The summer after I graduated from college, I worked at the Wal-Mart in Somerset, PA until Labor Day, and then I found a proofreading job at a transcription agency in Johnstown, PA. I worked at the proofreading job for a few weeks. Then I dusted off my calculator and realized that once I factored in costs for parking in downtown Johnstown, I actually made more per hour at Wal-Mart. I got more vacation time at Wal-Mart,too. Some of my co-workers with years of experience at this “office” made the same hourly wage that I did. Almost all of my co-workers vocalized loudly and frequently how much they hated the management. Most of them held B.A.’s in English. (Cue the “Avenue Q” soundtrack.) I passed the Somerset Wal-Mart each day on my way home from Johnstown, and one day I stopped and asked my former supervisor to re-hire me. (She did, but by that time, I already had another job in Johnstown.)
At the transcription factory, I sat next to this very nice young woman, slightly older than myself. She told me that she had worked at the proofreading job for several years, but she was thinking about going to graduate school for creative writing. “I’m a glutton for punishment,” she said.
I quit that week, so I didn’t hear more details about her plans. However, I wondered for awhile about her intentions. I personally wanted to be a writer ever since I read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books, but I never considered paying for a graduate degree to do it. I always assumed that fiction writing was something that I could pick up on my own if I read and wrote enough. Laura Ingalls Wilder never went to college.
I didn’t pursue my ambitions for most of the next decade, but I chalked it up to my lack of work ethic. A few years ago, I started to write a young adult novel about colonial life in Parnassus, PA. I struggled with it. This summer I signed up for the “In Your Write Mind” workshop at Seton Hill because the itinerary included modules on both Young Adult and Historical fiction writing.
As I noted in this blog entry, the event was geared primarily towards Seton Hill’s Writing Popular Fiction MFA and MA alumni, although registration was open to the public. Most of the presenters and attendees were program alumni. I learned a lot, but I never got to ask anybody my burning questions: “Why did you spend tens of thousands of dollars on a creative writing degree? Did you get your money’s worth? What did you get from this program that I can’t get on my own by reading books, attending various workshops, and writing?” (Seton Hill’s program is low-residency and unfunded.) I’m not trying to be judgmental or snarky. I’m honestly curious. The website includes such marketing pitches as “We help you get published.” Published where?
At the “In Your Write Mind Workshop,” I overheard one of the alumna tell her friends that after she graduated from the program, she was too busy to write. Why put the time and expense into this program if you are too busy to write after you graduate? Again, I’m curious.
Thanks to my bus commute and my data plan, I have a lot of free time to surf the web on my way to and from Pittsburgh each day. This summer I spent most of it doing internet searches on why people attend writing MFA programs in general and at Seton Hill in particular. I Googled various combinations of keywords until I discovered blogs from current and former Seton Hill Writing Popular Fiction students. Some graduated and some did not. Some wrote very well-thought-out reasons for attending the program, and some did not. I found that several of the blogs merely consisted of the blogger’s opinions of the assigned readings. Finally, a small portion of the blogs that I found helped me to understand exactly what the authors got from the Seton Hill program that they couldn’t get elsewhere for free or much less expensively. (I’m still not in a position to invest significant cash in this program, though. In fact, I researched it partly to figure out what similar resources I can tap on my own.)
On Amazon, I read samples of some of the faculty’s and alumni’s own published work. My take-aways from Amazon include the following:
1.) Some of the alumni publicized on Seton Hill’s website as being published authors actually had books on the market before they even started the program.
2.) Some of the books written by Seton Hill faculty and alumni are no longer available on Amazon. I am still very naive about how the publishing industry functions (I’m working on improving this), so it never occurred to me that you could spend years pouring your soul onto paper, only to have the publisher discontinue the book less than a decade later.
3.) Most published writers still have day jobs.
4.) The anthology “Hazard Yet Forward” consists of 76 stories (712 pages) written by authors connected to the Seton Hill program. This is available only in Kindle format (for less than $10) to save costs, and all of the proceeds benefit an alumna who was diagnosed with breast cancer. I purchased it so that I could read stories from some of my favorite “In Your Write Mind” presenters. Many of the authors of “Many Genres, One Craft” contributed to “Hazard Yet Forward.” I personally think that anybody who strongly considers enrolling in the “Writing Popular Fiction” program at Seton Hill should at least read the stories from this anthology that were written by the program instructors before making a final decision.
5.) Here are the other Kindle books that I purchased from Amazon after watching their authors present at “In Your Write Mind:”
Greenshift (From the World of Ambassadora) by Heidi Ruby Miller
Droplets: A Short Story Collection by Scott Johnson
Instigation: Creative Prompts on the Dark Side by Michael Arnzen
I fully intend to review these on Amazon when I actually finish reading them. Reviews lead to sales! Let me mention now, though, that I read some of the stories from “Droplets” to my in-laws around a campfire in Northern Michigan.
As I mentioned in this blog post, committing the time and money to an MFA is not my best option. However, I live close enough to both Greensburg and to Pittsburgh that I can access non-credit writing programs offered in either of these cities without incurring any real travel costs. I Googled the names of the instructors from Seton Hill’s program to find other workshops that some of these instructors will present (at a fraction of Seton Hill’s tuition). I registered to attend one such event next weekend. More to follow.Tweet