew that MFA schol­ar­ships ex­isted, I didn’t want to risk the heartache of ap­ply­ing, be­ing ac­cepted, and then find­ing out I couldn’t swing tu­ition.

Be­sides, the prouder part of me ar­gued, as a writer I feel duty-bound to avoid clichés in my prose, and the idea of en­rolling in grad school or mov­ing to Brooklyn would seem­ingly make my very life a cliché. How could that be a good thing, for me or for my writ­ing?

Still, as I toiled on my manuscripts at night and on week­ends while hold­ing down jobs that helped me pay off my debt and feed my­self, I no­ticed that the words “at­tended grad­u­ate school” ap­peared in the bios of all my fa­vorite young writ­ers. They’re learn­ing all this stuff I’m not learn­ing! I be­gan to fear. They’re be­ing given the secrets to suc­cess while I type in my apart­ment alone! My goal had al­ways been to write nov­els, not to teach, yet the two ap­peared in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked in a way that felt deeply un­fair. The deck was stacked, the game rigged. Every time I sent an un­so­licited query letter to an agent, I feared that I was show­ing up to a gun­fight with a knife.

That fear lin­gered un­til the day my agent told me that my first novel was go­ing to be pub­lished. Sud­denly the lack of an MFA didn’t mat­ter so much.

I’m hardly some anti­estab­lish­ment, academia-hat­ing pop­ulist. I at­tended a New Eng­land prep school and a pri­vate lib­eral arts col­lege. I loved be­ing a stu­dent. I am the son of an art teacher, and I have many pro­fes­sor friends who love their jobs. What I’m say­ing is I might have en­joyed an MFA pro­gram. I might have even been a nat­u­ral for grad school and academia. If you’re fill­ing out an ap­pli­ca­tion right now, I am in no way hop­ing to dis­suade you.

But I also know plenty of dis­il­lu­sioned sur­vivors of MFA pro­grams who don’t en­joy teach­ing and are suf­fer­ing through it—some of them ad­juncts locked into low earn­ings and very lit­tle sta­bil­ity— ei­ther as a per­ceived penance for fail­ing to score that big book deal or be­cause they feel that they’re trapped on a cer­tain ca­reer path. And I know many peo­ple who earned grad­u­ate de­grees and now toil out­side academia, un­able to land tenured jobs and nearly suf­fo­cat­ing be­neath the weight of stu­dent loan debt, which forces them to de­lay other life de­ci­sions. As some­one who knows what it’s like to lit­er­ally run out of money, I as­sure you there is nothing ro­man­tic or ar­tis­ti­cally no­ble about be­ing broke. Writ­ers should make smart fi­nan­cial de­ci­sions about their fu­tures.

If you’re con­sid­er­ing divert­ing from the Stan­dard Road, wield­ing your ma­chete to hack your own way through the writerly jungle, you’d best brace your­self for blis­ters on your hands and the

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