Hidden Populations: A Post-AWP Invitation

With a little bit of luck, and a lot of waiting as my flight from Chicago was delayed, I finally made it back to Columbus from AWP. I left Seattle with fond memories of the Emerald City, buoyed by the camaraderie of the conference. How wonderful to see so many of my favorite people all in one place and to participate in the ongoing conversation about our writing and our teaching. Only one piece of unfinished business left me a bit unsettled, and I’d like to address it in this post.

About a year ago, Karen McElmurray and I started talking about a conversation in the media that was calling attention to the under-represented status of students from working class families on college campuses. Coming from working class families ourselves, we started to recall our own college experiences, which led us to wonder about the experiences of the students in our creative writing workshops who came from similar backgrounds. At some point, one of us said to the other, “We should propose an AWP panel,” and the other one said, “I’m in.”

So we invited Sonja Livingston, Carter Sickels, and Claire Vaye Watkins to join the conversation on our panel: “Hidden Populations: The Working Class in the Creative Writing Workshop.” On Thursday afternoon, we raised some issues relevant to pedagogy and art-making, as we considered the working class in the writing workshop. It was my hope that we’d have sufficient time at the end of the panel for questions, comments, and the sharing of personal stories. Alas, the best laid plans of mice and. . .

Unfortunately, despite my best planning, we ran long and had only a few minutes to hear one audience member speak eloquently and passionately about her former homelessness and the hope for financial security that her advancement through academia promised. Since then, I’ve heard from a few other folks who were in the audience, and I’m heartened to know that they thought the panel finally opened up a topic that few people had adequately discussed, that topic of social mobility, the promises inherent in it, promises that often go unfilled, and the anger that results from being caught between two cultures. One writer discussed feeling “undereducated in the academy, overeducated at home, judged and isolated in both, and pressured to choose one or the other.” Another writer addressed the financial struggle that she faces as an adjunct instructor, the lack of tenure-track jobs, and the expectations that candidates will have published multiple books. This writer speaks powerfully about fleeing her small town for academia so she might avoid working in its factories and now finding herself earning a smaller wage as an adjunct and with less job security.

I know there are other voices out there, voices that deserve to be heard, so I’d like to use this forum for that purpose. Please feel free to express your thoughts on issues relevant to students from the working class in academia. Claire Vaye Watkins closed our panel by calling for a revolution in order to revise the way we think about what we have to offer our students. It’s crucial that we keep the conversation going so it can eventually lead to action.

I’ll close by quoting from a blog post by Emily Loftis, a Wellesley student from a working class family, as I did during our panel. Emily writes about the anger that she still carries from her experiences at Wellesley, experiences like feeling excluded when a professor asks students to raise their hands if they’ve visited countries x, y, or z, or not being able to do a summer internship because of the need for a paying job. Emily also speaks of the anger that comes from being resented and excluded in her hometown because she dared to dream of more for herself. “My anger is the unspoken side effect of social mobility,” she says, “what no one ever talks about, but I need to talk about it.”

We need to hear more voices like Emily’s and those of the two writers I mentioned in this post.

We can intellectualize and analyze all we want—after all, we’re so good at that in academia!—but it’s those personal voices and stories that humanize the situation and make it impossible to ignore.

So consider this an open invitation. Student loan debt, exclusionary language in the classroom, insufficient MFA student funding, childcare issues, health insurance benefits . . .I’m brainstorming some possible topics. Help me add to the list. Tell me your stories.

AWP is a celebration, but sometimes we have to let the jubilation die down so we can ask ourselves, “What can we do better?”




  1. Cyndi on March 3, 2014 at 7:04 pm

    All these things and more, Lee:

    “Caught between two cultures…“undereducated in the academy, overeducated at home, judged and isolated in both” – check

    Painful variations on “feeling excluded when a professor asks students to raise their hands if they’ve visited countries x, y, or z, or not being able to do a summer internship because of the need for a paying job” – check

    “Student loan debt” that will be paid off (maybe) with Social Security when it comes time because of believing the powers-that-be when they said a degree (or two) would make all the difference – check

    “Financial struggle as an adjunct instructor” with no expectation (especially at my age of 55) of tenure-track – check

    “Fleeing [my former job trajectory in non-profits] for academia [and writing]…and now finding [myself] earning a smaller wage as an adjunct and with less job security” – check

    Most, if not all, writing workshop experiences are little more than a dream far beyond my financial means, especially a cross-country jaunt to AWP.

