Between mouthfuls of casserole, I looked down at my phone to see a missed call from a number I didn’t recognize. Gulp. After spending the past four months waiting and wondering, a university had finally called about my MFA application… and I’d missed it. The voice in the back of my head explained calmly that they were probably just calling to reject me, to laugh in my face, or insist I vaccinate for the plague. I cleaned my plate in a hurry, choked back my distress, placed the call, and… I was in? I WAS IN! Dear God, I was in.
Then it occurred to me: Now what?
Three years later, the MFA season is in full swing once again. Acceptances, rejections, wait lists… they’re rushing through the power lines right about now. And if you’re one of the few (acceptance rates hover around 2 percent) to receive the good news, you’re probably wondering what will come next. I thought I’d adequately prepared myself for the program and its aftermath. I’d read The MFA Blog. I’d chatted with writers currently inside the MFA bubble. I’d even visited, six months prior, the town and campus I would soon call home. My expectations seemed reasonable…
Except they weren’t. If I could go back, I’d tell myself about networking, prioritizing my time, and focusing my attention. I never anticipated being pulled in so many directions. While I can’t speak for all MFA programs, I can make some recommendations based on my personal MFA experience in hopes that it will debunk a few myths, assuage your angst (somewhat), and give you at least a general idea of how to physically and psychologically prepare.
Cultivate a Thick Skin
Maybe you think all writers are like you — down-to-earth, compassionate, tolerant, a little emotionally unbalanced, sure, but more-or-less sane. You’re in for a surprise. Writers and their personalities are as diverse and complex as everyone else’s. Some of them are jerks, have inflated egos, and will not hesitate to cut you down. Familiarize yourself with the role criticism plays in literature (See: John Updike’s six rules for reviewers), and consider what kind of feedback you value most.
I kind of pictured a leisurely, writer’s paradise, typewriters on the beach and e-cigarettes in hand. Ha! During the second year of my MFA, 13-hour workdays became my new norm. Seek out hammocks and pool-side bartenders — before you push your mind to its emotional breaking point. (And remember you’ll likely have access to the university’s gym, and its counselors. Use them liberally!)
One of my favorite aspects of the MFA was exposure to young writers who are so fiercely challenging themselves to make great art. Nearly all of them were exquisitely well read. Make a reading list that includes some titles from your future instructors. I found stories by my classmates online and their work was equally as responsible for my growth as a fiction writer as my instructors’. Their stories rocked!
Build Your Writing Persona
Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn — set up all that jazz now. This might be the last opportunity you have to build a strong, diverse writing community (made of instructors, working writers, adjuncts, and your classmates). Vow to stay connected, and to build a diverse writing portfolio that you can track via social media (writing samples will be crucial in job placement post-graduation).
Frame Your Writing Project
My thesis adviser said in a class one day, and I paraphrase: “Is this the most time you’ll have for writing in your life? Are you the most free right now?” She was right. Though I felt busy all the time, I also had the most flexible schedule I’ve ever had and could find time to write every day. Make writing your top priority, even before you arrive, by committing to specific writing goals (probably a draft of a novel or a short-story collection). I know this sounds like a no-brainer, but for me, it wasn’t.
Read Your School’s Literary Journal
You’re about to become very familiar with the work that lit-journal staffs do. They provide an important outlet for emerging writers and can affect real change in the publishing world. Learning about your lit mag’s style will give you a leg-up in applying for editor positions. Though believing my lit-mag experience would land me a high-paying job with real-world publishers was a mistake, I still greatly value my time as managing editor/co-editor-in-chief and believe it played a role in my eventual job placement following graduation.
Research Volunteer Opportunities
Degrees have little traction beyond the confines of academia. The good news is that universities and nearby communities are usually saturated with organizations and nonprofits dedicated to the arts. So volunteer! And often! Because even though your teaching experience is great and fulfilling and lovely… there’s probably not going to be a teaching job waiting for you when you graduate.
Several of my classmates landed teaching gigs in high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools. Staggeringly few, if any, have landed college-level teaching jobs — unless they chose to adjunct at the university they attended, and nobody deserves that fate. Even after publishing a few books, teaching prospects remain grim for most. Always have a backup plan.
Find a Roommate
Contact your program's liaison ASAP and ask him or her to send out a call for roommates to both incoming and current MFA students. You'll likely find that shared housing is much more affordable, and you'll have a partner to help you navigate uncharted waters. In my program, people who lived alone had the dumpiest apartments on the worst sides of town. Those who roomed together had gorgeous rental houses with writing studios and strong community ties.
Set Realistic Goals
Every time I walked into the creative writing department, a giant white board of student publications confronted me. My friends and I talked about how much the “dreaded white board” made us feel like total failures. (We were not the bastions of compassion, I know, but the pressure to publish felt immense.) People enter MFA programs at all different levels of preparedness to publish. There’s no rush! I don’t remember a single name on that white board now.
Remember Your Priorities
What you’ve seen on TV is true (at least partially). The MFA parties I saw rivaled the best (or worst, depending on your perspective) undergraduate parties. And just about every occasion hailed a party. You’re leaving town for a weekend? Going-away party. Somebody’s visiting? Welcome party. It’s almost summer? Keg party. Just be mindful of your long-term priorities.
Maintain an Open Mind
It's easy to become paralyzed by what seems like insurmountable levels of criticism. Stay strong, don't get swept away by all the voices, and definitely avoid erecting too many walls. Vulnerability and risk-taking are just as important in the long run as developing friendships that may or may not last beyond the program.
Images: Garry Knight,