Encounters in Publishing #29: What To Do With That MFA Degree? by Paul Florez
December 18, 2013
On Monday nights most of the students from my MFA program go to Treehouse in Greenwich Village where, among the two dollar draft specials and nostalgic 90s movies that are projected onto a large screen, we regale horror stories from our writing workshop classes.
“I had a typo on my submission,” my friend cries. “ “I wrote Jew Jersey instead of New Jersey. Should I e-mail the class a revised copy? I just don’t want to draw attention to it.”
“Someone called my character vapid,” my other friend says, taking a swig of his Bud Light. “They don’t know the character is actually based off of me so the joke’s on them.”
“My professor says my narration feels disconnected,” I whine. “But the story is set in Japan. What do I know about Japan? I’ve never been there.”
The above may seem trivial but I promise these scenarios can be catastrophic to an aspiring writer’s wellbeing. If you don’t have the validation from your workshop peers, whose goal it is to critique your writing and sniff out your shortcomings, then you have nothing.
It was during one of these nights at Treehouse that I met my classmates Daniella and Molly. Daniella and Molly are the kind of girls gay men in Manhattan naturally flock to. They’ve got the Zooey Deschanel weave, the scantling wit, and an uncanny ability to match their multicolored scarves with a perfect shade of lipstick.
Not only were they fabulous but later when I got home, and read their blogs, I was impressed by their deadpan humor and confident storytelling. (check out Daniella’s blog, Breakfast With Myself, as well as Molly’s, Essayer (To Try).
These girls are going to one day make it big in the writing biz, I thought to myself.
During another night at Treehouse with the girls, we spoke about the program and what we’ll eventually do with our MFA degrees once we graduate.
“Obvi write full-time,” I said, faking a valley girl accent.
The girls stirred their drinks in unison, trying to rationalize the gay man before them who was almost thirty, Facebook stalking them, sporting adult braces, and living in a reality where valley girl accents were still cool.
“Maybe work in book publishing,” Daniella offered up.
I worked in book publishing for seven years, and staunchly believe if you want to be a writer then you shouldn’t work in that industry. It’s separation of church and state. And why would you want to spend all your time editing and promoting another person’s manuscript?
I also grew up in the post Sex and the City world, where being a writer is synonymous to maintaining a 500-word column and drinking endless martinis while having no concept of money. Most people would call this sort of lifestyle unbelievable, but I call it end goal. Becoming Carrie Bradshaw is what I hope to get out of my MFA program.
“We can write full-time,” I preached to the girls. “We can all be Carrie Bradshaw!”
The girls nodded and I half heartedly savored my vodka cranberry because I was too cheap to order a Cosmopolitan.
In the weeks that followed I also heard more of my talented peers talking about wanting to work in book publishing after receiving their degrees.
“Your starting salary will barley allow you to eat at the dollar menu at McDonalds, let alone cover your monthly student loan payments,” I reasoned. “You may as well just wait tables. At least you’ll get tips and be able to write in-between shifts.”
My reasoning failed to convince them otherwise.
To prove my point, I turned to my old colleagues to gather their thoughts on the matter and asked if they thought MFA graduates should work in the biz.
Here’s what they told me:
Lori Perkins, Publisher, Riverdale Ave Books: “It takes a village to publish a book today, and an author should know what that entails so she or he does not have unrealistic expectations. I think they work in every position possible – editor, agent, production, sales, public relations, etc.”
Joseph Papa, Publicity Manager, It Books/William Morrow: “I definitely think it helps inform the experience. I’ve been a book publicist for almost 6 years and while on tour for a book I wrote in 2011, I had the unique opportunity to experience media and events from the perspective of the author. It certainly gave me perspective and I can now empathize with my authors in a unique way.”
Alvina Ling, Executive Editorial Director, Little Brown Books for Young Readers: “I think it would be helpful, for sure, especially if you work in editorial, because it would allow you to better understand what the writers you’re working with are going through, and also may have a better “toolbox” in terms of helping your authors improve their work.”
Emi Battaglia, Vice President/Associate Publisher, Grand Central Publishing: “I do think it is a worthwhile idea for MFA writing graduates to work in the book publishing business. In many respects, MFA programs can be a very insular world and grads oftentimes create very high expectations for themselves. By working in book publishing, grads can see first hand the realities of the publishing landscape and how difficult it can sometimes be to become a published author. And the knowledge they gain can help them understand how to successfully publish their work in the future.”
So I was wrong. Clearly working in book publishing can only benefit a writer when they inevitably get published.
Maybe one day I’ll have to face reality and come to terms with the fact Carrie Bradshaw is a fictional character and that I’ll need to get a full-time job again and perhaps book publishing will be the best place for that, but so long as I’m living off my student loans and savoring five dollar vodka cranberries, that day is not nigh.
Follow Lori on Twitter here.
Follow Joseph on Twitter here.
Follow Alvina on Twitter here.
Follow Emi on Twitter here.
Paul Florez is currently receiving his MFA in fiction at The New School. He is a contributor for the Huffington Post and his work has also appeared in Slice Magazine, Queerty, and The Advocate. You can follow his misadventures over on twitter @TheTinBot.