    Yes, I expect to (and have made) sacrifices for my craft. And I would happily invest in same even further if there were any dollars left at the end of the month. But I can only ask my husband to work double-shifts (which he does willingly, in support of my writing, even when I ask him not to) to make up for my lack of income for so long.

    But even the literary community we all speak of so fondly has little patience for those of us without a financial foundation that – for myself at least – remains only a dream.

    Baring my soul here – trusting in the goodness of your readers.

    • Lee Martin on March 3, 2014 at 8:23 pm

      Cyndi, thank you so much for baring your soul to us. As I just told a previous commenter, I’m interested in thinking about what the academy needs to change in order to avoid creating the situation that you now find yourself in. I’m wondering what a few things might be that we could easily put into place as a start. If you have ideas, I’d love to hear them.

  2. JLC on March 3, 2014 at 7:59 pm

    Left my hometown to pursue a formal education and didn’t go back because of the lack of job opportunities there. Left college town because, despite there being a university, of the severe lack of job opportunities there. A pattern emerges. Went back to school for an MFA because I thought I’d teach writing. Well, we all know how that story ends. So I landed a job writing for a magazine. However this job is more like a volunteer of services because I don’t get paid.

    If I sound ticked off it’s because I am. I’ve lost track of the number of job applications I’ve filled out in the past 9 months, with 90% ending up with no callback and interviews that left me waiting by the phone like the morning after a first date. Can’t even get hired as a bookseller. My education offered teaching experience as an added option, not as part of the required coursework. The experience I gained as an assistant editor, giving a lecture and leading a discussion has yet to prove useful.

    I feel over educated and yet under qualified, and when I visit my hometown I endure remarks like, “We thought you would have been a doctor or a lawyer by now.”
    “Actually I’m a writer.”

    Typed hastily and passionately on a cell phone.

    • Lee Martin on March 3, 2014 at 8:20 pm

      Jessica, thank you so much for sharing your story. I’d be interested to know if you think there are ways that the academy could have been more helpful to you. I hear the anger and the pain in all the stories that I’m collecting, and I’m searching for answers to what we need to do to improve how we prepare students for life after their degrees. Thanks for weighing in.

      • JLC on March 3, 2014 at 10:27 pm


        I’m not certain, but I believe the academy now includes teaching experience as part of the required coursework. That’s good for future students, but I missed out. I wanted to add the extra teaching semester when I was a student but that would have meant more time, and money that I didn’t have in the first place to pursue the degree. I’m also not sure if the revised coursework has affected tuition. I remember asking before graduation if the program offered job placement assistance- which was probably obvious, but I figured it didn’t hurt to ask. Maybe the program I went in to was designed for people already well into a career and wanting to advance. Me, I’m just starting out- well, trying to. I wish I had some actual ideas to share. At this point I’m just trying to avoid pats on the back followed by “Hang in there!” from those who Cyndi mentioned: already financially-or even professionally-sound.

        Sorry to be such a pessimist. I do appreciate you opening this discussion and taking the time to reply. If I were getting paid for the work I currently do, I’d be happy! I’d be even happier if employers didn’t toss my resume into the slush pile, either because they don’t understand why someone with a MFA wants to work in a library, or they don’t understand what a MFA means in terms of diverse skill set.

  3. Karen on March 4, 2014 at 5:40 am

    Karen McElmurray here, chiming in. I’m asking all as question. Could the academy provide a larger frame of reference for what the creative writing degree teaches–what expectations it lays out? Are we teaching “jobs,” or are we teaching artistry, in the first place? If we’re teaching jobs, then more focus in programs on other kinds/all kinds of job possibilities–besides teaching itself? Would like to hear some discussion of this from others, in our original panel, as well.

