There are two ways to look at the publishing path.
First off, I’ll just admit that I didn’t earn an MFA. I was accepted by the University of Montana’s for its MFA Fiction program, and was excited about attending, but realized that I couldn’t afford the tuition (as low as Montana’s tuition is). At the last minute, there was no way to swing it financially, and I had to give up my spot. So I have never attended a graduate workshop, I haven’t taken all of the courses on arc and structure, I don’t have a fiction alma mater, and no colleague of mine is a “reader friend from the MFA years.”
There are other published authors like me, authors who also earned no graduate degree in writing, and that feels comforting, but I also realize that there are probably vast, gaping holes in my knowledge, and that it’s probably true that I don’t even know what I don’t know.
That said, I wear my non-MFA badge with pride. It took hard work (writing every morning in the dark, reading and analyzing countless great books, note-taking through articles on craft, studying the work of editors like Betsy Lerner and Sol Stein, etc.). I wrote and wrote and wrote, and threw out drafts — whole drafts — because they were terrible. And I learned slowly.
So we non-MFA writers tend to look at MFA writing program graduates with a little bit of an “Us versus Them” mentality. They are the children of privilege, the rich elite, and we are the writers who came out of the coal mines, who worked the railroads, who have dirty clothes and hands. But there are multiple ways to look at this great divide.
Let’s use fiction writer Claire Vaye Watkins (author of Battleborn) as an example. There are two ways to look at her publishing path.
1. According to Poets & Writers, Watkins studied under Christopher Coake at the University of Nevada. Coake then helped Watkins get into Ohio State’s MFA program in fiction, and afterward introduced her to John Freeman, the American editor of Granta. Freeman asked Watkins for an essay, then printed it. And Freeman was living with super agent Nicole Aragi (who represents Junot Diaz, Colson Whitehead, etc.) who requested Watkins’ phone number from him. A normal path to publication for most people, right? No, not at all…