On Being a Writer It takes a certain kind of bravery to be a writer. There are the obvious challenges—the sobering chance of success, the dismal publishing landscape—but also the not-so-obvious: the hard, lonely hours spent piecemealing thoughts and words, the gut-wrenching feeling of having a publication accept your work only to learn later that its editors changed their minds, the risk of investing your time and soul into something that may never be read by anyone but yourself. And yet every fall, thousands of aspiring writers declare that, challenges aside, they plan to do just that—write. Nearly 20,000 hopefuls submit their applications every year to a mere 300 creative writing graduate programs nationwide, and like those who apply to UA, only a handful get in. UA’s Master of Fine Arts program received more than 400 applications in 2016 and admitted less than 20.
Once those fortunate few arrive on campus, their schedules fill up quickly with class assignments; jobs as tutors and teaching assistants; volunteering with literary journals and outreach projects; attending readings by visiting writers; and perhaps most of all, the real and perceived pressure of always needing to write. Yet despite having so much to do—and despite the increasing challenge of publishing—their faces beam with excitement and near disbelief that they are here, having been given the rare opportunity to spend four, tuition-paid years writing.
“I was so happy,” recalled fourth-year poetry student Theodora Ziolkowski. “Alabama was the first school that called me, and I applied to a lot.”
Of how they got here and decided to become writers, students and faculty alike tell similar stories—stories of being the kid who was always reading, of being in college and revising poems in the wee hours of the morning while their peers slept, of writing and acting out plays when they were younger.
Assistant Professor Lamar Wilson felt a similar love of writing, but with added pressure.
“Being African American, I always felt that I had to work,” Wilson said. “I felt that I had to get a real job. The luxury and leisure of sitting back and writing a poem or writing a short story seemed almost criminal.”
That is why he didn’t pursue creative writing initially. Rather, he made his career in journalism for nearly two decades, working as an editor for industry giants including, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution before shifting careers and taking his chances on the thing he loves most.
“I slowly realized that creative writing was something I couldn’t not do,” he said.
After receiving an MFA and while completing his PhD, he made the shift from an established career in journalism to join the UA faculty as an entry-level professor.
“It’s been wonderful, but it’s also been very scary,” Wilson said, “but I’m doing the work that is the most exciting and hopefully will be the most rewarding.”
But Wilson isn’t the only one who has felt the pressure of earning money through traditional means. Inevitably, they have all been asked what many non-writers often wonder: How are you going to make money?
“That’s the number one question people ask,” said third-year student Nabila Madubuko. “Normally I barely respond to the question.
“But for people who ask that question on a realistic basis—for instance, a mother whose daughter wants to be a writer or family members who are legitimately concerned—I say that everyone is going to need writers as we move more and more into this digital world. That’s just the truth of it.”
For Ziolkowski, the answer is much simpler: “I love it too much to imagine doing anything else.”
LIFE IN THE MFA UA’s MFA program in creative writing, which consistently ranks among the nation’s top 20, prides itself on being one of the few fully-funded programs in the country. It is also one of the longest, guaranteeing its students four years of paid tuition, annual stipends, and consideration for additional awards. They come from all over the world. Last year, the farthest admittee hailed from Shanghai; the nearest, Atlanta.
While the program certainly prepares its students for what’s next by giving them opportunities to teach classes and serve on the staff of UA’s own Black Warrior Review, the longest-running literary journal produced by graduate students in the country, very few say they pursued an MFA to get a job.
“I don’t personally see MFAs as a job prep space,” Madubuko said. “I see them as writing boot camp. I’m learning about form, being able to understand work that before I found inaccessible, reading people I had never read before, and being floored; that’s what I came here hoping for, and I’m really excited to be in a program where that’s happening.”
The program’s faculty echo the sentiment: While the program allows students to “self-professionalize,” offering classes and experiences in arts management, editing, publishing, and teaching, producing “professionals” is not its primary focus.
