Can you make a living from your MFA in writing?

People do MFAs in writing for various reasons. Personally, I was tired of writing bad novels all by myself in a candlelit room. I wanted to learn how to write a good one.

But by the time I finished my MFA (which was 2 years), I was in a different head space around work. My previous job as a senior project manager in the field of international conferences was no longer practical, what with having two young kids and being more interested in writing novels than ever.

The hard part was connecting my MFA to my work life and figuring out how to make money from the training.

An MFA should teach you the craft–or the fine art–of writing, whether it’s poetry, nonfiction, fiction, or cross-genre. My MFA did that in spades. I was delighted with the experience. It was the geekfest of all geekfests for someone who loves reading and writing and books, period, as much as I do.

In the two years I spent studying how to write, there was only one workshop on what to do with your MFA, and it was a bit vague. “Stay in touch with your classmates,” “put your writing first,” “don’t lose momentum,” that kind of thing.

But how to actually make a living was not discussed. I was at a low-residency MFA, which means an older crowd, people who already made a living at something else. Some of them had already been making a living at writing–there was a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who’d come to learn fiction writing! A few were young, straight out of their undergrad degrees. Many were in their 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s. Some were published novelists and nonfiction writers who taught or worked in other jobs.

The unspoken assumption

I assumed that after graduation, a good and confident writer would expand their thesis and make it great, pitch it to agents, get a publishing deal, and take the rest of the road to being a full-time writer.

It took me a while to realize almost nobody did this. Not even those with a laser focus and giant egos and good connections.

I don’t think I was alone in assuming that an MFA would be helpful for becoming a good enough writer to get my work published. That theory is not wrong, it’s just not the whole picture.

Agents are swamped with manuscripts, publishers have specific wants, and you have to eat something and sleep somewhere while you make that thesis into the next great novel.

Even when you sell it, you’re likely to get less than 20K, and this thing that cost you double that to get trained on and another year post-MFA to finish will, if you’re damn lucky, get you that 20K paid out over a couple of years. Many writers get much less–5K is not unusual.

There are exceptions, of course, but low bucks for the number of hours spent is the norm.

My own path to making money with an MFA

Personally, by the time I finished my MFA I knew writing full-time was not an option, because there’s no cash flow in it. I finished my novel quickly after my MFA. Probably because it was the fourth draft, lol. Polished it up, started submitting. Got an agent. Sounds easy, but none of that made me any money.

Before I even graduated I started working for a transcription company so I could do it while my young kids were in school. I enjoyed typing up interviews and focus group discussions, but the job didn’t work out–my hourly rate was rock bottom, because although I type very fast, it turned out I’m hard of hearing in certain registers and had to keep replaying people with high voices, which took time. Who knew!?

So I was looking for regular day jobs. One day a neighbor said, “Why are you doing that, anyway? You should use your degree!”

THAT’s when I started investigating how to make a living with an MFA.

Wait, let me tell the truth here. I started wondering if making a living from an MFA was even a possibility.

Coincidentally, a friend of my brother’s needed someone to help him with his memoir. That is, read it and tell him how it could be made publishable. He was willing to pay, and I was willing to charge him. He got a heck of a deal, but it wasn’t nothing. And I loved it.

So that was the route I took. Writing took a back seat to making an editing business sustainable.

The truth or nothing

Publishing is one of those industries, maybe like showbiz, where the writer’s quality of work must align with the stars in order to make a splash, get noticed, feel like a ‘success.’ Most writers don’t experience that, MFA or no MFA. They have to internalize what they learned on the craft end and then figure out how to get to work. They have to figure out how to keep writing while they make a living.

The truth is that I bumbled my way to a living. And I was not the main breadwinner in our house. The first year, I grossed 8K, netting more like $480 because of the need for a website and memberships and training.

My main goal each month in the first year was to make more than I spent. I took jobs from Craigslist, I jumped on relevant job list postings from the Editorial Freelancers Association, and I regularly thought I was insane for even trying to make being an editor work.

My ace in the hole was that I loved it, I had a gift for reading, and I had training from my MFA.

