SU’s Creative Writing Department Talks the Difficulties and Rewards of Becoming a Writer

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After taking a creative writing elective during her undergraduate years, Hayley Bowen decided she wanted to change her major to English. Her mother was a little skeptical, Bowen said, because she expected her to go into medical school.

“I was like, ‘Mom, I’m going to be a Doctor…of Philosophy in English Literature,'” she said, and everyone in the room laughed.

Syracuse University’s Department of Creative Writing hosted a panel Tuesday night for students who wanted to learn about a career as a writer. Panelists included English teachers Bruce Smith and Dana Spiotta and creative writing teachers Sarah Harwell, Christopher Kennedy and Matthew Grzecki.

Graduate students from the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program, including Bowen, Anthony Ornelaz, Jonah Evans and Angelo Hernandez-Sias, also gave their thoughts on the next steps in writing education.



The panel spoke informally and candidly about the challenges and benefits of pursuing a passion for writing. And if there’s one thing the speakers emphasized to the group, it’s that the journey 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 prison his “alma mater” and “alternative education” because it was so formative to his current passion for poetry.

“Spirit life in general was important to incarcerated people, and it changed what I thought I wanted to do,” he said.

Spiotta’s journey to writing began with a simple phone call: she and her friend, interested in working for the literary magazine The Quarterly, which ceased publication in 1995, called the number listed and were lucky enough to talk to a famous publisher, who offered them a job. Although she only made a few hundred dollars a month while living in New York and had to work a second job as a waitress, Spiotta was then lucky enough to take a course in fiction, where she found a community of writers to connect with.

To all aspiring writers, Spiotta said don’t focus on money or fame, but rather on your passion for your craft.

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

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

Arguably what makes an MFA program most appealing is the fact that most schools 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 it made them a little anxious, Kennedy reassured them that there was nothing to worry about.

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

Due to the subjective nature of the industry – there’s no guarantee an editor 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, teacher, librarian, and even a waitress; each has its own benefits when paired with writing, the panelists said.

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

A big part of being a writer is dealing with writer’s block, and the students asked the panelists what they do to combat it. Several professors talked about reading their favorite texts or those that have most influenced their work – “being a writer teaches you to be a great reader, and vice versa”, said Spiotta – to give them other reasons to to write.

Panelists recommended writers like Gwendolyn Brooks, Emily Dickinson, and Kurt Vonnegut for inspiration or even insight into what you might not want to do in your own writing.

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

Finally, faculty and graduate students talked about the importance of having a circle of writers around you as you navigate your own process. At SU, a creative writing club called Write Out is available for undergraduate and graduate students to brainstorm ideas, develop pieces, and even guide local kids through creative writing.

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

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

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