Instead, the program gives students the time and resources to focus on their writing and develop best practices to sustain writing long-term.
“I always tell my students that the universe is not going to support you making art,” said Professor Wendy Rawlings. “I think all writing is good writing, so if you get a job writing content for a blog, maybe that supports you writing the novel that’s never going to be published.
“It’s not that you’ve written the Hollywood blockbuster because those aren’t always the happiest of people. It’s about making something that makes you happy about making the craft.”
That approach has resulted in alumni pursuing a wide variety of careers. Some, like Brad Watson, a 1985 graduate who has been nominated for the National Book Award twice, have beaten the odds and received national recognition for their creative work. Others are editors of magazines including, The Southern Review, The Georgia Review, and Gettysburg Review. Still others are professors at universities or teachers at high schools. One recent graduate is even in seminary.
To keep graduates writing, Assistant Professor Heidi Staples offers this advice: “For anybody who wants to write, find the things that matter to you. Where’s the heat? Where’s the energy? When do you feel yourself moved? Create a reason to write about that.”
MODERN-DAY LITERATURE For Wilson, that heat and energy comes from a lifetime of feeling misunderstood as a queer, African American male with Erb’s palsy, a condition which left him without the use of his left hand from birth.
“Part of my work is working through the mental unwellness that comes along with being hated and vilified for how you love and how you look, with having people hate you before they know who you are,” he said.
One of his poems, “Resurrection Sunday,” which was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, addresses a lynching that happened in his hometown of Marianna, Florida, in 1934, but also his sexuality, being differently abled, and his relationship to Christianity.
“Creative writing has always been a space where I’ve asked, ‘Who am I? What do I have to offer? How do I see the world? How do my set of experiences shape how I see the world? How I can I bring more beauty? More love? How I can I bring more possibility into the world with the things that I create?’”
For Staples, the heat comes from having moved more than 30 times in her life and of wanting to connect on a deeper level with the places she’s lived. Her aim is to foster attachment to place through her poetry, which she says is especially important in this time of ecological decline.
“Growing up on the North Florida coast, place was so much a part of who I was,” she said. “But that experience is not valued by my culture, really. Culturally it’s expected that you shut off those affections to move somewhere for a job, to participate in the economy, so we experience this fragmented life where our affection for place is shut down.”
She applies that idea to place and has been writing about Alabama since relocating to the state in 2014. She captures both Alabama’s beauty, like its agrarian pastures and biodiverse habitats, and also its horrors, like the slavery associated with those pastures and the disproportionate number of hazardous waste landfills that exist in the South, including a 2,700-acre one, the country’s largest, just 60 miles west of Tuscaloosa.
“In moving here, I thought if I can pursue enchantment and joy in Alabama, then I would feel attachment to Alabama,” she said. “We don’t often see those things, but literature asks us to be more present.”
Because creative writing is often so personal, it’s not uncommon for writers to think that their work means very little to anyone other than themselves. At UA, however, where the creative writing program partners with prisons to offer creative writing classes to inmates, students and faculty are reminded of writing’s importance often.
“When you go somewhere like that, you’re reminded that art is relevant in the world,” Staples said. “You see people desperate for it, and you see the role it plays in mental health.”
Wilson describes a similar experience.
“I spent many years feeling like nobody understands all of this stuff that I have going on—all my differences, my paralysis, my sexuality, my spirituality,” he said. “I thought nobody would understand what I have to say.”
A few years ago, however, he was contacted by a group of Romanian students 5,000 miles away who had found some of his poems and loved them so much that they wanted to interview Wilson for their school’s publication. In the past year, Wilson’s poems have also been translated into Ukrainian and used to teach German students about the complexities of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“I remind my students,” he said, “that your voice, no matter how small or insignificant it may feel to you in the moment, not only does it matter, but it is vital to the innovation of this field because you have something singular that only you can do.”