Help Kill Those Darlings: the MFA Student as Editor

You know the questions. Often you can see them coming. So what are you going to do with that MFA you’re getting? Are you going to teach? Write the Great American Novel? Write a screenplay? Your memoirs?  A poetry collection? I was pestered with these questions when I was in the MFA program, usually by family and well-meaning folks outside our discipline who had only a vague idea of what an MFA in Creative Writing was. And to be fair, I was in the program a long time, jumping over from the literature track, waiting for the university to convert the MA in CRW to an MFA, catching up on a missing language requirement, and writing a novel for my thesis. All of that took longer than the usual two to three years and perhaps gave my inquisitors the idea I was never going to get my degree, much less do anything with it. However, all my time in the MFA program allowed me to explore and learn rather a lot about the mysteries and intricacies of a third, non-teaching, non-Great-American-Novel-writing option: editing and publishing.

Of course, MFA students who get their undergraduate degrees at UCF are fortunate to have access to the Cypress Dome literary magazine and they, like students who come from another school with an undergrad lit journal, may already have some editing and publishing experience before they reach grad school. But because I wasn’t a UCF undergrad and came in as a literature major, I had to figure it out for myself. I came to editing first via The Faulkner Journal, UCF’s critical studies journal focused on all things Faulkner and Southern literature. That involved academic editing, which is more structured and centered on documentation (three cheers for MLA style!) than editing creative work. It was good background for me to have, though, both as a potential composition teacher and a future freelance editor. It also introduced me to the complexities of working with outside readers and to the intricacies of the magazine production process, including how to work with printers (the drudgery of the bid process, the terror/joy that comes with approving the bluelines).

But for me the place where I found what I really love to do—what I’m good at, if I’m good at anything—was in the tiny shoebox office of The Florida Review. As the Creative Nonfiction Editor, I read the general nonfiction submissions (I try not to use the term “slush pile” as it seems a bit cavalier to my writer’s heart) and the entries for the Editors’ Prize, along with the comments of my fellow readers (other grad students and undergrads), to narrow the possible choices for publication in the magazine. This reading built on skills I had developed in workshop and helped me hone my  “what is good/what is publishable” meter; it may not yet be Hemingway’s “built-in, shockproof, shit detector,” but I think I’ve got a  pretty decent eye.

What I also discovered in that tiny office is that editing and publishing the work of other writers offers a great deal of satisfaction—satisfaction that is different from that which comes from my own writing or from teaching. As former UCF professor and Florida Review editor Jeanne Leiby wrote in “Why I Call,” a 2010 blog post about one of the most fulfilling aspects of the editor’s job,

“Here’s why I call: I spend a lot of my life rejecting things—that’s the reality of my job. When I find something that excites me so much I want to put it in print, I’m happy. I’m thrilled. In the moment of the call, the writer likes me and I like her and we celebrate the work.”  

When you consider all the rejection involved in what we do, you can understand just how much the “yes” means and how rewarding it can be to forge a relationship with an author over a compelling, publishable piece of work. This is what I found to be true.

As a graduate student, I was also fortunate to attend the AWP conference several times as a representative of The Florida Review and, as difficult and as costly as it may have been to get there, it was an invaluable learning experience for me. As a representative of a lit mag, it gave me a place to be (quite literally behind that table), and it gave me a foothold in this discipline/business of ours. Despite the eye-watering, ear-splitting chaos of the AWP Bookfair, I talked to other writers, encouraged them to submit their work, and learned how our “industry,” with its emphasis on smaller, independent publishers and its connection to academia, fits into the larger publishing world.  

After teaching college composition, literature, and creative writing for five years, I am now the Creative Nonfiction Editor for Burrow Press Review and Assistant Editor for BP Books at Burrow Press, an independent publisher in Orlando, founded by UCF alum Ryan Rivas. I am also a freelance editor, specializing in academic writing, nonfiction manuscripts and writing book proposals. It may not make me rich (though a decent living can be earned), but the intangible rewards are priceless as I get to help a variety of talented authors get their work out into the world.

So if you’re on the two to three year grad school plan and want to get involved with editing and publishing, what do you do? Hopping on the first bus for New York City to hit up the big publishing houses is, for most people, a pipedream. Getting into publishing rarely, if ever, happens that way, and most people these days enter the world of publishing sideways, working in some other capacity for small or medium-sized publishers, or editing while they are teaching or working on their own writing. But the key to anything in this biz is getting involved in the literary community, your literary community, wherever you find it.

1) Explore your campus option, become involved with The Florida Review, support the Cypress Dome, check out opportunities at The Writing Center.

2) Look into outside internships within the Orlando literary community. Engage with the small press community online while still a student by volunteering as a reader with a publication you admire. Meet small press people at AWP and submit your work; these relationships can lead to a position as a book review editor, interviews editor or genre editor. This is most likely unpaid work, but it’s a place to start.

3) Investigate degree and certificate programs in publishing.  The MA in Writing and Publishing at Emerson College is probably the best known of these, but there are others, including the shorter Publishing Institute held each summer at the University of Denver. Do your research at AWP by visiting tables and picking up program brochures—ya gotta fill that damn tote bag with something! And be sure to attend any panels on editing, publishing, book selling, and working with or as an agent.

4) Consider freelance writing and editing. There is plenty of guidance available online and a good place to start is with the Editorial Freelancers Association, http://www.the-efa.org.

5) Other resources for keeping up with what is going on in the constantly shifting world of publishing include : Publishers Weekly, Publishers Lunch, Shelf Awareness, and Galley Cat. As you look around, narrow your focus on what interests you—editing, working as an agent, bookselling and marketing—and perhaps what genre areas of the publishing industry attract you—literary fiction, mass market nonfiction, young adult.

The above is by no means a comprehensive list, and we all know there is no single right answer to the question What are you gonna do with your Creative Writing MFA? The answers to this question are as varied as MFA students themselves, and many of us are still working out that answer as we go. What we, as MFA students and grads, do know is that the degree, whatever we choose to do with it, has made us better writers and better readers—and has helped us find our tribe.

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Susan Fallows earned her MFA in Creative Writing (in Fiction) from UCF in 2007; while at UCF she served as the Nonfiction Editor for The Florida Review, and for the last three years she has acted as a reader for the Jeanne Leiby Chapbook Prize. She has taught college-level composition, literature, and creative writing, and is currently the Nonfiction Editor for Burrow Press Review and an Assistant Editor for Burrow Press Books. Her work has appeared in Burrow Press’ 15 Views of Orlando, Volume II, Organization & Environment, and The Southern Review.

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