Advice for Recent MFA Graduates

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PAINTWhat do you do after an MFA? 

You drink whiskey, that’s what you do.

But after you’re done with the whiskey, you read this fucking article.

This is the advice that recent creative writing MFA graduates need. Sure, you can click away, or save it to read later, but God help you if you don’t listen to what I have to say.

I’m not being hyperbolic. I’m painfully serious. You can:

(a) read this piece and have a happy and fulfilling life as a writer or

(b) fail to read and wallow in stupid, obvious mistakes for the next five years of your life.

Your choice.

1. Focus on your Mental Health

You will feel like a failure for a few years after finishing an MFA. Most writers do.

You have short stories that are receiving regular rejections, or you have a novel that you still need to revise. The next three years of your life will likely be filled with small, inconsequential activities and extra portions of failure.

The only success you will have during this period is if you continue to write. Because continuing to write is the success.

Don’t commit suicide. Don’t accept depression as a normal state of affairs. Don’t think that you’re a failure because your friend who went into sales has a six-figure income and a house and a nice car and you can’t get a novel published for a $15,000 advance, even though you spent three years writing it and that would only come out to a $5,000 annual income.

Work on happiness. And if you can’t be happy, at least channel that sadness into the work where it can serve a purpose.

2. Get Out of Academia

Seriously. What exactly are you going to do? Live on an adjunct salary? Please. If you want to whore yourself out, at least make some money doing it.

Just accept the fact that there is no way you are going to land a tenure-track or even full-time teaching job through experience and good teaching evaluations, and don’t live a fantasy life telling you otherwise. So please find employment elsewhere.

Five years from now, you will look back on the students still working as part-time lecturers and lavishing all their writing energies on eager undergraduates, and you will thank your lucky stars that you had the good sense to escape.

3. Become a Monk

Being in the hyperbolic chamber of an MFA program can be asphyxiating. I love writers, and I’m an extrovert, but constantly showing your work to everyone and talking to everyone about your work and going to readings gets wearisome. 

Still your soul. Quiet your mind. Get back to your roots.

You need to take some time to be alone with your writing, one-on-one. Commune with it and try to listen what it’s telling you. To do this you’re going to have to silence all the voices of your MFA colleagues, all the voices of your professors. Let those grow quieter and talk only with your work. 

Make something that only you can make. Go deeper into your eccentricity. As Frank Conroy said, “Be a monk for your story. The monks know where power comes from.”

4. Learn to Write for Non-Writers

This is a crucial flaw of creative writing programs, and of the creative writing life. How many writing groups have you been in? How many workshops have you been in? How many seminars with all writers sitting around a table, discussing your work?

Calculate the percentages of people who have read your work: what is the percentage of writers, and the percentage of non-writers?

For me, it’s been about 90% writers and 10% non-writers. This is bad.

I cannot emphasize this enough: what average readers want is not the same as what writers want.

Do not conflate the two.

You’ve probably spent most of your writing life unconsciously writing to other writers rather than a group of readers. And guess what? The pool of readers is a whole hell of a lot bigger than the pool of writers.

So start writing to readers.

5. Start Thinking Like An Entrepreneur

Every writer is an entrepreneur. The sooner you learn that and stop thinking of yourself as a rarified gem set in a band of gold, the sooner you’ll be willing to do what it takes to survive in the writing world.

The main way to make money as a writer is not by writing but by helping other writers. 

How can you help other writers?

Be creative. Start a blog. Start a podcast. Sell some of your material you made as a graduate assistant on teacherspayteachers. Start up a business copy-editing for literary websites. Start up a literary journal and have one of those stupid contests that asks for a $20 submission fee and only gives $500 to the winner (okay, don’t do that: those contests are kind of shitty). 

Listen to some good podcasts on being an entrepreneur. Get creative about your writing life: maybe you’re destined to write a book that blurs genres between graphic novel and novel.

  • Maybe you’re destined to create a publishing house with a model that will eventually dominate the literary landscape.
  • Maybe you’re supposed to open a series of creative writing centers for children around the nation.
  • Maybe you’ll come up with a new model for literary journals. One that pays writers. Pays them a lot.

Don’t think of yourself solely as a person who puts words on paper. The writing life is much more than that.

Take action. Be innovative.

6. Ignore Family and Others with Helpful Unhelpful Advice

Everyone is going to give you advice. This will range from “get a job at the lumber mill” to “write a bi-sexual werewolf story and sell it for a gajillion dollars.”

Fuck them all. Maybe even including this article and me.

You have to find your own path, and I found that being in a graduate writing program actually inhibited me from finding my true writing self. Maybe it was the pressure of constantly showing people work, and the social pressure or producing stuff that I knew I would be judged for. I found that once I wasn’t trapped in that fishbowl, I started to expand into much more dangerous territory.

7. Be a Good Literary Citizen

Review books. For God’s sake, please review books. And I’m not talking about on Amazon or Goodreads. I mean for The Millions, The Rumpus, your friend’s blog. 

Someday you’re going to want others to review your book, so it doesn’t feel like you chucked four years of your life into a gaping black hole that swallowed it without a burp. 

And go to readings. And buy books. And participate in book life.

