On Why We Stop Writing

Yesterday, my colleague, Deb, and I had a brief conversation at the copier (if you work at a college, you probably understand those brief, but often insightful conversations that happen at copy machines — if only our meetings could go the same way….) about the field of art.  Deb tells her students in her art classes, that 95% of those who get MFA’s in art quit “doing art” five years later.  (Deb — I know you read my blog, so if I am misquoting you, please let me know!)  That’s a lot of people who quit.  Now, according to Deb, these are not people who are not making money from their art.  This percentage represents people who have stopped doing art all together.

Wow.  That seems like such a high number for such a passionate field. 

Yet, I have heard similar things about MFAs in writing.  I may be speaking out of turn here, because I don’t have an MFA.  However, I have heard (and no, I don’t know where or if these stats matter or count or are accurate),  that 90% of students who get MFA’s have stopped writing five years after graduation.

If this statistic is accurate, I’m wondering a few things.  First, what does it mean to stop writing?  Does it mean, to stop publishing?  Stop writing on the job?  Stop writing for a publish or perish college institution?  Or does it mean, stop writing literally– never pick up a pen or pencil, never touch a keyboard, never read another literary journal to get insight or inspiration?

If it does mean that students who graduate with an MFA often really do STOP WRITING, then I guess I have to ask, why?  Do they get overwhelmed with life?  with work? Do they end up in field that does not support or appreciate creative works?  Do they crave that university setting that will give them more time to write, and then end up doing the crazy adjunct stint (speaking from experience here — I did very little writing when I was an adjunct).  Do they get discouraged about the world of publishing and its rejections? What happens?

This post full of questions comes at the end of a long day of teaching and attending meetings.  It also comes right after I received a rejection in my email for my second chapbook manuscript. I am not upset by this rejection.  Deep down inside, I know the manuscript is uneven.  But I also know that here at JCC, I am a big fish in a small pond and that my colleagues support me no matter what.  I also know that Anthony supports me, and I know that my family (in their mixed up, baffled way) supports me.  Heck, I just realized that Charly, one of our new kittens, supports me.  She insists on sitting on my lap when I type!  (I also caught her chewing on my manuscript the other day, but perhaps she is telling me something I should know…)

Maybe people just stop working in the field of art because of lack of support.  And for some reason, I find that the saddest reason of all.


  1. Yes, I have always been puzzled by this as well – except that perhaps it’s explained by the fact that x percentage of people weren’t ever really serious about whatever art they’re practicing, they were just going to an MFA program to “find themselves” or see if they were really interested in painting or poetry or whatever or get a graduate degree so they could get a raise at their teaching job. So I think the people who were serious in the first place stay serious; everyone else quits writing.
    Also, writing is hard – rejection is hard – and if you don’t have some really firm commitment or crazy dedication or someone to spur you along – it’s easy to stop. No one is going to cry out and complain if we stop being poets – no one is out there clamoring for our next piece of verse, like they clamor for rent or student loan payments or even like our cats cry out for food. So it’s easy to see how those other noises block out the ones that tell us to be writers.

  2. How interesting that you had this conversation, because I had a very similar one just a few days ago with my MFA-holding ex-fiction-writer friend. His opinion on this phenomenon is similar to Jeannine Hall Gailey’s, though a little harsher: an MFA is psychotherapy for people who can’t afford a therapist and don’t know who they are or what they want to do. In other words, an MFA does not a writer make!

  3. Christine Said:

    I think there’s two reasons: 1. writing is hard work. It really is. Sometimes I force myself to sit in front of my computer and everything I type is crap. That’s depressing. 2. Writers finally get to a point (receive an MFA perhaps?) where they look out into the writing world and realize it’s a huge pond filled with sharks. That’s incredibly intimidating. Writers are not only competing against all the people writing today, they’re also competing against all the people who have written in the past. How many thousands of years is that? Ouch.

    Put these two things together and it’s just not worth it, unless, as Jeannine says: “you . . . have some really firm commitment or crazy dedication.”

  4. Interesting comments, especially how they all cite publishing and not writing itself as the discouraging aspect, as if the two were conflated. I wonder if that’s what the statistics refer to?

    Thanks for helping me stay focused on the poeming and not the publishing, Karen!

  5. dryadart Said:

    I think perhaps either idiocy or perseverance is the key to staying! For visual artists (who are also competing with the past, the present and the idea that art is about some kind of duplication of an optical reality) I think work is often the problem, as in you have to work even when it’s bad, although honestly I think most of my students think they won’t have to work, they’ll be discovered (ha!ha!) and be famous. They haven’t learned that the pressure of a show or well received work makes it harder to go forward.

  6. Karen Weyant Said:

    Oh, how nice it would be to just “be discovered!”

    Thanks everyone for the responses. I try to give my students a realistic picture of the writing world outside of Western New York, but I can’t help but think that “picture” is just something they have to see themselves.

    I kept on trying to remember if I actually knew a nonpracticing MFAer (is that a word!) and I do…when I was a graduate student I used to cat sit for a woman who had an MFA in fiction — she told me that she hadn’t written a word in over 20 years.

    I find that so depressing.

  7. arihn Said:

    I remember being at a reading of MFA students, and they all explained how they loved the program, but one guy’s comment really stuck me. He said he was glad for it, because it taught him the discipline to be a writer. I can’t be sure exactly what he meant, but I took “discipline” to overlap with desire or passion – that without the MFA courses, he would wander off and focus on other things like jobs and family.

    At my university, we had three profs who were able to teach creative writing courses. (Although one rarely ever did.) Two had MFAs, the third did not. Both MFAs had either quit writing or publishing – only the prof who DIDN”T kept writing and publishing.

    Of the two, one had continued and gotten a PhD in Lit Crit, and so her focus shifted to that (she once told me she didn’t write poetry anymore because that wasn’t what she was rewarded for). I learned she had a book manuscript that was a finalist at a MAJOR press – but it didn’t win and I guess she never shopped it around to “lesser” presses. The other teaches as an NTT, without a PhD, as the MFA is still considered terminal (but with creative PhD dissertations cropping up, for how long?). He”s also raising three children, so I guess there’s not a lot of free time (although he runs marathons for fun).

  8. Karen Said:

    It’s true that creative writing (poetry, fiction, etc…) is often not “awarded” at the university setting; however, I really think it’s how individuals define awards. I teaching at a “teaching” college, so teaching is what is awarded. However, that still doesn’t mean I can’t write!

  9. Gabe Said:

    When I went to school, quite a few MFA students sat around in bars and coffee shops acting like “Writeurs.” Guilty of it myself. Few actually wrote very often. One of the profs told us–wisely–that every single person in the program had talent and potential. And they all did. Then he said, “Very few of you will have the discipline and persistence to keep with it. Guess which is more important.” I agree with an earlier comment, that for some, the MFA is a way to deal with inchoate feelings of creativity, potential, and frustration, perhaps, and thus means the focus is not there, and never does come together.

  10. Karen Said:

    Thanks Gabe, for stopping by, and I agree that finding the discipline to write is just not as much fun as playing the writer!

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