Tuesday, March 25, 2008

New York Stories #15: MFA or Bust

Here's another New York story from a blogger, MFA or Bust. Yet another tale of triumph over debt, on an arts-world salary!

I'm in my early 20s, live in Brooklyn, and work in nonprofit arts administration in Manhattan. I also moonlight as a freelance editor, and my gross income is somewhere between $45,000 - $48,000/year. Honestly, though so many people insist that living on a mid-$40s salary in the city is so difficult, it's enough money for me--though I certainly wouldn't mind more! But I split a nice apartment in a beautiful neighborhood, I can afford to treat myself, my boyfriend, and friends to a nice dinner and drinks once in a while, and I'm even saving a little, to build up my rainy-day fund.

If it weren't for my consumer debt--I made some dubious decisions in college and immediately after--I'd be leading a very, very comfortable life. But alas, I'm in the midst of paying off $10,708 (as of January 2007) of credit-card debt. I actually didn't get serious about taking care of it until this past October, at which point it was still ringing in at $7,292. I've paid off another $4,120 since then, and thanks to my current $1,100/month repayment schedule and an unexpected windfall (I won a writing award, with comes with a nice cash prize), I'll actually be debt-free next month.

I'm contemplating diving back in, though. I was recently accepted into my top-choice school for a two-year MFA program in writing. They have an incredible stellar faculty and reputation... and incredibly poor funding. My aid package is still in flux (they've told me that they may be able to offer me more, so I'm waiting for a definitive final offer before accepting or very sadly declining), and even with some savings, a freelance job to cover living expenses, and family help, I'm looking at taking on just as much debt--if not more--than I just painstakingly dug myself out of.

I'm sure that some (most) people probably think that I'm insane for even considering such an expensive degree, which does nothing to further my career... but the truth is, writing is my intractable passion, and it's one that's been squeezed out by my professional obligations. If I don't make/buy the time now, I'm afraid that I'll have to wait until I retire to get serious about finishing my manuscript. Since I have no other financial liabilities (no student loans from college, no mortgage, etc.), the prospect of maintaining my current quality of my life--which I don't think is shabby at all, just tightly budgeted--for two years after graduation isn't that alarming.

I know a lot of young writers come to New York for school, thinking that they'll write the Great American Novel, but then spend their time barhopping and going to shows and eating out--having the "real New York experience." But I've been in New York for a long time, relative to my age. My father taught in the city for many years, so I shuttled in and out in high school and then came to stay for good for college. I've already made my mistakes--I've drank and shopped and eaten more than my fill and am paying the $10,000+ tab--so I feel like I've already passed through that trial by fire.

Anyway. Regardless of whether or not I go to graduate school, I'm on track to build a $5,000 emergency fund and maybe even fully fund a Roth IRA this year. Considering where I was only two years ago, I feel pretty proud and very hopeful for the future.
MFA or Bust makes a great point regarding the choices people face about following a creative path. Keeping up a "day job" can make it almost impossible to find the time and energy for creative work. And immersing yourself in a community of other young creative types in New York can mean you end up spending a lot of money and time on "experience," also known as fun! But it sounds like our MFA seeker has her eyes wide open, and since she's young and already familiar with what it takes to pay off debt in a relatively short period of time, I hope she goes for it and gets her degree, no matter how the chips may fall afterwards. Thanks for the story, and be sure to visit her blog.

You too can submit a New York Story for this site: just email me!

Don't miss these other posts in the series:
New York Stories #1: Bronx Chica
New York Stories #2: Orange
New York Stories #3: Bama Babe
New York Stories #4: K
New York Stories #5: Frugal Female
New York Stories #6: SandyVoice
New York Stories #7: Escape Brooklyn
New York Stories #8: Comfortable Couple
New York Stories #9: Upper West Sider
New York Stories #10: Debt-Free in Harlem
New York Stories #11: Little Miss Moneybags
New York Stories #12: Starving Artist
New York Stories #13: Cheap Healthy Good
New York Stories #14: The Lonely Lawyer Who Left


deonne said...

I'm torn about what MFA or Bust should do (not that she's asking, ha.) If she's interested in getting a prestigious teaching position after she graduates, then the expensive, prestigious MFA will probably be worth it. But if she doesn't care about that and just wants to surround herself with other striving writers while becoming a better writer, then the expensive, prestigious MFA isn't required - most reputable programs would help her become a better writer for a lot less money.

As my novelist friend said to me the other day - "If a publisher likes your manuscript, it's not going to matter where (or even if) you got your MFA."

I wish MFA or Bust the best of luck - I just happily decided to attend a relatively inexpensive, reputable MFA program in New York, but I don't have any desire to teach at Iowa, for example, so my choice works for me.

SandyVoice said...

School is always worth doing, whether or not it will help your career in an obvious way, especially if you have found a program that excites you. Don't listen to nay-sayers; decide yes or no according to whether you want to do it. Certainly it's expensive, but you're starting with no debt, and you're young, so you have enough time to pay it off. And if you have been supporting yourself in these hard times, you'll be able to do it when you're done in two years, when the economy will probably be better.

Congratulations on your prize, too!

SandyVoice said...

By the way, Deonne, I didn't mean to contradict you! We were just writing and posting at the same time! I'm sure your path was the right one for you.

deonne said...

No problem, sandyvoice. It's funny because my first response was actually - go for it, MFA or bust! Take on that debt, who cares! But then I thought I should think about the financial repercussions and consider my response for more than 2 seconds. Ha. You gave her good advice.

Anonymous said...

Carpe diem, my young flower! Go for it -- your whole life is ahead of you. Take it from someone who knows: there is nothing more expensive than not following your dreams. Regret is very expensive, it turns out. Be well.

mfaorbust said...

Thanks so much for posting my story, Madame X! Although I swore to wait until I heard about more funding, it looks like they won't tell me how much more until after the acceptance deadline, so... I'm teetering on the edge of saying yes and will likely do so sometime next week (eek!).

Deonne: Of course I want advice! I'm actually very keen on teaching afterwards, but I'm not sure a Columbia MFA would help me any more than any other MFA degree. But fingers crossed, nonetheless. ;]

sandyvoice & anon: Seriously, I should print out your comments and post them on my mirror, to read every morning. Thank you so much for the warm encouragement and cheers!

deonne said...

MFAOB - if you want to teach, then I'd say go to Columbia. I mean it, I really do think it will make a difference in that arena. How exciting for you!

Anonymous said...

Bronx Chica- another motivated NYC story to read! Love each and every one of them. Congrats on your achievements!