What’s a gift for reading? I don’t even know, except that it went beyond reading for fun. I brought professional intensity to reading long before I did an MFA or hung out my shingle as an editor, because I was a writer and I was looking to mine every trick and technique and mind-blowing moment on the page I could find. Everything I witnessed as a reader–nay, not witnessed, but participated in–made up my gift.

When I started helping other writers with their manuscripts, I didn’t keep these secrets for myself. I put my gift to use.

Even after my brother’s friend paid me to edit his memoir (he’s still my client today on other books!) I didn’t think taking money from writers was legit. You know, we operate on a swap economy, give a critique, get a critique.

But I got over that. What I do is legit in every way. The writers I worked with were kind and grateful. I was cheap and dedicated. I knew things they didn’t know.

The MFA made a difference

Right from day one, the MFA training was invaluable because in the two years it took, I learned a lot about craft. I wouldn’t say I was confident about my understanding of fiction, but I knew more than I knew I knew. I’d been studying writing for years on my own before the MFA.

Despite that craft training, I knew enough to know that I was still just a kid in the realm of craft knowledge for writing, a hamfisted, well-meaning bringer of advice. Craft is a bottomless well in any creative field.

But most of my feedback and advice was useful, thanks to the gift for reading and analysis. And I could explain my reading experience, thanks to the MFA. That cannot be underestimated.

The MFA also improved my own writing to the extent that I was able to get an agent. This raised my credibility among writers / potential clients who were aiming for traditional publishing.

I realized later that the MFA also appealed to certain writers because it gave me some authority / credibility. A bit like working with an RMT versus a self-trained massage therapist. I still had to look for work and prove my worth, but I’m sure it helped.

The two things together–the gift for giving feedback and the training from my MFA–made me particularly suited to this heretofore unbeknownst-to-me area of commerce called editing. Specifically, book editing.

We made a great team, each writer and me, one book at a time. Some went on to get agents, some self-published, some won awards with books we’d worked on together. My rates rose, because I raised them, and I raised them because I wanted to make a living.

I was at a wedding recently with my family, the kids now pretty much grown. The lovely woman seated next to me at the banquet table said, “your family is very proud of you.”

Because I work with books, and they all love books. How delightful is that?

What about the real world?

MFA classmates I’m still in touch with are using their degrees. One’s a copywriter in the health industry who writes flash fiction on the side. One writes grant applications for nonprofits. A few teach, some edit. Nobody writes their own stuff full time unless they have a high-earning partner, but the ones I communicate with still write.

The fact that they don’t write full-time doesn’t mean nobody ‘made it,’ it means that writing is one of those pursuits that rarely pays enough to sustain one’s entire life.

George Saunders, who is a brilliant and successful writer, doesn’t write full-time. He teaches and does other stuff for money.

Ann Patchett, who is a brilliant and successful writer (and has an MFA from Iowa), co-owns a busy bookstore, which makes me think she probably doesn’t write full-time. But guess what? She could. She writes a lot. She knew from childhood on that she’d be a writer. She had no plan B. My impression from reading her latest essay collection, These Precious Days, is that the bookstore is for fun, and writing is the main game.

Colson Whitehead, who is a brilliant and successful writer (I don’t know if he has an MFA), teaches and does other stuff for money.

Let’s sum this up

MFAs allow you to intensively explore a craft.
An MFA in writing teaches you how to write, or teach you how to write better.
MFA programs do not generally address how to make a living from your MFA, or at least mine didn’t.
But I’m here to tell you that you can make a living from your MFA in writing.
I chose book editing (or rather, it chose me). I also teach, and I write.
Even famous and successful writers do other stuff on the side.
You can do what your training prepared you for.
It’s your job and your pleasure to find out what that is.
Bonus: You might also find out you are deaf to high voices!

If you love reading, love writers, and want to absorb everything one lifetime can teach you about the world of books, explore the margins, look at where the tangents go, and set your radar for opportunities.

That’s a bit vague. Let me try again. What I really mean is, as you near the end of your degree or while you’re doing it, don’t reject anything out of hand. Bookstores, teaching, editing, running workshops, working at a writing residency, writing grant applications, copywriting in a niche you like. You will find a way to use your MFA to make a living.

Just don’t forget to write your own stuff.