• Post-MFA, There is Another Way: Money Money Money

    Posted Posted by Guest Writer in WBN News & Events     Comments 12 comments

    This is the second in a series of three about what to do with post-MFA life. Read Part I here.

    The most common piece of advice I got from non-writers after graduating with an MFA was that I should volunteer or do an internship to expose myself to other potential paths.

    This was a devastating idea to me. I was twenty-five and had spent both my college and graduate school years interning and research assistanting my way into a near zero-balance bank account. Yet all I had managed to do was eliminate a host of options.

    I suffered for my master’s degree emotionally and financially. And now I was supposed to volunteer my time?

    What was missing from this advice was the idea that you could volunteer well. To me, volunteering meant doing something good for the rest of society while I was barely surviving myself.

    Selfless volunteerism is one option I’d like to return to once I’m secure enough to contribute without any other motives. But if you’re going to use volunteering to explore career paths, you should choose something that, well, helps you explore your career paths. This means not volunteering at a homeless shelter unless you want to work with the homeless. It means reaching out to organizations or companies in your region whose mission and mentality excite you and saying, “Hey! Here’s what I can do. What do you need done?”

    The same goes for taking on low-paying jobs that get your foot in the door somewhere. You will go a lot further if you’re working for an organization or cause you can believe in with people who think like you do. Don’t throw a door open unless you want to go inside.

    You don’t necessarily have to be broke while you’re doing all of this exploration. You can get a part-time job somewhere and spend the second half of your day on low- or non-paying gigs until you find something you like. Develop multiple income streams for multiple goals. Eventually you may narrow down to just one, or maybe your one steady stream will enable you to explore riskier and more challenging work for many years to come.

    Again, pay attention to your emotions and energy in all of this. If you get offered a permanent position somewhere and your first thought is, “Great. A nine-to-five. There goes my dream of writing…” this isn’t the job for you. If your first thought is, “Wahoo!!! This is so exciting!” then we’re on a better track.

    The idea is to look at your skills through multiple lenses. You can zoom in close on one, or you can zoom in close on another. Just be flexible about which one is sitting at your core. Skills, wants, and needs are not mutually exclusive. They can and should support one another.



    In academia, we’re trained to be cultural critics. It’s easy for us to see corporate America as a pyramid scheme in which monkeys claw each other’s eyes out on the way up the ladder. But academia is no different, and it pays us monkeys far less for the privilege of participating in the scramble.

    Yes, as graduate students we complain about being poor all the time. But we don’t often go marching to the dean demanding a raise. We take our lot, trusting that one day, somewhere down the line someone else will recognize our hard work and push us further up the ladder.

    We’re trained to think our love of intellectual rigor puts us above worldly needs. We think money is shallow because everywhere we look there are reality TV housewives injecting their faces with premium botulism.

    I’m just going to get this out of the way right here:

    I love money. I love money long into the night.

    Money allows me to do things. You know what happens when I work minimum-wage jobs so that I can write? I can’t write.

    I’m too worried about whether or not I’ll be able to buy fruits and vegetables. Have you seen how much they cost lately? I want to buy a house that I can make my home. I want to travel to exotic locales that stimulate my writing and to see my family on either coast. I want to have a family and pay for my children to go to college.

    That requires money. And I just don’t see how sacrificing half a decade of my best moneymaking years for a maybe shot at a tenured position in a university system that’s slashing funding left and right does anything to further those dreams.


    Value Your Time

    No seriously, put a value on it. If you’re like me, you’re used to being told $12.50 an hour is a raise – one you should be thankful for. We accept this because it’s what’s being offered and… you know… we’ve never been offered anything more, and isn’t this a learning experience?

    Do you realize how much more time you have to pursue your intellectual interests when you’re getting paid $50/hr for your time, or, dare I say it, $100? $150?

    We assume that these kinds of jobs come only in demanding corporate settings, tied with heavy, time-sucking responsibilities, but that’s not the case. As a writing tutor in Seattle, I was able to work between the hours of 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. at $55/hr, devoting my morning hours to my writing. Other markets, industries and business models allow you to charge even more than this.

    As a freelance journalist, marketing and copywriter, I structure my time around this $55/hr base rate. If an assignment pays $110, I allow myself two hours to get the job done. I don’t take jobs that require research that will significantly lower my rate, unless of course it’s something I’m passionate about and think will invigorate my personal creative work, or it allows me entry into a new career track I think it’s good for me to explore.