Do all the things that you want people to do for you once you publish a book. Not because of a self-serving idea like Karma, but because it’s the right thing to do, even if nobody ever does it for you.

8. Attend Cheap Conferences that Have Agents

Don’t do the craft-only conferences. That’s not what you’re in the game for now. You’re in a market, and some day you will need an agent. Sooner the better.

Even if it’s five years from now, though, if you say that you met an agent at a conference, they will give your work a fair shake. They will at least read your cover letter with an open mind, and maybe the first chapter. I mean, that’s the best you can hope for — a fair evaluation.

So start keeping an agent file with the name of every agent you’ve ever met. It will be the most useful list you’ve ever created.

9. Start a New Project

Don’t be one of those assholes that is still revising the same bloody novel four years later. Because it’ll never get published because it was fundamentally flawed and because you can’t polish sandstone and because it’s harder to improve mediocre work than to write entirely new work. 

Start something new.

Especially while waiting for the distance and insight to revise your short stories or novels, you need a new project.

10. Start a Book Club with Non-Writers

You don’t need a writing group right now (but when you do, create one with people who didn’t graduate from your MFA program — branch out).

No, right now you should read.

Nothing is as refreshing as talking about books with people who don’t make them. Because they have such lovely, naive insights into the experience of reading. There is no theory, no expectations of craft or ideology, just a simple interaction with the plot and characters and emotions of reading.

You know, the way that almost everyone reads.

There is a de-academizing process that needs to happen after you graduate with your creative writing MFA, and this is the best way to delouse yourself from the philosophies of the writing program. Deprogramming yourself (or at least remembering how people read who don’t have the time for graduate programs in writing) will be essential to your writing success.

Ideally, you should be able to do this without encouraging your narcissism: aka, saying, I am such a better writer and reader than these people. Because that’s awfully smug and wrongheaded.

Remember: stay humble.

11. Keep in contact with your professors

I don’t mean only keep in contact when you’re asking something of them.

Make sure to say hello and tell them you read their latest book, or to tell them about a great book you’ve read. Don’t write them long fucking emails. Be short and be friendly. If you’re still in the area, pop back in and say hi when you can’t. 

That way when you actually need a letter of recommendation, you won’t come off like an asshole.

12. Find Strategies to Combat Jealousy

Someone from your program will get a six-figure deal.

Someone from your program will get a dream agent.

Someone from your program will get published in the Paris Review.

Somehow this person will never be you.

If you don’t develop strategies to combat envy of your colleagues, you will sabotage your writing life with the acid of jealousy.

Don’t just set the low bar of trying to not be jealous. That’s a really awful thing for you to do, on par with trying to avoid killing someone. Your goal is not to avoid jealousy, but to pursue genuine happiness. Real happiness at their good fortune. So you can smile and hug them and send them congratulations and actually mean it.

If you think about it, what would you rather: that great success happens to your friends or to strangers? I mean, it reflects better on your program, and maybe they will help you out some day. But even if it doesn’t benefit you, it’s great when someone you know gets success because it’s just one more confirmation that it could happen to you.

Stop thinking of writing as a competition. Stop thinking of it as a race.

Think of it as a mutual collaboration toward the goal of feeding the river of art. 

13. Learn the Market

You’re in a market now. Don’t be all hoity-toity about your work. It’s a product, like toilet paper and plastic bins.

Educate yourself on the market. Research novel publishing companies. Educate yourself (not do it–but at least educate yourself) on self-publishing. Maybe you won’t publish fiction through self-publishing, but you’re publish a book on writing, and make $10,000 more than if you published it with a traditional publisher.

More importantly, educate yourself on the state of the industry. 

14. Apply for Grants/Fellowships/Writing Retreats

I mean, this is obvious, isn’t it? But take the time to do the research and apply to all this stuff. This is how you’ll meet the people who will become important in your writing life later.

15. Don’t Lose the Dream

The entire world is a conspiracy against art. The mechanism of the world grinds against you constantly, and the entire machine is designed to eradicate the desire to create art. Don’t let it chew you up.

You were once idealistic. Remember to stay that way.

You once wanted to publish a book. Never forget that.

You once didn’t care if you were poor. If you start seeking wealth, you’ll fail as a writer. Which means that you should ignore some of the suggestions on this list. But if I gave you advice that wasn’t contradictory, it wouldn’t be good advice at all.

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  1. Fantastic list of suggestions. Really appreciated the candor, wit, and realism. I’m a newly-hatched MFA with a career already teaching English to underserved high school youth, so poverty isn’t threatening me. I’m grateful to be optimistic that something will happen in publishing soon enough. Your blog confirmed and affirmed so much. Thanks for your time writing it so well.

  2. Hah! Love this. I’ll be sending some of my poets here in the future. If any of you MFA holders are looking for a publication opportunity, check out my publication Vita Brevis Poetry Magazine. We feature emerging poets right next to Tin House and TIME contributors.

  3. One of my MFA course professors shared this article with the class in the last week of the term. As the pressure of the thesis novel is mounting and the responsibilities to pay those awful student loans is rising, this article gave me hope. The wit and honesty is greatly appreciated.