Thoughts on institutionalized creative writing…

lit mags
Literary Magazines

This post is going to seem a little more informal compared to the others because this wasn’t planned in the least. I happened to come up with this idea for a blog post while researching graduate school options…

So, let’s go back to the academic year 2008-2009. I was 16 years old and simultaneously a junior in high school and (technically) a freshman in college (I was a full-time college student at this point — I took absolutely no high school classes and all my college classes counted doubly for high school and college credit.)

This was when I took my first creative writing class. I’d always wanted to be a writer, but this is when I truly fell in love with the idea of being a writer and an author as a young adult. This was also the beginning of a long period of confusion.

It wasn’t until later that I realized academic English departments aren’t exactly huge fans of genre fiction (in general). They frown on fantasy, science fiction, and horror — the three genres I loved to write and would have loved to study more in school. Unfortunately, other than the one Sci-fi and Fantasy Lit course my university offered, which I also took when I was 16, what we mainly studied was literary fiction.

I can certainly appreciate lit fic. It’s artsy. It’s all about craft. But, after a while, it can get profoundly boring.

I graduated with my BA when I was 20.

I’m 26, and I’m just now starting to realize just how behind I am on fantasy and science fiction. And I began to realize this after watching vlogs and joining writing groups. Fellow writers and readers would talk about their favorite fantasy and science fiction writers, and I would have no idea who they were. I didn’t even hear about Ursula Le Guin until I was 24. I didn’t learn who Brandon Sanderson was until a month ago.

And to be honest, I (largely) blame the academic institutions teaching creative writing.

Wanting to write and submit genre fiction was beaten out of me pretty early on, and pretty much all we studied was literary fiction. I was told that I wouldn’t get accepted into MFA programs, nor would my stories be accepted into literary magazines, unless I wrote literary fiction. So that’s what I wrote. (Of course, I still wrote my genre fiction on the side. I just didn’t know where I could submit it.)

I got the impression that academia doesn’t think genre fiction is smart. It’s not considered to be as clever as literary fiction, which I think is bullshit.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t regret my experiences in undergrad or grad school. I read some pretty great stuff — in both undergrad and grad school — such as Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, Sea Oak by George Saunders, Lolita by Vladimir Nobokov, and Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, which have all become some of my favorite works of fiction of all time.

But Oryx and Crake will always hold a special place in my heart because it gave me hope. It’s a work of speculative fiction that had earned a spot in academic studies. It’s good and smart enough to be studied in the classroom. Atwood doesn’t like to call it science fiction, but it totally is. It 100% is. And that was my hope.

I studied this book in grad school for an Atwood independent study with the English department head (who is one of my favorite people on the planet, but who also told me she dislikes things like dragons and magic — that broke my heart), and I got so inspired. If Atwood could simultaneously write genre and literary fiction, then, damn it, so could I!

But how?

Each story I wrote attempting to marry genre and literary fiction turned out to be a Frankenstein’s monster of a mess — definitely nowhere near Atwood’s level of expertise.

Eventually, I gave up on thinking my writing would ever be good enough to enter an MFA program. Well, more like, I psyched myself out and found reasons not to apply to any MFA programs. The problem now was — what to do?

For a while, I continued trying to submit my stories to literary magazines, in vain (though I did manage to  get two of my horror flash fiction pieces published on an award-winning horror website — that was cool). And notable fantasy/sci-fi magazine don’t really accept unsolicited works.

I entertained the idea of using my Japanese language skills to be an interpreter or translator. I danced in ballroom competitions and showcases for two years. But writing was always in the back of my mind, and abandoned and unfinished stories nagged at me.

Then there came a period of two years (2013-2015) where I tried to get my first novel published — first traditionally, then via self-publishing… which is not a topic that was ever touched on throughout my entire schooling. No one ever taught us how to publish! We learned how to write query letters to editors of literary magazines, but no one had ever taught us the differences between traditional publishing and self-publishing. No one had ever taught us about agents. No one had ever taught us about hiring professional editors and cover designers. I had to learn all of this myself, mostly through trial and error. And there was a hell of a lot of error.

Anyhow, I published my first book in 2015 and had completely put MFA programs out of my mind forever. Or so I thought.

It wasn’t until within the past year or so that I finally started to see teaching (at the college level) as something I’d be into. As an English major, I was vehemently against the idea of teaching, and my aversion to this idea only grew as people would say stupid shit to me like, “Oh, you’re majoring in English. So you’re going to be a teacher, right?” And I would retort, quite indignantly, “No. I’m going to be a literary editor.


Anyway. It’s 2018, and I’ve been getting that academic itch. I graduated with my MA in English literature three years ago, and ever since I’ve started teaching Comp I at a university (this is my first semester!), I’ve been thinking more and more about how happy I’d be teaching creative writing at a university.

Since I already have a Masters, I figured, why have two Masters degrees under my belt when I could just go for my PhD? (That’s right. A PhD in creative writing.) But then I ran into the same problem. Would my writing be good enough? Submitting to these programs is hella expensive. Would it even be worth it to waste the money? I have such precious little money, living paycheck to paycheck as I am now. I’ve been told I should at least apply to six programs. If I save and tighten my belt a little (and ask for a little help), I could maybe afford to apply to two or three programs. I’m currently leaning more toward getting my MFA, mainly because there are way more of them to choose from, but that doesn’t make any of those problems go away.

I could apply to three MFA programs, and then what? Not only are most of my stories genre fiction, but MFA programs receive hundreds of applications a year. I know Brown University receives upward of a thousand. And yet, these programs only choose maybe three or four fiction writers.

Three or four out of hundreds.

Will I actually be accepted? Or will I have wasted a bunch of money on a dream that could never be?

But I can’t teach creative writing at the college level without at least an MFA under my belt, so I have to at least try… right?


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