Making the Most of Your MFA
Attend all of the Creative Writing readings (with an open mind). To listen to the novelist Elizabeth Stark read from a work-in-progress about Kafka’s sister, who, in this telling is the one responsible for writing all of Kafka’s work, or to hear the essayist Steven Church read one of his research-based, linguistically playful pieces—this is to plant a seed in your mind to be more bold. Sometimes what you learn from attending the reading is some stray comment that comes out in the question-and-answer session afterward. When I heard the poet Joyelle McSweeney read at Saint Mary’s, for example, she said something in passing about “recycling imagery” in her poems. And even though I had thought a lot about repetition and taught a lot about repetition and read a lot about repetition, it wasn’t until I hear that verb “recycle” that something clicked. It’s a phrase that has stayed with me every day since McSweeney’s reading, informing my own work.
Attend all craft talks (with a notebook and pen). I still remember the thrill of hearing Glen David Gold talk about endings in his lecture, “Blowing It On the Dismount,” which was not only about endings in novels but about failure as a constant companion in the writing life. And I remember after hearing Kathryn Ma talk about dialogue—a talk in which she showed us a sample of dialogue from one short story or another (I’ve forgotten now what it was) and pointed out how often the writer interrupted dialogue for description, exposition, and the rest—seeing how much longer my own MFA students’ scenes were, how punctuated they became my dialogue and how much they could see the opportunity to digress after Ma’s spectacular talk.
Attend your peers’ readings (because you’ll want them to come to yours and manners and good citizenship do matter). It’s not only pleasurable to hear what your classmates are up to in their writing, it’s informative. Because again, they will be trying things in their work that you may recognize and want to try in your own. And is there anything better than hearing good work before someone snatches it up to publish it?
Meet all deadlines. (It’s how a thesis happens and how books are eventually made.) The best example I always think of in this arena is Jo Ann Beard’s exquisite collection of autobiographical essays, Boys of My Youth. Beard wrote many of those while she was an MFA student at the University of Iowa. And she met every single deadline in her classes.
Use the summer between your first and second year to take stock and make thesis plans. There are a lot of pressures on you, I know, to work and to spend time with your friends and family members and summer seems like the best time—the only time—to play catch-up. But consider the summer between your first and second year as part of your MFA education, a time to take a hard look at what you did during your first year and where you want to direct your energies in your thesis. Some people take the poems, the essays, the stories, or the drafts that they write their first year and begin the long revision process. Other people set aside that early work and focus on something new. We had a student at Saint Mary’s a few years ago, Rebecca Brams, who was writing beautiful short stories as a fiction student her first year. But rather than gather those up, she set her mind to the novel idea she’d had coming in and spent that summer churning out a rough draft, which she continued working on and which became her thesis. And that work is how she secured a Fulbright to Peru not too long after she completed her MFA.
Consider what habits of work you are developing while here and write every day—four hours a day, if possible. Four hours was the suggestion of Frank Conroy, who for so many years directed the Writers’ Workshop in fiction at the University of Iowa. His idea, as I understood it, was to treat writing like your job: something you sit down and do every day at the same time every day. I loved putting in my four hours a day as an MFA student but I confess I never did them at the same time every day and that seemed to work better for me. Figure out what works for you—not only how to navigate time to write but also atmosphere. Do you write better when you’re home alone in a dark room? Or in a coffee shop with caffeine and some background noise to keep you going? Everyone is different, but you want to learn more about yourself as a writer while you’re here so you can develop habits that will last a lifetime.
Be generous. Cheer your classmates’ successes and commiserate with them when they fail. Keep in mind that your notions of “success” and “failure” are likely to change drastically while you’re here. (We hope the idea of “success” will broaden considerably and that “failure” will come be part of living the literary life, not something to fear.) Throughout all ups and downs, generosity is simply a better way to live.
When asked by One Story magazine if she had any advice for new writers starting their literary careers, Ann Patchett, a novelist and memoirist said this:
“Show kindness whenever possible. Show it to the people in front of you, the people coming up behind you, and the people with whom you are running neck and neck. It will vastly improve the quality of your own life, the lives of others, and the state of the world. And while you’re at it, buy your books at independent bookstores and tell your friends to do the same because if we don’t take the lead, no one else will.”