“You Can’t Afford It!”

I am no money genius. However, Suze Orman, author though she may be, is no creative writer. I love Suze, but she gave some rotten advice tonight. A caller who was perfectly capable of paying for her entire MFA out of her own pocket (AND who would have tons of savings and retirement left over) laid herself bare on the “Can I Afford It?” segment.

First, Suze got that pained look on her face–you know, the one that non-creative people get just before they ask, “What are you going to do with THAT?!” To her great credit, those words never came up. However, Suze did ask the caller whether she already made a living as a writer. This, of course, is not a prerequisite to graduate creative writing study. Demonstrated talent is.

The caller has her own publishing company–and from the figures, she’s doing quite well.

Suze whined, “Can’t you just get together with some of your writer friends and do that for free?” Would that it were so, indeed. We’d all be much wealthier!

At any rate, she asked the caller to “show (her) the money,” which the caller promptly did. Suze then denied the caller for these reasons: the caller is in her early 40s and would be spending 1/3 of her savings on the venture. (This ignores the fact that the caller also had considerable retirement money separate from her regular savings.)

Jeez! Suze, here are the reasons why you should have approved this caller wholeheartedly:

1. Unlike nearly all other creative writing graduate students, she will not have to grovel for token scholarships and/or assistantships that cut into her actual work.

2. She has experience as an editor, which is strongly related to writing and demonstrates an understanding of the critical process.

3. She is old enough to know what she wants.

4. She owns her own business, has many good years of earning left, and has significant savings.

5. She won’t have to take out rapacious student loans.

Here are the financial questions that you should have asked her:

1. What does a $40K program have to offer that a $20K program doesn’t? Is it the kind of program that charges big money for big names, promises low student-teacher ratios and personal attention, but whose instructors can barely fit you in around all the other conferences-of-the-month, teaching gigs, editing positions, visiting instructorships, reading circuits, etc. they do the rest of the year? (Hint: Stay away from that program!!!)

2. Have you compared programs by talking with current and past MFA students?

3. Do you plan to run your company full-time while enrolled full-time?

4. Is this a low-residency program or one to which you can commute easily? Is that good or bad for your particular needs?

5. Are you absolutely certain that you have found a good “fit”and will be able to manage any unforseen crises (if personality clashes might, for example, require you to transfer)?

6. With whom do you want to study, and why that person/those people in particular?

7. Are you planning to stay in publishing? In what capacity (run your own company, move to a literary house, close it down and just write, publish on the side, get into academe)?

8. How well/often are current/recent graduates publishing? How many are teaching full-time? Part-time? Where? How many are tending bar? How many have gone back to previous professional jobs? Who among these have published at least one full-length book with a decent literary or commercial house?

I have a great deal of respect for Suze as a personal finance adviser. However, she should not assume that, as the author of commercial non-fiction, she is qualified to advise creative writers on the very expensive and difficult choice to study their art and craft in depth. To denigrate a professional editor’s choice to expand her repertoire by suggesting that she get together with a few pals at the coffee shop for an exercise in the blind leading the blind is like suggesting to a prospective MBA student that she get together with a couple of friends and open said coffee shop as a means to understanding macroeconomic theory.

Then there’s the model of the restaurant in Iowa City completely staffed by creative writing students.

As somebody who definitely cannot afford it, and who lost a great deal of financial wealth pursuing a low-residency MFA at a private college, I have to say that I am poor and in hefty educational debt, but not sorry. I transferred to a public university, earned an MFA, taught part-time for a while, and now am pursuing a creative Ph.D. at another public university. Yes, I could have earned $500,000 or more in the eleven years since I left my wonderful journalism job–not counting retirement savings–and yes, it does make me a little nauseated to think about it. However, I can look at myself in the mirror; my writing has improved by light years; and I have developed a body of work, widened my professional contacts, and made many good friends since then.

A creative graduate degree does imply the right to teach; it is not, however, a job license or a guarantee that its holder will win the Pulitzer, Nobel, or state poetry contest. It is an exercise in craft refinement and development that results in a publishable body of work, good work habits, and much deep and wide reading.

I refer the curious to the Association of Writers and Writing Programs for information about why an MFA (or creative Ph.D.) can be vital to any serious writer’s artistic development. It seems that writers pursuing advanced study are forever held up to the “practicality” test in ways that other artists (musicians, visual artists, etc.) are not.

Suze’s motto is “People first, then money, then things.” I agree. If you are serious about your writing, then your development as a writer comes first. It is integral to your happiness, your well-being, and your time spent on the planet. Next, you are in the fortunate position to have the money to pursue said artistic development. You are very lucky. Finally, if the “thing” at the bottom of this hierarchy is the sheepskin–that is, if you are doing this for the right reasons and not merely to say, “I have an MFA (or whatever degree it is),” then you have followed her advice.

Caller! Go forth and sniff out the various programs! Go part-time and keep running your publishing business! Find a suitable low-res and keep working! Talk to others who have been in your position! Your financials are a hell of a lot better than mine, girlfriend! You have been APPROVED!

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