In Hopi culture, as I recall from my graduate work in environmental education years ago, there are people who serve as kachinas, or ancestral spirits, during religious ceremonies. Imagine colorful, otherworldly costumes and pulsing, drum-driven dances. There are mudhead kachinas, too—clown-like spirits who poke fun at the serious types. Like Jon Stewart, I suppose—good laughs along with insight.
Not long ago, during my MFA studies with Ashland University, I read an article in Slate by Chad Harbach, a kachina in his own right. It’s called “MFA vs. NYC,” with the subtitle “America now has two distinct literary cultures. Which one will last?” Harbach raises good points about the endeavors my fellow students, professors, and I took so seriously as we pecked away at essays and poems of our own. Here’s one that caught my eye, given my status as a would-be author:
“For the MFA writer, then, publishing a book becomes not a primary way to earn money or even a direct attempt to make money. The book instead serves as a credential. Just as the critic publishes her dissertation in order to secure a job in an ever tightening market, the fiction writer [and, I assume, nonfiction writers like me] publishes her book of stories, or her novel, to cap off her MFA. There is an element of liberation in this, however complex; the MFA writer is no longer at the whim of the market—or, rather, has entered a less whimsical, more tolerant market. The New York publishing houses become ever more fearful and defensive, battened down against the encroachments of other “media” old and new merely imagined—but the MFA writer doesn’t have to deal with those big houses. And if she does get published by one, she doesn’t need a six-figure advance. On the whole, independent and university presses (as for the poet and the critic) will do just fine.”
None of what Harbach says alarms me, especially the influence of economic factors on one culture of writers or another. Actually, I think what he has written is an analysis of writing careers more than of writing itself. Such as it is, I’m not too worried about making it big book-wise, which, he seems to imply, is the goal of the most ambitious of us. Starve, sweat, slave away, and you might produce a best seller. That is, if you attend the right parties.
Without knowing much about this topic, I’d probably take Harbach’s analysis one step further. There’s at least a third camp of writers out there, the kind pursuing or holding MFAs yet not producing much personal material or teaching in academia. It’s the folks working in marketing jobs or editing or communications. Even information technology has plenty of storytellers, writing and writing. I think there’s merit to that. Realism, too. And I think the skills and discipline of the MFA process can help this third culture grow, and vice versa.
As an environmental educator, I learned long ago that you can’t just teach as a naturalist—in forests, in deserts, in backwaters—and expect to make much money. No matter how much you know about plants and wildlife, a man’s gotta eat, right? Thus I became a nonprofit grunt, a manager, an entrepreneur. I never stopped being a naturalist, of course, but instead grew into something more.
That said, I’m striking out into new territory, this wordsmithing close to the land, but I think I’d do well to keep an open mind about how I’ll use my MFA. If I could end up as a “writer-teacher,” one of those college-town types Harbach pokes fun at, I’d be pretty damn happy. If not, I’ll settle with my wife somewhere in a remote patch of woods or wetlands, chronicling what I can of wild things and the people who live among them. Creative drive and adaptability are more important than drinks in Manhattan!
How about you? What’s your Plan B? What degree or training have you pursued and then applied in surprising ways? Have hard work and happenstance provided a springboard to unexpected pleasures? For instance, look at that photo above: that’s me in blue, hunched over my journal. I’m scribbling beside a river, wondering where I’ll end up. With a book. Or not.
Photo: Atop Washington’s Sauk Mountain, near the confluence of the Skagit and Sauk rivers, my wife and a friend admire the view as I write in my journal. JEFF DARREN MUSE