i've been accepted to my creative writing mfa program! help me do it right.
March 5, 2012 6:52 PM   Subscribe

i've been accepted to my creative writing mfa program of choice! help me do it right.

about the program: it's 2 years, it's fully funded with teaching pay, it's about 4 years old, it accepts 10 people a year, and i'm doing short fiction. after i'm done, i'm hoping to either write or teach creative writing (like everyone else). i can always go back to being a web developer if that doesn't work out.

mfa students and graduates of mefi, can you give me tips on being a good mfa student? and grad student in general?
posted by anonymous to Education (11 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
There are no tricks.

1. Go and write -- focus on being a writer and not a teacher. You will have decent evals no matter what you do (well, within reason, I imagine). You should use the time to write, not plan lessons, spend hours grading, etc.
2. Take some lit classes if you can -- they can't hurt and if you decide to try and teach and/or go for the PhD, they can be super-helpful.
3. Get to know professors and visiting writers. Don't be afraid to get emails, keep up with people, send them your work (again, within reason). Use your professors to learn about agents, publishers and the market. Go to every party -- don't get shit-faced at all of them, because you could be the visiting writer's ride home an the person he/she remembers.
4. Read. And write. And then do it some more. This may be the only time in your life that you'll get paid to do either of those things.
posted by mrfuga0 at 7:09 PM on March 5, 2012

after i'm done, i'm hoping to either write or teach creative writing (like everyone else).

Honestly I'd go into this with the idea that this is a long-term goal that has two halves. You need to write your novel to be employed as a writer (the short fiction market barely exists), and you need to write your novel to be employed as a teacher on the tenure track (and the adjunct market likely won't pay you a living wage in the medium-term, much less the long-term).

I graduated from a relatively well-respected, long-established, national MFA program in 2004. Of the three cohorts I knew well while I was there (the year above me, the year below me, and my own), exactly one person has a tenure-track job in creative writing. Two more of us have PhDs and are on the tenure track in that field. Almost everyone else is either still adjuncting (for very poor pay) or has fallen out of the teaching game entirely.

If this is what you want to do, definitely, work for it, but know that the only hope to get where you ultimately want to get is to write a novel. That's the whole game. That may mean, for you, planning now on going right back to web development after the degree, rather than falling into adjuncting and floundering there unhappily until you give up.
posted by gerryblog at 7:11 PM on March 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

On preview:

don't get shit-faced at all of them

MFA programs are notorious for romanticizing alcoholism. Please don't.
posted by gerryblog at 7:12 PM on March 5, 2012 [3 favorites]

What gerryblog said. I meant that to suggest that you shouldn't pick up alcoholism as a hobby.
posted by mrfuga0 at 7:20 PM on March 5, 2012

Congratulations! I loved being in a fiction MFA, though I quickly found I loved doing other things way more than I loved writing prose fiction. The only advice I have is simple -- spend a lot of time writing, because unless you are very, very lucky it's the only time in your life you'll be paid a living wage to do it. For me a strict word limit per day worked (1000 words), for other people it's a time limit, and for some lucky people no strict regimen at all is required, it just becomes habit. But make sure you do it. In two years you can write a very good novel, easily, or you can write a first draft of one novel, realize it sucks, and write a first draft of your next novel, which will be good.
posted by escabeche at 7:23 PM on March 5, 2012

Great advice so far. I agree with gerryblog that your focus needs to be writing. If I learned anything during my MFA experience, it's that the oft-touted benefit of "time to write" is over-esteemed among those applying for MFA programs. Those who wrote prolifically during their MFA experience were people who wrote prolifically before their MFA experience. Those who had written a small handful of stories before they began applying often ended up tweaking and retweaking the same stories during their workshops, instead spending their time partying, bowling, going to schoolbus races down at the local track, drinking, barbequing, and generally spending their two years in our MFA program acting like they were in an alcoholic version of summer camp.

And really, that's okay. It was a fun, hazy time for all of us. But at times, the partying, combined with the onerous task of grading papers, really did get in the way of that mythical time to write. In my experience, teaching is far more demanding and draining than a desk job. Don't let teaching be a time suck. Generally, if you want to make a go of being a writer, I suspect you have to be harder on yourself than your cohort, harder on yourself than your professors.

And this includes pedagogically, too. At my program, as with many MFA programs, the focus was firmly on craft and not on the practical aspects of becoming a professional writer. For example, there was little discussion of query letters, agents, what a reasonable advance looks like, how to write a book proposal, how to write a synopsis. In some ways, this seemed to extend so far as to aspects of craft believed to be related to commercial writing, for example, how to plot a novel. I would recommend that you begin an intense study of these things now, and continue through your MFA. Read Nancy Kress's Beginnings, Middles, and Ends. Read Learn Writing with Uncle Jim. Read On Writing by Stephen King and Telling Lies for Fun and Profit by Lawrence Block. These are resources offered by commercial writers, sure, and they speak from a commercial sensibility, but there's no reason that a literary writer can't pick up the good stuff and integrate it into their work.

