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No, Seriously: MFA or NYC?

With one book published and another incubating, a writer considers the options offered up in n+1’s most recent collection of essays.

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I couldn’t have read MFA vs NYC at a more crucial moment in my presently New York-centric life: My first book, a collection of interviews, was published late last year; I’d just been rejected by a literary agent; and my first royalty statement actually left me owing the publisher $89. (I’m just shy of paying back the small advance.) With a lot to consider, I decided to visit Iowa City, where I’d earned my undergraduate degree at the University of Iowa eight years ago.

The years of “real-world experience” that I so longed for in college had informed the concept for a nonfiction book that I’ve started researching in New York. It’s a plausible book, and it could be potentially relevant to a lot of people. Good. But in returning to writing-writing (as opposed to interviewing-editing, which I spent the past few years doing), I realized that — and this is weird to admit, especially in a review of a collection of essays about writing — I’m rusty. So what’s the best way to re-immerse myself in the writing life?

Here, in Brooklyn, should I keep my room in a relatively cheap, three-person apartment, work part time, maintain a daily writing regimen and read books that will inform my manuscript? What if in my isolation, I lose discipline, go off track or give up hope?

Maybe if I entrench myself in an MFA program, I’ll have structure and communal support to not only better my writing, but really get this manuscript up to snuff. This would entail assuming tens of thousands of dollars in debt to leave Brooklyn so I could attend an MFA program somewhere far-flung, like the University of Wyoming, or possibly some small college I’ve never heard of in cities I’ve never thought to move to, say Tucson or Wilmington. And would this move constitute a true investment in myself as a writer or would I only be throwing a lot of borrowed money at my fear that my writing career won’t ever take off? I guess being 30 and pursuing an MFA sounds more promising than being 30 and doing who knows what to support a writing routine that, in terms of the money it brings in, more resembles a pastime.

Tough stuff. These considerations are central to MFA vs NYC, a collection of essays that chart the peaks and valleys of the writerly life. Inspired and introduced by n+1editor and novelist Chad Harbach’s titular essay, MFA vs NYC gives shape to the split in the road that most writers, particularly fiction writers, must confront:

Do you go down the academic route, writing and publishing books not as a means of income, but as a way to advance up the academic totem pole — the more reliably sustaining institution for writers?

Or do you slog it out in New York, hopefully writing something well enough to get an agent on board and try your luck with the publishing houses?

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