So you got an MFA—now what? We address some of the main challenges you’re likely to face as a new MFA graduate, along with advice to overcome them.
October 4, 2016
So you got an MFA—now what? Earning a master’s degree in creative writing is an accomplishment in itself, but most likely you looked at your program as a means to an end, be it better job prospects, better connections in the literary world, or just greater mastery, as it were, over your craft.
An MFA can be an expensive endeavor—even if your program was fully funded, the time itself is an investment. But there are steps you can take to make sure that your investment was worthwhile.This article will address some of the main challenges you’re likely to face as a new MFA graduate, along with advice to overcome them.
MFA programs tend to be deeply immersive experiences—for around two years, you’re writing more than you ever have before, and even when you’re not writing, you’re thinking about writing, talking about writing, and spending most of your time with other writers. This is part of the experience of the MFA, and despite the many benefits, it can be exhausting.
After graduation and the sudden change in your daily structure, it’s normal to feel burnt out. After I finished a three-year MFA program—I was particularly prolific during the last year, writing about two poems per week—I felt completely drained. I didn’t write another good poem for at least six months. When I did write, the poems felt like exercises, often procedural or “experimental” but lacking in urgency.
Everyone gets sick of writing (and of the writing world) from time to time, and giving yourself a little break after the pressures of finishing a thesis can be a necessary corrective. Take a few months off from your writing projects to decompress, if you need it.
The million-dollar question: Should you teach? Many people pursue an MFA in the first place to help secure a teaching job. I’m not going to tell you to abandon your dreams, but it’s best to be prepared for the downsides of this option.
Something like 75% of academic jobs are now part-time or “adjunct” positions, which tend to pay poorly—$2,500 per class or less—and offer minimal to no job security and benefits. You may need to string together classes at different schools to make a living wage. This can make an already demanding job even more costly and time-consuming. The market for full-time, tenure-track positions is extremely competitive, and getting more so now that the MFA in creative writing is not always counted as a terminal degree as creative writing PhDs are increasingly common. This may work for you if you’re young and healthy and have no family obligations, or have some other source of income, but it’s generally not sustainable in the long term.
There are job options outside of academia, so keep an open mind. I know MFA holders with jobs in publishing, libraries, marketing, tech, job services, consulting, even government. You may even find that a non-academic career leaves you with more time and mental energy for writing. You can leave your work at the office, a kind of separation of church and state.
Whatever you do for money, your writing life will undergo a fundamental shift when you graduate. It’s not just that you’ll likely have less time to devote to writing; you’ll also be missing the discipline of regular workshops and deadlines. The MFA environment can also create a (usually healthy) sense of competition that drives you to produce.
Without all that built-in structure, it’s easy to lapse into long periods of not-writing. Some people operate well this way, in a natural pattern of lags and bursts. But if you feel frustrated or blocked, you’ll need to develop all new routines.
There are two ways to approach the problem of how and when to write. The first is a scheduling approach: Build writing time into your schedule and stick to it, like it’s an appointment. I know a poet (with a full-time communications job and two kids) who gets up at 5:30 every weekday morning and spends an hour on poetry. Maybe your writing hour takes place in the evenings, or it’s just 20 minutes a day, or a four-hour block on Saturday mornings. It doesn’t matter, so long as it becomes a habit. The advantage to this method is that, over time, you’re getting something done, plain and simple. Even if you have bad days or miss a few “appointments,” you won’t suddenly find that months have gone by during which you’ve written nothing because you couldn’t find the time. This approach also trains you to take your writing seriously.
The second approach is driven by urgency: Find the thing you want to write so much you don’t even have to schedule time for it. I have another friend, a novelist, who said he solved the problem of writer’s block by abandoning the high-minded projects he felt he should be working on and started writing the novel he desperately wanted to write. Suddenly he couldn’t wait to get home from his job to work on his novel. Previously, he had had to schedule time for writing and it still felt like a slog.
Either approach can be highly effective in helping you stay committed to your goals.
If you weren’t actively sending out work during your MFA program, now is the time to start. Like writing itself, submitting should become a habit for two reasons: One, for the vast majority of writers, it takes a lot of submissions to start getting acceptances, and two, it will normalize rejection and help remove the sting. (However, that doesn’t mean you should send out unfinished work—that wastes everyone’s time, and you’ll regret it later if something you grow to hate manages to get published.)
The most important thing to remember when submitting your work is that rejection isn’t personal. It’s known that judges (as in actual judges in a court of law) deliver more guilty verdicts in the hour before their lunch break than they do in the hour after—and the editors and decision-makers at literary journals are similarly subject to moods and whims that have nothing to do with you. Most lit mags also have very low acceptance rates—less than 1% at top-tier journals. That means “good work” gets rejected all the time. (And good is in the eye of the editor.)
Doing some editorial work can help you gain perspective. When I volunteered as a reader for a high-end literary magazine, we used to get more submissions than we were physically able to handle. In order to read at least the first page or two of each submission, we’d hold late-night sessions at the office that ran on for hours in a frenzy of flying paper. We called them “ripping parties.” We’d haul out the mail bags, rip open the envelopes (online submissions were in their infancy back then), and work alongside one another as quickly as we could. Despite this non-ideal situation, we still found pieces that floored us and we did send a lot of those upstairs. They almost never appeared in print.
Usually, it’s easiest to start with smaller, less competitive journals (don’t be afraid to exploit your connections), and move up the ranks as you build a name and following. It’s easier to get published once you’ve been published, but remember that writers at every level of success experience and feel discouraged by rejection. It’s part of the writing life.
For more tips, I highly recommend this guide to understanding how literary magazines work.
The one thing I value most about my MFA experience is the community. Some writers don’t need it, but most writers benefit from having like-minded friends who can serve as first readers and editors of your work. They keep you honest and accountable, recommend books, go with you to readings and events, and commiserate about all the struggles of writing and publishing. It’s invaluable.If you don’t stick around the area where you went to school (or your classmates don’t), you’ll miss the proximity to other writers. A regular writing group can serve as a sort of methadone for MFA withdrawal. If that feels too structured, just seek out friends and conversations. Attend a local reading series or look for non-MFA writing programs, such as Grub Street in Boston or Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver—you could take a one-off class in an unfamiliar genre, or try your hand at part-time teaching. And there are so many writing communities online, you can find your community somewhere, even if you live in a “literary desert” or you aren’t able to leave the house.
As if having friends wasn’t rewarding enough on its own, community has a clear side benefit: more “connected” writers tend to have more publishing success.
Not everyone who gets an MFA is going to become a tenured professor or a “name” writer. And that’s OK. You hopefully left your program with some combination of valuable assets—a finished or near-finished manuscript, a handful of friends and mentors, and a new sense of the commitments and mentality required to be a writer. When the program is over, you can re-create the best of those experiences in your regular life. If you ever feel you’ve strayed too far from the writing life, the solution may be very simple: read more.
Elisa Gabbert is the author of three books including, most recently, L’Heure Bleue, or the Judy Poems (Black Ocean) as well as an advice column for writers, The Blunt Instrument, hosted by Electric Literature.
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