For a Writer of Color, Is Twitter More Valuable Than an MFA?

As if the overwhelmingly white world of publishing, institutional networking, and workshopping wasn't already hard for people of color. Morgan Jerkins found writerly advancement in the more informal space of Black Twitter.
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An MFA workshop. (Photo: jagrap/Flickr)

An MFA workshop. (Photo: jagrap/Flickr)

Every so often, the classic “Should I get an MFA?” debate becomes a popular topic in literary circles and, because it’s so popular—and contested—the conversation tends to become cyclical. Of course you don’t need an MFA to be a successful writer. Yes, you will probably graduate with a lot of debt, but there are also programs that provide fellowships and stipends. No, MFA programs are not assembly lines that churn out employed writers, and yes, you can find a community there. But the issue we rarely take into account is the identity of the writer, aside from his or her socioeconomic background. What might an MFA mean for people of color when social media can provide a free and perhaps more nurturing writerly network?

As Junot Díaz once said of MFA programs, “There's nothing about creative writing programs that I have seen that leads me to believe that, in general, the diversity found at the institutional level even begins to equal the diversity not only of our, just, country, but of our readerships.” The biggest issue that plagues not only MFA programs, but also higher education institutions at large, is a lack of diversity. There are no overall statistics for race and gender in MFA programs. However, of master’s degrees conferred during the 2009-10 period, only 12.5 percent went to blacks and a mere 7.1 percent to Hispanics. A staggering 72.8 percent were conferred upon whites.

We don’t need another era of writers taking apprenticeships and learning the ropes through years upon years of isolation because those who make it to the end tend to be wealthy, white, and male.

For a young writer of color, the prospect of being corrected by a white workshop partner or faculty member on racial experiences in her pieces may make MFA programs seem altogether unattractive. Because networking is necessary to any successful writing career, a person of color may also shy away from confronting racism in the classroom or at outside meetings out of fear that his or her career may be stunted. “Being in white spaces is extremely anxiety-inducing for me, and the workshops in particular, I almost always have a panic attack,” says Katherinna Marhoefer, another woman of color in my program. “I'm workshopping with the (white male) director of our program, in an all-white workshop, so I'm doubly nervous of how my story will be taken. I ... enrolled in this program to meet people who might help me publish, get teaching jobs down the line, and worry that I’ll say something they don’t like. Am I sabotaging myself by providing these critiques?”

That’s the problem with networking at institutions of higher education for people of color: There aren’t many of us. Finding community requires a concentrated effort and that community, once formed, might insulate its members from bigger potential networks, which are predominately white spaces.

This is where Twitter comes in. For me, it was Black Twitter.

This formidable segment of the wildly popular social media network has not only sparked international movements and powerful discussions from which mainstream media profits, but has also propelled the writing careers of many individuals, myself included. Once I included the word writer in my bio and followed several other black writers, I found that there were always conversations that went on for hours about freelancing and mentoring. I saw plenty of writers, like the New York Post’s Jozen Cummings and The Butter’s Mensah Demary, tweet about their openness to helping other people of color. Sooner rather than later, I reached out to them and, to this day, I find their advice invaluable. Once I felt comfortable reaching out to two people, I contacted several others. I got the vibe that we were all trying to build each other up.

It’s quite fascinating to hear established academics either downplay Twitter or lambast it all together without considering the advancements the space has made possible for people of color. This subtle erasure may be exactly why writers of color thrive there.

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A few months ago, fiction writer and essayist Cynthia Ozick wrote a piece for the New York Times about the glorious yesteryears when writers “steadfastly” endured “unworldly and self-chosen isolation” for the sake of their craft, unlike the young writers of today. But for this kind of isolation to really promote artistry, a writer still needs some support, both financially and professionally, and whites have been the prime benefactors for both. This is why we have to start hashtags like #WeNeedDiverseBooks. I’ve been on post-grad interviews for editorial intern and assistant roles, and I have never seen someone in these positions who was not a young, white woman. Having access to these elite circles felt like a pipe dream until I poured my energy back into social media. Even writing this admission has me worried that I’m hurting myself with future connections.

In my MFA program, I was the only black person in my incoming class. The year after me, there was only one black person as well. There’s a slight difference between a spot and a place.

“Isolation” takes on another meaning for a person of color. Even when there’s a spot for us in academia or publishing, we already feel isolated because of our numbers. In my MFA program, I was the only black person in my incoming class. The year after me, there was only one black person as well. There’s a slight difference between a spot and a place. In academia, we must search for community. On Twitter, it’s already waiting for us. When I began to promote myself and my freelance writing on Twitter, I never expected that I’d be able to connect with other writers, literary agents (one of which I can now enthusiastically call my own), editors, and professors of all races without ever having to leave my bedside.

Granted, whenever a person of color tweets about social injustices, he or she is bound to be met with some serious threats or minor, albeit obnoxious, trolling. However, the difference between this burden and the one in academic circles is that the power hierarchy does not exist in the former. On Twitter, you have the ability to engage with whomever you want and block whoever bothers you. Your speech is unrestricted and potentially limitless in its reach. In academia, the white classmates who condemned your depiction of black or brown characters may be people with whom you have to collaborate for months or years. There is pressure to bear everything in painful silence.

In academia, the white classmates who condemned your depiction of black or brown characters may be people with whom you have to collaborate for months or years. There is pressure to bear everything in painful silence.

Just this past term, I worked with an advisor who knew that my language was stilted and restrained because I was trying to mimic famous, white male authors. She wanted me to write as boldly as I could about the stories that mattered to me most. That was the moment I knew that I had to employ the same flair I used on Twitter. My only regret is that I didn’t learn how to reconcile these two mediums sooner.

Writing has many different paths, and, for a person of color, every route has room for obstacles or uncertain forks. But on social media, there is certainty in the fact that writing does not have to be a lonely profession. For a person of color, that solidarity is invaluable. We don’t need another era of writers taking apprenticeships and learning the ropes through years upon years of isolation because those who make it to the end tend to be wealthy, white, and male. There’s a reason why award-winning poet Saeed Jones told an audience at BookExpo America that Twitter is the key to marketing yourself as a writer. Its presence is necessary in order to knock down the restrictions and power structures that have impeded our artistic fluidity for centuries.

I’m glad that I’ve been able to explore the best of both worlds, in both academia and social media. Unfortunately, I wish that they weren’t so at odds with each other. I recognize the privilege in being able to attend an MFA program and learn much about how this privilege operates whenever I interact with others on Twitter. In workshops, I have cemented my foundation, but online, I have found my verve. So, I suppose the question of whether or not a person should get an MFA should be shifted to incorporate the possibility of alternative curriculum. It’s more about how both the traditional (academia) and unconventional (social media) can work alongside one another for a writer’s development. And if the traditional networks refuse to change, Twitter will remain a good tool for challenging their power.

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