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Envisioning a Diverse and Expansive Writing World

By Sophfronia Scott

Two years ago, during a walk with a friend who is a literary agent and former editor at a large New York City publishing house, our conversation turned to the controversy surrounding the book American Dirt. The novel tells the story of a Mexican woman fleeing with her son to the United States after the rest of her family is killed in a massacre.

Its author, a White woman, received a huge advance, and I’d heard on the radio a Latinx writer discussing how it had hurt to hear about the advance, because she’s been told so many times that her story, the same story, has no value in the marketplace and isn’t worthy of such an advance.

My friend and I discussed the problem of inequities in the publishing industry, but we also discussed possible solutions. One series of ruminations went like this:

  • Maybe it starts with publishing’s feeder systems, where editors and influencers come from.
  • What are some of the feeder systems for the publishing industry?
  • One would be Master of Fine Arts (MFA) programs.
  • But it seems MFA programs are always playing catch-up when it comes to diversity. One could fill volumes with stories of writers of color who felt out of place, their work misunderstood, in MFA workshops.
  • Maybe you have to start from scratch, with a whole new program.

Then, only days later, I received a message from a friend about Alma College launching a new Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program and the search for a founding director. She said I should apply.

To do such a job had never been on my radar. I was quite happy with the writing and teaching I was already doing. But that earlier conversation had made me aware of the moment, that this was a particular moment, and I couldn’t ignore it.

I had the words of the Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison on my mind. She once said, “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”

I believe in Morrison’s words so deeply that I threw my hat in the ring. I was thrilled to eventually get the position and this excitement continues as I see all the amazing possibilities that the program holds come to life. We have created a community where all writers can gain confidence in their voices and learn how to write and wield their stories, fiction or nonfiction, in ways that will change the world.

What else can we do? This is not a time for thinking small.

I envision this program at the forefront of a new landscape where everyone knows their story matters, and perhaps something will shift, and the marketplace will follow. Granted, one MFA program can’t change the publishing industry. But if it can help us get to a place where the obstacles writers see have more to do with the quality of their work than with the color of their skin, then this program’s community will have done a great and valuable thing indeed.

What I want most for our students is to look at the writing world and see the possibilities, not the small aspects, not the restrictions. I want them to take this world as their own, to feel the expansiveness to the point where they just know there is a place for them to do what they want to do with their work.

I encourage our students to attend the conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. It’s held every year in various locations across the country. Attendance is usually over 10,000. That’s a lot of writers. Walking the floor of the book fair is like touring a busy city.

One could look at the conference space and be overwhelmed by the numbers and the noise. Or you could look at it and think of the amazing opportunities filling the space. The tables at the book fair are staffed by editors of publishers and literary journals looking for writers to submit their work. There are readings and authors signing copies of their books. Seeing the possibilities make you open to trying something new or making a choice that could change your whole writing life.

This is the expansiveness — the sense that abundance is everywhere and it’s there for the taking. And this goes beyond writing opportunities. A broader vision helps you to see stories everywhere. You get new ideas for your writing, new challenges you can create for yourself that may challenge the boundaries of race, culture, sexuality.

Many conversations about writing, like the one I had with my friend, tend to begin with how problematic the publishing industry is, how hard it is to write, and how the writing may not matter. If one isn’t careful, that can lead to small thinking. And it doesn’t add to the enjoyment of your work.

I invite you to expand your vision, maybe even inject a little hubris, and act as though the whole wide world is your oyster, and you can write what you want and get it published however you wish. Try it for a day or two and see how much easier your writing goes. You may even have an unexpected opportunity show up for you.

End note: I invite you to expand your horizons by exploring another part of the world — the Veneto region of Italy. The Alma College Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program will hold its January 2024 winter residency at the Hotel Villa Franceschi on the Brenta Canal. Apply today and get your passport ready!