    Dividing my time meaningfully means I have that much more time to work on my fiction and explore other career tracks. Google has its 20% time; I have my creative and career exploration time. Not as catchy, but just as effective.

    You may not need this much money per hour. You may value being part of an academic institution more highly than I do – the culture, the pursuits, the prestige. All I’m saying is, I thought I valued all of that too at the expense of money and have been pleasantly surprised to find these aren’t necessarily exclusive needs.

    You’re not a serf, so ditch the serf mentality.


    Leah Kaminsky is a short story and freelance writer originally from Ithaca, NY. She received her MFA in Fiction Writing from the University of Washington in 2009. She has placed three times in Glimmer Train top 25 lists and was nominated for inclusion in Best New American Voices, 2008. Her work has appeared on the Rumpus, Pindeldyboz, The Yellow Ham and her mother’s fridge right next to that picture of bath time circa 1987. She is a big fan and producer of short-shorts and comics, which she posts semi-regularly on her website, leahkaminsky.wordpress.com. She is in the midst of launching Just Start Applications, a business, college and graduate school consultancy, located in Texas and Virginia and operating mostly online.

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    Jose Skinner

    I’ve always valued time over money. Only once in my life have I held an 9-5, making deliveries for a liquor store. The rest of the time I held part-time or free-lance jobs. Right now I’m an academic, teaching 3 classes a semester. The hours are flex, except for classes and office hours. Still, I spend a LOT of time correcting papers, reading theses, doing service, etc., so I wouldn’t say being an English prof is the ideal job for a writer. Best would be a series of part-time jobs that get you out of the house a bit and… Read more »

    Leah Kaminsky

    Yes, Jose, I think those are all important decisions to make for any artist. When you consider your art as an essential part of your mental health, without which you may not be able to be the kind of parent you’d like to be, everything else must come through that lens.

    And good for you in finding a teaching job that works for you!

    Laura Roberts

    Great post! A lot of the time, we writers get told we have to “pay our dues,” which usually means volunteering until someone recognizes our genius. Nuts to that. I don’t have or need an MFA to write a book, as I realized when I did my (second) BA in Creative Writing. Did I learn anything from my writing degree? Sure, but How To Write was not included in the program, oddly enough. I suspect the MFA is similar, and wouldn’t want to waste any more time or money on a program that will take my money instead of allowing… Read more »

    Leah Kaminsky

    I hear ya re: the purpose of an MFA. I think that’s a whooooole other post. In fact, it might be interesting to do a compilation article both from writers who have gotten an MFA and from those who have consciously *not* gotten one. I am about 50-50 on whether or not I feel it was a useful experience. On the one hand, it toughened me up, and it did really expose to me to a far wider range of tools than I knew were out there. I began to write in ways I never knew I had in me… Read more »

    Nicole F.

    I think this is an excellent point to touch on. I also have some artist and web design friends who are constantly being approached for their work, but everyone expects them to just GIVE IT AWAY. Or donate their artwork. Would you ask a lawyer for a free session of legal advice? A doctor for a free check up? A cab driver for a free ride? Okay, you get it.
    But anyway, I think this is definitely an interesting topic for discussion and you offered some great advice on how to approach volunteering and make the most of it.

    Leah Kaminsky

    Thanks, Nicole! Glad you enjoyed it. And YEP! I’ve never understood this mentality. And, in fact, I think change actually begins with the artist him or herself – when we stop and say, “You know what? I deserve to get paid x amount of dollars to do this.” Friends might not pay for it, but there are plenty of people in the world that’s just a mouse click away who will. But only if we ask for it!

    Laura Roberts

    Exactly. I mean, I’m sure doctors get their fair share of “So, I have this weird rash… what do you think?” at parties, too, but they can at least say “Listen, if you don’t fuck off, I’m calling security.” What do you say to someone who wants to tell you about the “brilliant idea” they had for a book, and do you want to collaborate? It’s more like they are attacking you personally, somehow, than just trying to bum a freebie.

    Leah Kaminsky
    Jose Skinner

    Tell them ideas are a dime a dozen, and it’s the EXECUTION that counts. Are they asking you to execute? That’s a good deal more than “collaboration.”

    […] Note: In February we ran a three-part series from Leah Kaminsky on what to do with Post-MFA life. For the next three Wednesdays, we’ll be offering here a quasi-response from WBN […]

    […] This is the final in a series of three about what to do with post-MFA life. Read Part I and Part II. […]

    […] Kaminsky writes a three-part series on what to do after you get that seemingly-useless MFA in writing; Mike Britt offers his own […]

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