MWW committee member Cathy Day interviews MFA Grads & MWW Alums
Approximately 175 people attended the Midwest Writers Workshop in July 2012. Among them were two recent MFA grads: Aaron Hoover (University of West Virginia 2011) and Caitlin O’Sullivan (Minnesota State University–Mankato, 2012). I’d never met either in person, but had been Facebook friends with them for a while–Aaron grew up near my hometown, and I used to teach at Mankato long ago. These two saw me yakking about MWW on Facebook and asked, “Would this be good for me?” and I said, “Absolutely.”
Cathy: What made you decide to come to MWW?
Caitlin: Two things: first, I wanted a shortcut to learning everything I needed to know about being a published novelist; and second, I wanted to meet agents. While I came out of my program feeling confident that I could write a kick-butt novel, I knew I had a lot to learn about the business of publishing–how to find agents, write query letters, and build a writing career. I also had what I thought was a pretty strong manuscript in a genre that some of the agents at the conference represented. I figured it would be harder for them to turn me down to my face than in an email.
Aaron: I have this novel I want to publish, and coming into MWW I knew almost nothing about what that would entail. Now I feel very positive about my chances once I’m ready to put the book out there. I also wanted to get back in touch with writing and renew my commitment to the discipline of daily work. It’s very easy, with a family and two jobs, to lose touch with that side of myself. Attending MWW kept me focused on my work and helped to inspire a very productive summer.
Cathy: When you say “writing conference” most MFAers think AWP, but MWW is very different. I’d say that it’s about equal parts “craft of writing” and “business of writing.” Do you think that’s accurate? How would you describe it? What can a recent MFA grad expect?
Caitlin: The craft classes at MWW didn’t necessarily blow my mind, but that’s probably because I just finished a program in which I’d been thoroughly steeped in craft. I think a recent MFA can expect to learn the most at the business panels, which definitely cover material that they didn’t teach you in grad school.
Aaron: I took more advantage of the business side of things than craft, because it was just what I needed. I quickly learned how the publishing industry categorizes work like mine, how to build a platform to promote my own work, and how best to talk and write to agents. All of this stuff was covered lightly, if at all, in my craft-focused MFA experience.
Cathy: What have been the biggest challenges of your post-MFA life? Did the conference help at all in that regard, and how exactly?
Caitlin: I was lucky enough to have a bunch of brilliant, supportive classmates and teachers while I was in grad school. When I graduated, it meant that I didn’t get to see them on a daily or weekly basis anymore. While I also love the people I spend time with now, they’re not writers–their ability to help me learn to pitch my novel, fix plot holes, and work out character problems is pretty limited.
Aaron: Far and away the greatest challenges of my post-MFA life have been material. Squaring away the time and money to act like a writer is not easy for me because I do a lot of labor for little pay and have primary care responsibility for two young children.
Caitlin: MWW immersed me back in that writing-centric environment–and because it’s not a giant conference, I made friends that I saw several times each day of the conference. That “pretty strong manuscript”? My MWW friends helped me make it even stronger.
Aaron: This is worth saying too: this conference is amazingly well-priced. It also helped renew my passion for writing by clarifying my vision of how, exactly, I might become a successful, published writer.
Cathy: Why should MFA grads think about attending a conference like this?
Caitlin: Traditional MFA programs are great for instilling the fundamentals of good writing. They’re not so great when it comes to teaching writers how to market their writing, and what’s going on in the ever-changing publishing world. You know the saying “Smart people learn from their mistakes, geniuses learn from other people’s mistakes”?
Aaron: The MFA introduced me to the serious academic world, which changed my life; it connected me with a bevy of amazing artists who are now my friends and helpers; and it bought me some protected time to write a real manuscript. MWW got me out of the cozy, cloistered world of ‘art for art’s sake’ and introduced me to the world of the professional fiction writer – which is, I think, where many of us wanted to end up when we started the MFA.
Cathy: Let me say this as someone who has taught in an MFA program: you’re not being disloyal or ungrateful to your program by saying, “I didn’t learn a lot about how to publish.” I’ve written about this topic elsewhere, actually. (Should We Make It Our Business to Teaching the Business of Being a Writer?) Our MFA programs taught us how to write the best book possible. Without that, you’ve got nothing to sell anyway.
Caitlin: Right. MWW is probably good for skipping at least six months’ worth of crappy query letters, bad blog posts, and misguided social networking. If an MFA program is a writing boot camp, instilling you with skills and knowledge you’ll use throughout your career, MWW is the two-week specialized training that prepares you for your first mission: getting your first book published.
Aaron: I feel like I might, honest-to-goodness, be able to get this manuscript between covers and on the shelves of bookstores; I can see how that might unfold. So I have the kind of inspiration one gets when an important goal is not only strongly desired, but clearly in view. Also, if you were a little blue that your MFA program had little to say about ‘genre’ fiction, you’ll find that deficit remedied here.
Cathy: It would make me happy to see more MFA grads at our conference. Maybe MWW can become a kind of “publishing finishing school.” Thanks you guys for talking with me, and good luck with your books!