SU’s creative writing department talks struggles and rewards of becoming a writer

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After taking a creative writing class as an elective during her undergraduate years, Hayley Bowen decided she wanted to change her major to English. Her mom de ella was a bit skeptical, Bowen said, as she expected her to go into medicine.

“I was like, ‘Mom, I am going to be a doctor… of philosophy in English literature,’” she said, and everyone in the room laughed.

Syracuse University’s creative writing department hosted a panel on Tuesday night for students who wanted to learn how to make a career as a writer. Panelists included English professors Bruce Smith and Dana Spiotta and creative writing professors Sarah Harwell, Christopher Kennedy and Matthew Grzecki.

Graduate students in the creative writing Master of Fine Arts program, including Bowen, Anthony Ornelaz, Jonah Evans and Angelo Hernandez-Sias, also provided their insight on what the next steps in writing education could be.

The panel spoke informally and candidly about both the struggles and rewards of pursuing a passion for writing. And if there’s one thing the speakers emphasized to the group, it’s that the path to becoming a writer is often not linear.

Smith, for example, was teaching at the federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, when he discovered what creative writing had to offer. He even called the prison his “alma mater” and his “alternate education” because it was so formative to his current passion for poetry.

“The life of the mind in general was important to people who were incarcerated, and that changed what I thought I wanted to do,” he said.

Spiotta’s journey to writing started with a simple phone call: she and her friend, interested in working for the literary magazine The Quarterly, which stopped publishing in 1995, called the listed number and were fortunate enough to speak to a famous editor, who offered them to job. Although she only made a few hundred dollars per month while living in New York City and had to work a second job as a waitress, Spiotta then had the chance to take a fiction class, where she found a community of writers to connect with her.

To all budding writers, Spiotta said not to focus on money or fame, but rather your passion for your craft.

“The thing you can control is the work… how hard you work at it and what you make it, so you have to make that the reward,” she said. “That’s the measure of success.”

All panelists highlighted the benefits of taking part in an MFA program after completing an undergraduate degree. Programs typically last from one to three years, and students have more agency with their time and classes, so there’s more time to write independently.

Arguably, what makes an MFA program the most attractive is the fact that most schools actually pay you to attend, Harwell said. This is possible because most graduate students work as teaching assistants. While some students at the event expressed that this made them a bit anxious, Kennedy reassured them that it’s nothing to be afraid of.

“I was terrified of being a teaching assistant… I dreaded public speaking of any kind,” he said. “And now it’s all I do.”

Because of the subjective nature of the industry — there’s no guarantee a publisher will like your work — all panelists agreed that if you want to be a writer, you need to have a second job for a reliable income. Recommendations included being an editor, professor, librarian and even waitressing; each has their own benefits when coupled with writing, panelists said.

Although editing and teaching stay within the literary field and offer a chance to strengthen your craft through practice, it can also be difficult to use that part of your brain so frequently, Spiotta said. But she wouldn’t discourage it either, because everyone has their own process. Similarly, she said, working in a completely separate field could allow you to funnel all your creative thinking into your writing.

A large part of being a writer is dealing with writer’s block, and students asked panelists what they do to combat it. Several professors talked about reading their favorite texts or ones that were most influential to their work — “being a writer teaches you to be a great reader, and the other way around,” Spiotta said — to give them further reasons to write.

Panelists recommended writers like Gwendolyn Brooks, Emily Dickinson and Kurt Vonnegut to draw inspiration from, or to even figure out what you might not want to do in your own writing.

“I would say, you don’t have to like what you’re reading to get something out of it,” Kennedy said.

Lastly, professors and graduate students alike talked about how important it is to have a circle of writers around you as you navigate your own process. At SU, a creative writing club called Write Out is available to both undergraduate and graduate students to bounce ideas off each other, develop pieces and even guide local children through creative writing.

At the end of the day, panelists agreed, it’s all about staying true to your passion of creating pieces that matter to you. Despite all the challenges and barriers to becoming a writer today, the rewards are immeasurable, they said.

“There’s no way I would stop doing it, because that’s how I make myself whole,” Spiotta said.

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