Monday, December 03, 2012

Losing My Religion, Part 9: Misconceptions About Writing Careers

Warning: This isn’t pretty. (Except for a little bit at the end, maybe.) 

What I Used to Think: Writing is a ticket to fame and fortune. 
  • What I Now Realize: Most graduates from my MFA program never sell anything at all, ever.  Most of those who do sell some of their work nevertheless remain below poverty-level. Even the most successful writers in this industry have no job security and no reliable benefits.  It’s an extremely risky career choice.
What I Used to Think: When you make it to the next step on the ladder, you’ll have it made.
What I Used to Think: An MFA program will teach you how to write.
  • What I Now Realize: Most programs, even the “prestigious” ones, are scams.  They exist to make money off your dreams, not to teach you anything.  They reinforce your misconceptions, encourage your worst instincts, protect you from any real criticism, saddle you with a lifetime of crushing debt, and dump you unceremoniously back out into the real world without any more writing skills than you came in with.  And don’t think that…
What I Used to Think: Getting an MFA helps you get writing jobs.
  • What I Now Realize: Nobody ever got hired for a writing job because of an MFA.  In fact, it’s far more likely to hurt your chances.  Buyers know that MFA grads have a false sense of privilege, snide condescension towards audiences, and a totally naïve set of expectations.  They would much rather hear about your time in the army, or on a shrimp boat, or, best of all, prison, because those experiences grant a writer authenticity.  An MFA is the opposite of authenticity.  The best training is to get a job that forces you to listen to people and get constant audience feedback, such as journalism or stand-up comedy.
What I Used to Think: Agents and managers are in the job of making you money. 
  • What I Now Realize: They’re in the job of making money for themselves by maintaining a monopoly on access to those who purchase writing.  They wait until a writer has already attracted the attention of a buyer, then they insert themselves into that process to intercept some of that money, knowing that both parties have no choice but to deal with them.  If you are not one of their huge clients, they will expect you to find your own work, then demand their cut once you’ve almost closed the deal yourself. 
What I Used to Think: The difference between an agent and a manager is that a manager is willing to develop the talent of new writers. 
  • What I Now Realize: The difference is that managers are unregulated, which means that they can insist on co-owning what you write as a condition of selling it.  In reality, managers don’t do much more to help their clients than agents do. 
What I Used to Think:  Successful writers tend to be sensitive, non-competitive, creative-types who go into the arts because they’re not cut out for the world of business
  • What I Now Realize: Writing today is a cut-throat, high-stakes business, and those who succeed tend to have hard-edged, ambitious, type-A personalities.  The days when a sheltering editor, producer, or agent might protect an artsy writer from the harsh details of the business end are long over.  In fact, you’ll have to fight those people over every business detail if you want to be paid anything at all.  You have to have all those traits you dread hearing about in high-stakes job interviews: you have to be a self-starter, detail-oriented, and constantly focused on where you’ll be in five years. 
What I Used to Think: You will write something great once you’re given the opportunity.
  • What I Now Realize: You have that opportunity right now.  If you don’t have representation, then use this valuable time to write and re-write several ambitious projects every year without distraction.  The work you produce now will be your ticket to the top, and it will also be your meal ticket once you’re there, because you’ll be too diverted by the hubbub to begin any meaningful new projects for a while. Right now is the prime of your career.
Observe the world, feel empathy for everyone, turn specific human stories into astonishing universal metaphors, write every day, get helpful feedback, re-write mercilessly, excite your peers, send your work out into the world, then start on the next one right away without waiting to hear back.  Repeat.  Repeat.  Repeat.  Nobody has the power to stop you from writing something great ...as long as you don’t fall prey to your own misconceptions. 


Jill Rasmussen said...

Matt, I'd add that before spending any of your valuable time and energy on your story, to do some market research. By that I mean to find a way to survey your target audience and see if any of your loglines make them say, yeah I'd pay to see that in a theatre. Or, perhaps more likely, huh? I don't get it.

Beth said...

One of the best pieces of advice I got in Fine Art School (Painting) was to Know Your Audience. I guess that works for writers, too.

Anonymous said...

i really appreciate this post, thanks!