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Surviving the MFA

Categories: MFA Confidential Blog.

Most of the people in my advanced fiction class are in their third year, so the other night my teacher asked us to give him our top three survival strategies for making it through your MFA.I thought I would share with you (since no, I have not started my Steeplechase yet) what I’ve come up with, in no particular order:

1. A SUPPORT SYSTEM WITHIN THE PROGRAM. This should include at least one go-to teacher and one go-to classmate. The teacher should be someone who makes you feel validated, whose work you respect, and who you feel you can talk to freely and honestly. The same criteria applies to the classmate. The only difference is that the fellow student should be someone you can commiserate with about your shared experience, and the teacher should be more of a role model. Going out drinking with one or both of them on a regular basis is also highly recommended.

2. RECOGNIZE THAT YOU’RE GOING TO BE WORKING REALLY HARD. I think sometimes that MFA programs have to prove to the rest of academia that they are a real discipline, with a specific pedagogy and rigorous curriculum and not an army of rudderless, weepy poets. At Columbia–and I would imagine it’s the same elsewhere—teachers have high expectations, so you’d better be ready to work hard. Why? Because writing is really hard. It’s one of the few paradoxical disciplines where the better you become at it, the harder it is. That said, though, no matter how high your program’s expectations are for you, if you really are serious about your writing, your expectations for yourself are always going to be even higher.

3.ACCEPT REJECTION GRACEFULLY AND FOCUS ON YOUR ACCOMPLISHMENTS. I have an Excel spreadsheet that lists all my submissions since October 2009. I’ll be honest: There are 82 entries: 11 acceptances, 46 rejections, a few that I’m still waiting to hear from and another bunch that thought my work was so atrocious it wasn’t worth their time to even click send on the form rejection email. One entry contains the pathetic footnote: “rejection: but with positive feedback”, followed by a series of hopeful exclamation marks. If I were to focus on those odds, though, I’d probably give up. I know it sounds cheesy but being positive really does make a difference. If you do a reading and people applaud, if a classmate pulls you aside after class and tells you they liked your story, if a scrawled teacher’s comment across a page means something to you, that is what you should remember. This takes me back to my first point: surround yourself with positive people and avoid cattiness and overcompetition. I really do believe that if you add up all the small victories over the course of your MFA program, it is more than enough to keep you motivated.

What are your survival tips for making it through an MFA, or even just for keeping up with your writing when things aren’t going well? What keeps you motivated as a writer? Good luck this week!

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3 Responses to Surviving the MFA

  1. bradley morrow says:

    What do i do to keep myself motivated. That really depends. If i am stuck on an idea i may take time off and work on another hobby. However, my story is always there pushing for a way to come out. The key is not to rush it. As far as rejection, I put that out of my thoughts. Reason for this i seen what one of my dad’s friends said about something he wrote. My dad never wrote his poetry again. I thought it was great writing. So when i started on my story in 2006 I let my friend read what i had written. I had already made up in my mind that I was not going to let what happened to my dad stop me.

    I think the biggest compliment i had was my friends scouring my desk looking for the next installment or chapter. Even if they said they didnt like it I was and still am determined to go on with writing my stories.

    I decided to self publish. In mid october my book should be out and i am writing the second book as we speak.

    as far as the steeple chase look at the three perspectives. Put yourself in the place of each character. if it is a scene that goes no where i make a character and look at it from the perspectives of narator 1st and 2nd person.

    I live in macon illinios so i will look at a sunset on the cornfields and let my imagination roll.

  2. Good suggestions for all writers, whether they’re in MFA programs or not. :) And reminds me that I haven’t updated my Excel spreadsheet lately…

  3. Kristan says:

    I have a spreadsheet for each of my stories, with similar notations. It’s important to keep track, and it helps me figure out where I want to target my future submissions. (Granted, I haven’t written/submitted a short in FOREVER… Focusing on novels right now.)

    I think your tips are good ones, especially #1. A mentor is so valuable. I was fortunate to connect with two awesome professors in my (undergrad) writing program, and I still consider them friends today. :)

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