Letter to the Editor: How Best To Prepare for a Life as a Writer

This letter was written in response to the article “Starving Artists: How Seattle U Could Be Failing Its Creative Community.”

This letter was written in response to the article “Starving Artists: How Seattle U Could Be Failing Its Creative Community.”

Following the publication of Caroline Ferguson’s recent article “Seattle U Could be Failing its Creative Community,” which calls into question the validity of several of the components of SU’s Creative Writing Program, several of the students who were quoted therein approached me to apologize. One student told me that he had not intended for his critiques to come across as strongly as they had. Another student explained that, “I made a lot of positive statements about the program, too.” Moreover, the article itself explains that students are satisfied with their creative writing classes. So why, then, did the published article sound so much like a critique? In large part, I believe that this tone came across not because our campus creative community is “failing” but because SU students are picking up on salient questions that all students of the arts must contend with, regardless of their institution.

For instance, one of the notes of alarm that students sounded is the fact that they aren’t quite sure how to transition into lives as working writers following graduation. Indeed, this is an important and complex question—and one that I am glad has been raised. Students who are majoring in the arts should be asking themselves this question, not simply in terms of making decisions about which program to attend, but more significantly about the nature of the lives that they will shape for themselves for decades thereafter. A life in the arts is hard to match for job satisfaction, but it is no secret that making a sustainable life as a writer or artist is challenging. Moreover, there is no single road map that serves everyone.

All the same, there are viable ways that teachers can introduce resources and model professional behavior in ways that can help young writers do a better job of designing their own road maps. During the past year and a half since I joined the faculty at SU, I have made this kind of professional development work a particular focus of my contributions here. Students in my classes attend literary events throughout the city, correspond with local and national authors, explore literary journals and databases, and learn how to submit their work for publication.

Most recently, through the generosity of the Dean of Arts & Sciences and the Department of English, nearly forty of our majors were able to attend the Associated Writing Programs (AWP) conference, which took place in downtown Seattle at the end of February. AWP is the largest literary conference in North America, and this year marked its first visit to Seattle. Recognizing the significance and rarity of that opportunity, I made sure that all of our students who wanted to attend were able to do so—free of charge. Following the conference itself, I have been deeply gratified to hear many positive reports from students about their experiences.

Indeed, our department has never had the opportunity to send so many students to a national conference, and we are proud of that accomplishment. In the 30-minute taped interview that I offered Caroline Ferguson for her article, I highlighted our investment in students’ AWP attendance, as well as several other faculty and student-led initiatives. However, when the article came out, I was surprised and disappointed to find that I wasn’t quoted once. Had some of my comments been included, it may have been clearer that, despite the many challenges of an arts-based education, the Creative Writing Program at Seattle U is indeed designing and supporting professional opportunities for its students.

Another of the unquoted questions that I was asked during my interview is whether or not I believe that we are preparing our graduates to succeed generally as writers. My answer is yes, and I can attest to the fact that SU’s Creative Writing Program has been doing so since its inception. In 1999, I graduated with an English degree from Seattle University. Two years later, I was accepted into the University of Minnesota’s MFA program, which is one of the top programs in the country. Following that experience, I have written and published actively for over a decade, and I have sustained myself financially by teaching writing. Indeed, when a position in Seattle University’s Creative Writing Program opened two years ago, I left a full-time position at another university because I believe so strongly in SU’s approach to education.

Perhaps even more importantly, I am deeply happy with my life as a writer. Even so, it has not always been an easy path, and it certainly hasn’t been a short one. Along the way, I’ve had to draw on and nurture a variety of other skills in order to survive—and to promote my work. Indeed, as any early or mid-career writer will tell you, they spend significant amounts of time on self-promotion and fund raising. All artists and writers must necessarily be entrepreneurs, and in this secondary role, they must be able to make and leverage connections among a wide range of materials.

Indeed, this is one of the most important lessons that I hope SU creative writing and fine arts students will gain by the time they graduate: Being an artist is about more than creating art. Moreover, their success—both in the arts and in life—rests on breadth, rather than on single-minded focus. So yes, as a school in the tradition of Jesuit education, we do offer something different than an arts institution like Cornish. The benefits of a holistic approach like SU’s includes exposure to many different perspectives and disciplines, national networking and professional venues, and preparation for post-graduate programs. Students leave with an ability to do more than produce art—and, given all that a writing life requires, that strikes me as a very good thing.

Susan Meyers, Department of English