Saturday, October 11, 2014

Life and Work after the MFA

Recently I was asked, along with two other alumni, to return to my MFA alma mater to teach a graduate class and give a reading as part of the visiting writers series. After the reading, we alumni were asked to discuss life and work after the MFA. So on my seven-hour train ride from Hartford to Washington, DC, I began to think about what I would tell students currently in the midst of an MFA program about what might await them.

I was fortunate to be able to come down a couple of days early, which allowed me to catch up with my MFA friends who still live in the area. Ten years out from the MFA, we talked about where we were, what we had done, what we were working on, and what roles writing and reading still play in our lives.

My friend Ananya and I both had children (who are now fourth graders) right after finishing our MFAs. While her full-time day job, an editing position, does not allow for a great deal of creativity, she’s published nonfiction at the WashingtonianThe Guardian, and The Baltimore Sun, and she is also an assignment editor at the Washington Independent Review of Books.

My friend Christa accepted a full-time editor/writer position with a federal agency right after finishing her MFA and has now worked in this career for a decade. With two preschool-age children, she currently doesn’t have a lot of time for creative projects, but she does carve out writing time when she can—writing on her phone, for example, just to capture observations, dialogue, whatever comes to her. Since completing her MFA, her nonfiction has appeared in the Oxford American (available online here) and on

My friend Amanda had her debut novel, I Know Where I Am When I'm Falling, published earlier this year. The mother of adult children, she is currently at work on more fiction, teaches part time at a community college, runs book discussion groups, and is also a sculptor.

Unfortunately, the four of us were not able to get together all at the same time, but I did get to spend an evening with Ananya and Christa, and the following afternoon with Ananya and Amanda. (Amanda blogged about our conversation here.)

And as I was talking with these friends, I kept thinking about what advice I would give to current MFA students about what awaits them after the degree. Here’s what I’ve come up with.

You might look back on your time in the MFA and wonder what you’ve squandered those two or three years on. Right now—these years you are in a graduate program supported by people who care passionately about writing—is your time to write. Seize it. Make the most if it. You might feel overwhelmed with seminar papers, part-time jobs, teaching duties, but remember that right now your life is largely devoted to creative writing. And that may never be true again. Your life is likely to become even more overwhelming and complicated after the MFA. You may never have the kind of time you have now. And take advantage of all the resources available to you in your program (and in other departments as well). Take classes with a wide range of faculty in multiple genres. It took me years to figure out I was also a nonfiction writer because I stuck so stubbornly to classes within my chosen genre—fiction. And to this day I regret not taking a single poetry class during my MFA program. Seize these opportunities.

You aren’t likely to make your living as a writer of literary fiction, creative nonfiction, or poetry. You may make some money at it, but it probably won’t pay the bills. And unless you’re independently wealthy or have a spouse with a well-paying job who is able to support you financially, you’ll need to take on other work that does pay the bills. Consider this before finishing your MFA. Think about ways you can make yourself marketable in a career. Think about the types of work—editing, teaching, technical writing, curriculum development, grant writing—that you might take on and how you can begin to prepare for that future now. This might mean working as an editor for a scholarly or literary journal affiliated with your institution, being an RA for a professor, being a TA to get teaching experience, taking a class in grant writing or business writing, finding an internship in the field you’re interested in, working at a part time job that might become full time, volunteering, finding a mentor, taking classes with faculty outside of your department, etc. This doesn’t need to take up a huge amount of your time; even making preliminary steps can help poise you for employment after the MFA.

Keep writing after the MFA. It will be hard. Suddenly, your vast support network—your professors, your fellow students—will be all but gone. No one will be demanding work on a regular basis. No one will be encouraging you in weekly workshops. Writing may quickly slip down to the bottom of your to-do list. Writing will go from being the center of your working life to a labor of love. Writing will take time away from your family life, from paid work. And you might find—as I did and as I still do—that days, weeks, months can slip by without any creative work getting done. Christa said, “In the MFA program and right after, I had these ideals of what writing time looked like—long stretches of time that I could set aside for unfettered and uninterrupted writing.” For most, this is the ideal, not the reality. You will need to find ways to get the work done, if you want to continue to write. This perseverance takes on different forms—writing before dawn, writing after bedtime, writing on weekends, writing at your paid job, writing in little notebooks while your toddlers play. Find the ways that work for you, and stick to them.

Select your writing projects wisely. If you’re like me, you might have half a dozen books that you’d like to be working on all at the same time. There are always more projects than time to do them in. Pick the ones that you pursue carefully. If publication is important to you, then ask yourself: how likely is it that I will be able to publish this particular piece? Christa pointed out to me that while all four of us received our MFAs in fiction, three of us—Christa, Ananya, and myself—have published more nonfiction than fiction. Do I love nonfiction more than fiction? Not necessarily. But publishing it is easier. In Christa’s words: “The time crunch of post-MFA life has made me so pragmatic in a way I wasn't in graduate school.  I love all of my creative writing projects—short fiction, novel, nonfiction—but with so little writing time, I feel this pressure to ‘choose wisely’ in what I do write—what’s most likely to get published? It's become important for me to balance that pragmatism with making sure I love what I'm writing.”

What you now think success will look like is probably not what it will look like. When I was asked, during a casual conversation on my trip, whether or not I consider myself a “success,” I didn’t immediately have an answer. For one thing, I guess I don’t think of my life in terms of “success” or “failure”—I just keep working. But also, ten years ago when I was finishing my MFA, I never would have thought that I would end up here. True, I have published two books and have had work in numerous journals, but at the same time I don’t make my living as a writer. There are a lot of other things I’ve done—teaching, editing, curriculum development—that bring in more money and actually pay the bills. When I asked Amanda the question about success, she said something along these lines: “I get to spend most of my time, paid and unpaid, reading and writing, and thinking about reading and writing, and talking about reading and writing.” Yes, I thought. Me too. Even when I’m teaching or editing, I’m still engaged with reading and writing. When I think about it in that context, my days are full of the work that I was preparing to do in my MFA program. Success. My MFA writing friends and I have not (yet) penned bestsellers, but there is success of the daily, quiet kind, which is more lasting. Like spending our days reading and writing. Like being asked to return to my alma mater to teach the students whose shoes I was once in. Success.

Keep your writing friends. Stay in touch with people in your MFA program. Find good, sympathetic readers for your work—people who get what you’re trying to do and are generous with praise and criticism—and be proactive about continuing to exchange work with them after the MFA. If you get a full-time day job, you might find yourself surrounded by people who are not sympathetic to your creative goals. Suddenly, you’ll find yourself adrift, your writing friends scattered, distant. Find ways to stay in touch with them. Keep seeking out people who love the things you love, and connect with them, virtually or in person—however you can. Amanda and I have read one another’s book drafts. I hope to read a draft of Ananya’s novel soon. We are, as Amanda once said to me, members of the same tribe. Ten years after my MFA, this is one of the things that endures—the connections I made with fellow students. Even though the members of your tribe may scatter far and wide, keep those relationships. They will help to sustain your writing life long after you receive your diploma.