Creative Writing at The New School

Sean Manning (MFA Fiction ’03) came to the Creative Writing Program at The New School fresh out of undergraduate studies at the University of Tampa not knowing what to expect; he’d never had the chance to take a creative writing class and had never been in a workshop. But it didn’t take him long to realize The New School was the right fit for him. Today, Manning looks back on his time at The New School as instrumental to his career as a writer and editor.

Manning currently works as a Senior Editor at Simon & Schuster and is the author of the memoir The Things That Need Doing (Broadway/Random House, 2010). He is the editor of five critically acclaimed anthologies including Rock and Roll Cage Match, The Show I’ll Never Forget, Top of the Order, Bound to Last, and Come Here Often? His work has been published in Playboy, The Village Voice, The Daily Beast, Deadspin, New York Press, BlackBook, The Awl, The Millions and The Brooklyn Rail. Prior to his time at Simon & Schuster, Manning worked as executive editor of Rhapsody, an in-flight magazine published by United Airlines, which The New York Times described as “the Paris Review of the air.”

We had the opportunity to catch up with Manning and talk about his time at The New School.

What brought you to the Creative Writing Program?

To this day I have no idea how I managed to get into The New School. I was an English major in college, at the University of Tampa, and I thought I would go get my doctorate and try and become a college professor. Very original! I applied to something like twenty doctoral programs all across the country. I got rejected by every single one. I figured they were just being elitist cause I came from this tiny liberal arts school in Florida whose most famous alumni were the guy who played Sloth in The Goonies and the professional wrestler Chyna. For the hell of it, I also applied to The New School’s MFA program. For my last couple years of college I had been writing short stories that I never showed anyone, and I had read Jack Kerouac went to The New School and W.H. Auden taught there. But the main reason I knew of it was because the TV show Inside the Actors Studio was filmed there.

I was totally shocked when I got the news that I had been accepted to the program. And so happy. You have no idea how happy I was. To think I would get to go to New York City and spend two years studying fiction writing with this insane roster of teachers…I just couldn’t believe it. And again, I still can’t. Maybe my writing showed some potential, but more likely the same thing that got me rejected from those doctoral programs was what got me into The New School. I’m sure they were like, “What’s this application from this random-ass school in Tampa?”

The New School was all about defying convention and doing things differently. Like how they only had two classes per week, both starting at eight o’clock at night, so that people with regular jobs and families could attend. From what I’d been told, most MFA programs weren’t like that. I really loved the fact that I was one of the few students who came to the program right out of undergrad, and that most of my classmates had real-world experience and had done some living. The only bummer about those night classes was that they taped Inside the Actors Studio at the same time, so I never got to go. I was going to skip class the time Johnny Depp was there, but I got there too late and the auditorium was too packed.

What were the most important things you learned at The New School?

There is no way I could narrow it down. Everything I learned during those two years was important. I remember one of my teachers saying, “There are only two reasons to go to an MFA program. One, you have a finished novel and you’re looking to connect with a teacher who will recommend you to an agent. Or two, you don’t know a damn thing about writing.” I didn’t know a damn thing about writing. I had some excellent teachers in undergrad, but as an English major, I only took literature classes. I had never taken a creative writing class. I had never been in a workshop.

Those two years at The New School were what I imagine it’s like being an apprentice in a skilled trade. Writing was treated as a craft as much as an art. I know some people say, “Why would you spend money on an MFA in creative writing? Why not just write on your own and not go into debt?” I’m sure there are some people who that would work for. And I totally get the concern over having to pay off loans for the rest of your life for a degree that doesn’t guarantee you a job. It’s not like going to law school or med school. There’s a ton of risk involved. But for me, there were things I learned at The New School—crucial things about technique and form—that I would never have figured out on my own.

What are some of the highlights from your time in the Creative Writing Program?

Same answer to the question above. There is no way I could pick a couple highlights. Every minute of my two years there was a highlight. I’m not just saying that. It was such a magical time. After class, when we would all go drink at the upstairs tables of Cedar Tavern or in the booths of Spain—I’ll always remember that. Also, the time Barry Hannah came to speak and the room was so jammed that I had to sit cross-legged on the floor. He said the most important thing about writing a short story is ending it with “resonance.” The way he said it, the word became an onomatopoeia. It left his mouth and vibrated in the air.

How did the Creative Writing Program help you on your path to becoming a senior editor at Simon & Schuster?

There are a lot of things I learned in the program that help me in my current job as an editor. Probably the most important is that I went through the workshop process. I know what it’s like to have my work criticized and feel that kind of vulnerability. I know how it can be helpful and how it can suck. So when I’m giving feedback to my authors, I always try to remember what it’s like to be in that position.

Something else from my time in the program I still rely on is everything I read in my seminar classes. Those syllabuses introduced me to authors I might never have discovered on my own, or at least not for a while: Clarice Lispector, Julio Cortázar, Rebecca Brown, John Edgar Wideman, Eduardo Galeano. Plus all the classics we read. So many books—at least one a week. All of that gave me a mental library that I constantly pull from when talking to writers and agents.

As you look back at your time at The New School, what advice would you give to the Creative Writing Program’s current students?

I would say just enjoy the hell out of your time there. You’re surrounded by people who love writing and are happy to spend hours talking about it. When you graduate and everybody goes their separate ways, you suddenly realize not a whole lot of people are amped to discuss the intricacies of indirect discourse.

Finally, what is your favorite book and what are you currently reading?

Favorite book? No way. Not answering that. No matter what I pick I’ll end up wishing I had chosen something else. Currently reading? Mostly manuscripts for work. A history of the films of 1999 called Best. Movie. Year. Ever. by Brian Raftery that comes out in April and is so much fun. And a novel called Heart of Junk which should come out in early 2020. The writer is Luke Geddes. He’s a special talent.

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Founded in Greenwich Village in 1931, Creative Writing at The New School continues to promote, engender, and shape innovative literature.