    • Lee Martin on March 4, 2014 at 8:52 am

      Thanks for chiming in, Karen. You raise an excellent point about exactly what we’re teaching, artistry or jobs? Is it possible to do both? If we’re teaching jobs, how do we make that part of our curriculum? I realized I’m just adding more questions because I’m not sure what the answers are. I do think there needs to be more transparency about the difficulty of publishing and finding jobs, etc. on the front-end of the graduate school experience.I fear that too many people get the idea from those of us who recruit them that admission to a graduate program will be a ticket to success only to face disillusionment on the other side. We’re quick to tout the accomplishments of our past students, but we rarely talk realistically about what one can expect if the publications don’t fall into place and the jobs don’t come. I also think, as Claire was saying, that we need more programs who fully fund their students. My own opinion is that one should be able to reasonably expect a tuition waiver and support through teaching assistantships or fellowships throughout one’s graduate program so as to avoid debt that can often become life-crippling.

  4. Ellen Keim on March 4, 2014 at 8:48 am

    I can’t help but wonder what rising tuition and un- and underemployment are going to do to MFA programs. I simply can’t afford to 1) take off work to attend college full-time; 2) take on the crushing student debt that would occur; and 3) educate myself for a job that will, in all likelihood, never bring me enough monetary reward to make it worth going after an MFA.

    But what isn’t addressed here is that many of us are not seen as really serious writers because we don’t have MFAs. I wish there were more opportunities to take courses outside of expensive MFA programs. But that still leaves the problem of lack of respect/ prestige when you only have a bachelor’s or, God forbid, no degree at all.

    • Lee Martin on March 4, 2014 at 8:57 am

      Ellen, you make a good point about the clique-ish nature of the MFA, although we certainly have to admit that the degree is no guarantee of success. Publication is the key, whether you’re in an MFA program or not, especially if your hope is to land a tenure-track teaching position. I’ve encountered many talented writers at summer writers’ conferences where I’ve taught. These folks have an abundance of compelling life experiences from which to draw and the talents with which to produce significant pieces of writing. I’m wondering, Ellen, if this might be a possible avenue for you.

  5. Jean Roelke on March 4, 2014 at 11:13 am

    Getting a doctorate in creative writing was one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself, but I will be paying off school loans until I die, will never have a tenured position and don’t really earn enough to support myself even though I am now a Senior Lecturer and have been working at the same school for eleven years. I worked full-time all through graduate school, while attending classes full-time so that I could get financial aid, and raised my three children as a single mom. When I graduated, I was lucky enough to be hired as a lecturer by my school, but still had to keep my other job and add some adjunct classes at another school, in order to get by. I worked three jobs, every day of the week, for over a year before I realized my health couldn’t take it. Then I cut back to two jobs for the next seven years. Finally, I’m down to one job, my children are grown, and I’m married to someone who can help pay the bills. However, I still don’t have a lot of time to write because teaching four classes, mostly composition, requires so much grading. So the struggle continues. . . even so, I love my work and am proud of my education. I didn’t go through school to get a job, but rather to save my life. Creative writing won’t make you money but it can give you some sanity and peace.

    That said, I was frustrated for a long time by my lack of opportunities as a non-tenure track college teacher, but I learned that I can do things outside of the academy, such as start an artists collective, or a small press, or participate in community arts events, and that helps fulfill my creativity and my need to be part of a creative community. As for AWP, I just can’t afford it! I wish I could.

    • Lee Martin on March 4, 2014 at 12:13 pm

      Thanks so much for sharing your story, Jean. The line that stands out for me is, “I didn’t go through school to get a job, but rather to save my life.” Such a powerful statement about the true value of the arts. I’m glad we’re able to bring a little piece of AWP to you via this discussion.

  6. Karen on March 4, 2014 at 11:54 am

    The Low-Residency model for the MFA, while it does not eliminate problems of cost, can provide a system for those with full time jobs and lives to study and write and learn with well-established mentors. Many students there from all kinds of lives and occupations and circumstances. I’ve met students who are high school teachers, legal aides, bank tellers, boat builders. But to speak further to MFA’s and how to address “jobs.” I wonder if there can’t be a great deal more emphasis on other kinds of “professions” for writers who are studying in programs–everything from publishing to marketing to nonprofit work to (help me here, Lee). And I also think all we are saying speaks volumes to the gravity of another question raised with another blog piece of yours from some time back: should everyone apply for an MFA, and when?