Start sending your stories out, too, before you go into the MFA program. It's easy to get into the habit of writing not for consumption but for yourself alone. It feels safe, and you know your audience will be pleased. If you want to make a living as a writer, or even a tenured professor, you need to throw that out the window and sell. And unpitched stories don't sell themselves. Make friends with duotrope.

Write. Every day, or at least five days a week. Treat your 2,000 words a day like they're your job. Constant forward movement is the only way to hack it.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:30 PM on March 5, 2012 [5 favorites]

So I am not in a writing graduate program but I am in a graduate program and my number one piece of advice is: be the most goddamn organized you've ever been in your life.

Obviously this doesn't apply to organizing what you are writing, content-wise, but it does apply to just about everything else. Schedule your readings. Your teaching, your prep. Your gym breaks, your writing time, your finances! Checklists and calendars should be your new best friend.

The biggest jump I found from undergrad to grad school was the volume of work. And the best way to manage that is to know when you are going to do it all. Be generous with your scheduling - give yourself 1.5 hours for an hour task in order to both allow for it to take longer and allow for you to mentally decompress from it.

Grad school is great, you learn a lot, your brain expands, and you change how you think about things. But you gotta plan out when you're gonna have time to do all that.
posted by hepta at 8:04 PM on March 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

First of all, congratulations.

Second of all, you're going to get to this program and experience the inevitable "MFA letdown," which is a cocktail of overwhelming teaching responsibilities, perceived lack of time to write because of said responsibilities, at least one certifiably insane person in your program, and possibly teachers -- or a teacher -- who just does not give a shit. In my program, there was backbiting and crazy orgy parties. None of it was literary. Best thing to do is to make sure that your goal, from the outset, is to use what you learn to start crafting the best work you can. Like others have mentioned, don't get too caught up in the bowling/drinking/hooking up scene. It's all about the writing.

In fact, forget that you're there to learn how to teach. Teaching duties should ALWAYS come second to writing. But don't pressure yourself about a daily word count. Sit down, write something every day. Even if it's one sentence.

Is there a literary journal where you're going? If so, get involved. Reading the slush pile will make you a better writer fast. You'll also know a lot of people when you go to AWP. Oh, by the way, go to AWP.

Don't just workshop stuff you wrote before you started your MFA.

If you have the chance to teach creative writing, do it. You will love it.

As others have suggested, make connections. Easiest way to do this is through visiting writers. Find at least one successful writer who believes in you and will champion you.

If there's a successful or emerging writer whose work yours is similar to, follow in their footsteps. Submit your work to the same places they were published. Keep up with what they're doing in their careers and make similar moves. I didn't clue into this until 2nd year of my MFA, and it works. It really works.

Finally, AskMetaFilter is an excellent resource for esoteric research questions, like: "what does a toad taste like?"
posted by Miss T.Horn at 8:05 PM on March 5, 2012

Yay you!

set aside a writing time/study time. Stick to it religiously. Seek out free coffee and write where it is.

research funding opportunities early, or the deadlines will pass you by.

check in with your grad student union and ask for advice (I work at one! I am biased), there are usually orientations, and writing groups, and spaces to sit and work without being bugged they can point you too.

check in with students in your program in their second year and ask their advice,

Be prepared to be your own advocate. Speak up if things aren't working.

Check in with supervisor about how they like to work. If you get to pick your supervisor, interview a few about work style and find someone who will work best with your style (may not be the same style).

I recommend phdcomics.com for the bad days, though it is sciency.

re inevitable "MFA letdown lots of grad students feel like imposters when they arrive at school --everyone seems smart and in control. they aren't !! Get to know some people in your program, work and study together if possible. Be kind to eachother! Grad school can be hard.

If you have a partner, discuss plans for dealing with heavy work load and make sure studies will be taken seriously and supported! grad school can be hard on relationships, best to go in with a plan.
posted by chapps at 9:32 PM on March 5, 2012

This is going to sound terribly cynical but jibes with my experience of dropping out of a PhD program for lit and being friends with many MFA's:

Consider writing a screenplay. The academic job market is beyond brutal. The market for literary work is non-existent.

Also, enjoy your time. Consider yourself lucky to basically have enough free time for two whole years to read things that most people don't have a chance to experience. Take your teaching seriously and see if you enjoy it. It's not for everybody but can be a great career otherwise.

In terms of forging ahead in a career path that involves some sort of creative writing, cast a wide net and keep as many options open as possible.
posted by bardic at 10:35 PM on March 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

lots of grad students feel like imposters when they arrive at school --everyone seems smart and in control. they aren't !! Get to know some people in your program, work and study together if possible. Be kind to eachother! Grad school can be hard.

This is such great advice.
posted by Miss T.Horn at 11:19 AM on March 6, 2012

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