After the MFA (and Counting)

Someone I know is about to graduate her MFA program. I told her congratulations, expecting her to be excited. But she’s not looking forward to graduating. She told me she’s afraid that—without the deadlines that come with being in a program—she won’t be motivated to write anymore.

This conversation occurred at work, at the end of the day, when I just wanted to finish up what I was doing and get. the. hell. out. of. there.

Still, I said words of encouragement and gave what I could of practical advice.

Then she said, with a look of horror on her face, that she was afraid two years will go by and she won’t have a book published, and what then?

Um…

Dude, I graduated my MFA program in 2002. And do you see me flouncing around with my published book (yes, I imagine that when you get a book published—a book written under your own name, mind you—you become so excited you start flouncing around with it or maybe run around waving it through a meadow)? Or do you see me sitting here behind this desk with an extremely pained look on my face because you’re making me feel like crap?

When no one is around to make me feel bad about myself—it is very easy to make me feel bad about myself, you can do it without even trying—I think fondly back on getting an MFA. I think that, yes, I may have been too young when I started and not yet “ready,” but, also, it was a privileged existence and I am lucky to have had it, book published at this moment in time or no. I think about how, after, I tried to get published; I gave it a good solid shot. And at least I can go to bed saying I made an effort.

I also think I shouldn’t be so sensitive.

Right now, I am writing this post instead of writing my book. It is Thursday morning. A girl in a hooded sweatshirt (hood up) and black sunglasses and a sneer on her face sits in the corner near me counting out crumpled dollar bills from her crammed pockets. Now she’s got them all smoothed out and wraps them in a hair elastic. A man asks me if the newspaper on the chair nearby is mine; I say it was there when I got here, it’s all his. I look at the clock. I sigh. This is life after the MFA program. An hour and counting left before I have to go to work. No meadow to flounce through. And no one to keep me on point except me.

It’s a lonely existence, but—dude—if you really and truly want to be a writer you will keep writing even when no one’s watching. That is all I have to say about that.

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15 thoughts on “After the MFA (and Counting)

  1. Cavu April 26, 2007 / 9:00 am

    I don’t think you’re being overly sensitive. And flouncing through meadows is overrated.

    Okay, maybe she’s all panicky about graduating and change and not having structure–I get that. But basing success totally on getting a book published is trouble.

  2. charlotteotter April 26, 2007 / 9:27 am

    “Even when no-one’s watching” is probably the key. I need to remember that, because I do so love an audience – probably why I am a blogger and not yet a published writer. Hmmm, food for thought. Thanks, Nova.

  3. elizabeth April 26, 2007 / 10:33 am

    Definitely not being overly sensitive. Soon-to-be-MFA-grad should have realized what she was saying. Also, sounds like she’s in for a shock after graduation.
    You have the right attitude… It’s all about persistence and self-motivation. Timing — either when you pursue an MFA or when you get published — is irrelevant compared to the importance of believing in your own work, and actually doing that work.

  4. sognatrice April 26, 2007 / 1:43 pm

    Oh Nova, you’ll flounce one day soon, and you’ll flounce like no one has flounced before! And I so hope someone takes photos 🙂

  5. mel April 26, 2007 / 2:52 pm

    I agree, not being overly sensitive at all. In fact just reading, “…she was afraid two years will go by and she won’t have a book published, and what then?” got me slightly riled up as well. The post-MFA life is tough, but I loved what you said about writing, no matter what. That’s a lesson I’m still learning.

  6. everythinginbetween April 26, 2007 / 3:12 pm

    the one thing I never truly thought is that my MFA manuscript would get published – not out of humility but it was my *first* book and I just wasn’t sure at all about how things would shake out. Actually, my friends who were totally freaked out about publishing their book are the unhappiest I know…I think your approach is right…it WAS a privileged existence, we wrote a book, we tried to get it out in the world…now it’s time to write the next, and the next, and the next.

  7. jadepark April 26, 2007 / 3:18 pm

    She’ll learn.

  8. w April 26, 2007 / 5:05 pm

    Heh, ditto Jade.

  9. joefelso April 26, 2007 / 6:43 pm

    As another post-MFA—2001—I can understand missing the structure, but I don’t miss the self-consciousness and constipatedness I developed as a student. I also studied poetry, and it took me a couple of years to know, intuitively, what a poem IS again. I did not want to publish at first and stopped writing altogether for a time. Now I’m having so much more fun as a blogger being introduced to a community of great writers…like you. Thanks.

  10. Helen April 27, 2007 / 12:32 am

    I think it’s silly when people give themselves deadlines like this. It’s related, in a way, to people who think you should have X-number of rejections and then give up. Someone I know found out that I got 30+ rejections in 2005 and was astonished that I was still writing… because 30+ rejections means my writing’s useless, right?! And the fact I’ve been submitting off and on to publishers for 10 years with no acceptances yet… But to my mind, the 30+ rejections represented a success because I got 30+ submissions out during a very difficult year. A big relevation to me was when I realised that a rejection never represents a final chance, lost. There are always opportunities, and the most important part is to keep on writing.

  11. e April 27, 2007 / 2:44 am

    i think this is the first time you’ve ever used the word “dude” and it’s making me smile uncontrollably. i think i’d be in hysterics if you ever said it out loud. dude. 🙂

  12. Smithereens April 27, 2007 / 4:07 am

    Don’t go on torturing yourself on whatever she said. She’ll soon graduate and she still thinks this way? What did she learn? (ok, I’m being utterly insensitive here…)

  13. joefelso April 28, 2007 / 8:12 am

    I’ve been haunted by this post and have been thinking about how much I want (or whether I’d want) “fame.” There’s a post on my blog–“Famous on Radio” that’s an oblique reply.

  14. Robert April 30, 2007 / 7:17 pm

    You mean life after MFA resembles life before MFA? I can believe that. 🙂

  15. nova April 30, 2007 / 7:22 pm

    Robert: Yes, I am afraid it is exactly the same. Except for, in my case, the crippling amounts of debt.

    Do I sound bitter? I’m not all the time, really.

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