  7. Sonja Livingston on March 4, 2014 at 1:31 pm

    Hi all. I’m glad to see the discussion continue. My own experience is that I paid my way through my MFA (low-res) while working full-time in another profession. As someone who grew up poor, my first task in adulthood was education and job security, then art. Is that fair or right? Probably not, but it made it so that I never even considered quitting my job to go off to a MFA program, and funding? Good Lord, I never even knew it existed. Should it? Yes. I’m all for students getting funded and mire value placed on the arts in general, but I currently work in an MFA Program with limited funds (getting more limited) and see the seeking of an MFA as a personal decision reflecting various motivations. For me, paying my way was worth it. I am not angry. I never expected a teaching job or any job as a result of an MFA. I simply wanted to focus on the art I’d come to love. One thing that struck me during our panel is the differences in expectations and experiences between well-funded and highly ranked MFA programs and others, the sort of ‘prestige divide’ between them and the way they perhaps mimic (and sustain) larger issues of class.

    Thanks again for the panel, Karen and Lee! It’s obvious how much it matters to so many of us!

    • Lee Martin on March 4, 2014 at 2:29 pm

      Thanks for weighing in, Sonja. I like what you say about expectations. My own story is I left a paying job because I wanted to write and I knew I had to immerse myself in a writing community to be able to do that. I also knew I wanted to teach, and my teaching assistantship allowed me to do that. From the point on, it was just concentrating on learning my craft and hoping I’d someday be good enough to publish and then land a teaching job. Lots of things had to fall in place for this to happen, but I tried my best to keep my energies focused on the writing and to let everything else come together from that. I know how very fortunate I was to have things work out the way they did. I think as MFA programs we have to be more direct with the students we recruit about the realities of the marketplace, and we need to do better preparing them for life outside the academy.

  8. William Trent Pancoast on March 4, 2014 at 6:57 pm

    It appears that most students can get through the MFA program and absorb whatever punishment their working class status gives them. But there has to be some daylight ahead and right now there isn’t. Social mobility is largely gone. The only way factory workers and coal miners earned a living wage was through labor unions or the threat of unions. The same appears to be true for folks in adjunct jobs. The bargaining success of the United Autoworkers came about because skilled and unskilled belonged to the same union. In that regard, tenured and adjunct faculty must belong to the same unions in order to be successful. And in my opinion, unionizing is the only way to solve the adjunct pay problem.

  9. Karen on March 5, 2014 at 7:13 am

    I love what Sonya says, above: “One thing that struck me during our panel is the differences in expectations and experiences between well-funded and highly ranked MFA programs and others, the sort of ‘prestige divide’ between them and the way they perhaps mimic (and sustain) larger issues of class.” And as William says, with economic uncertainty real and present, social mobility is largely gone. While I really, really balk at an MFA BEING the new MBA, we must inform our students about the challenges of “the writing life,” and this includes open discussions like this one about risks. What is realistically at risk when you choose the path of the MFA, or the path of being an artist in the first place? To me that is part of “the revolution” Claire Vaye Watkins discussed.

  10. Carl Wooton on March 5, 2014 at 12:58 pm

    Some random thoughts from a Great Depression (1934) child:
    1. An important thing for everyone to know (not just to think about): YANGIM–YOU AIN’T NEVER GOT IT MADE.
    2. The realistic risks noted above are the same for writers, musicians, athletes, actors–everybody. Risk simply implies the lack of guarantees, and there are none.
    3. In 1961, my pursuit of a Ph.D. in English was thought to assure me of a teaching job. It worked out that way, but if it had been 1967 or 68, I might have ended up being yet another taxi driver with a Ph.D. in New Orleans. The push to prepare college level teachers solved some problems and created more. The proliferation of MFA programs has probably had similar effects at certain job levels because the general academic community still has not fully embraced the MFA as a terminal degree.
    4. I never wanted to discourage students, but I always thought it important to remind them of the seemingly inevitable conflict between living as a dedicated artist and the need to make a living.
    5. We all know the answer to the question about how one gets to Carnegie Hall-“Practice. Practice. Practice.” For how long? “The Sound and the Fury” was rejected twenty-nine times. Ernest J. Gaines worked as a mail clerk, often hiding in the bathroom and writing on toilet paper rolls, for several years. Other writers (with various other motivations probably) such as Henry James and Rudyard Kipling consciously chose to avoid relationship commitments. Kipling knew he couldn’t be a writer and carry that other luggage at the same time. I have a family member who is a musician, who determined himself to pursue his art no matter what, and at the young age of forty-four has earned enough income that he will file his first income tax return this year. His is a success story.
    6. I recall a conversation with a fellow graduate student in which we recognized that we were different from the Faulkners and the Hemingways in that we CHOSE to marry, to have children, to seek a conventional career and to live a middle-class life.
    7. Those who are caught between the rock of tenure-track aspirations and the hard-place of adjunct lectureships need to be careful of what they seek. The adjunct barely makes enough to live on. Tenure track professors are frequently overwhelmed with committee and administrative work which leaves little time or energy for creative writing.
    7. Through my fifty years of teaching experience, I have come to believe that the greatest burden our culture has inflicted on everyone is a sense of entitlement. The world owes us nothing; YANGIM. Embrace it. Teach it.

  11. kelly thompson on April 9, 2014 at 12:41 am

    So thankful that this conversation was initiated by you and Karen, Lee. As a teenage single mother who raised and supported two children, I lived in poverty even when I worked as a successful disc jockey during the age of affirmative action when I was hired as a female on-air talent. Pay was dismal. Over the years, my jobs have included factory work, radio announcer (un-degreed), and grocery bagger. At age 34, I followed the dream, took out student loans, and attended undergraduate school, becoming a secondary education English teacher. Six years into teaching, I went to graduate school for an MSW (Master of Social Work) because I’ve always loved psychology. The truth though is that, from the age of six, I longed, desired, yearned to be a writer and to live what I imagined to be the writer’s life. My family was extremely religious and “material” concerns were not considered relevant. We were also working class and making a living was what was important. Being a writer? Not a possibility. I have always puzzled, over the years, as to why I never found a “mentor” in high school, someone who might have noticed my artistic ability, my natural flair as a writer, and my intellect, and helped foster it. But that never happened. Instead, I fell through the cracks and ended up making poor choices that included dropping out of high school. I was always an original thinker and highly creative. The fundamentalism in my family and the institutional nature of a public education didn’t help me. When I went for my MSW, I would rather have gotten an MFA, but still believed that “making a living” had to take priority. So I made what I considered a compromise. There has always been all the psychology I could ever ask for in literature. But an MFA wouldn’t support me. So I went into social work.
    Fast forward to today. I am almost 60. Today I am fortunate to have a stable income due to my husband, and am fortunate that he supports my writing. Beginning a decade ago, I began attending local writing conferences and joined a writing group. I learned quickly and I was the recipient of a fellowship to the Key West Literary Seminar, which further exposed me to the literary world. A year ago, I joined a writing community at Lighthouse and was invited to partake in their innovative new book project, which is not only much more affordable than an MFA, but is lead by and full of brilliant and ethical writers from all walks of life. I am almost done with the first year (the inaugural one) and am close to completing the first draft of my project, a memoir. What would I tell a young person who wants to write now, looking back? I would say if you truly want to be a writer more than anything else, give up the idea of a career or a middle class (or better) life. Be willing to wait tables, be a barista, take basic jobs that give you just enough to pay for the necessities. Work several months, perhaps, and save up your money so you can take spaces of time just for writing. Live in a small efficiency apartment near amenities. Join a local writing community. Apply for scholarships to local workshops since you can’t afford to travel to any. Apply for residencies, as well. Spend your life writing, reading, and in conversation with other writers and readers. Forget about money. Follow your dream. Your lifestyle may not be luxurious, but it will be rich and meaningful beyond belief.
    All I did by trying to make a good living and succeed in a “career” is to put myself into debt with student loans and put off doing what I really love, which is writing. I had kids as a teenager and they survived our poverty. They are both doing great. If you want a family and children in addition to writing, discuss how you will achieve this with your partner. If you are willing to live simply, I see no reason a spouse and family can’t be part of your dream.
    Dedicate your life now to what you were meant to do. Don’t worry about how you will pay the bills. Keep them at a minimum and your needs will be met. Pretty soon, you will gain momentum with your writing. Amazing things, miracles, will happen.
    When we are true to ourselves, the universe conspires to provide the means we need. Trust it.

    • Lee Martin on April 9, 2014 at 7:41 pm

      Kelly, thank you so much for sharing your story with us. You pack this post with a great deal of hard-earned wisdom. “When we are true to ourselves, the universe conspires to provide the means we need.” I love that! So wise and true. I hope you have many more blessings on your writer’s journey, and that you’ll come back and keep contributing to the conversation.

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