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10 Tips for Maximizing Your MFA Experience

Make the most of a creative writing program now, and it may pay off for the rest of your writing life. by Lori A. May

You probably already know that a Master of Fine Arts is no small undertaking. But what opportunities do creative writing programs really offer, and how can you take advantage of them, both in the classroom and beyond?

Devote your time in the program to focusing on your craft—not on the market. Embrace the opportunity to write without the pressures of publishing. Iowa Writers' Workshop graduate and How Animals Mate author Daniel Mueller says learning to look at work with a critical, inquisitive eye can enhance your lifelong approach to writing. "For me, the language of craft was a largely foreign language until I went to graduate school," he says. "The ability to communicate with a story I'm writing is the single most important thing I was given … and what I try to give the writers I [now] teach."

"Attend all of the readings, lectures and community events you can. Don't pass up a visiting author or special workshop," advises poet Millicent Accardi, a writing instructor and University of Southern California graduate.
Claudia Manley, a Columbia alumna and instructor at The University of Western Ontario, agrees. "It's in these seminars and lectures where you might be exposed to writers who end up having an enormous influence on your work. Graduate school is also one of the few times you can indulge in electives like this."

You'll want critique partners and business connections throughout your career. It's good to connect with like-minded writers now, while you have so many of them at your disposal.

Manley suggests you find "the two or three people whose insight, style or critical eye works for you. These people can be readers for you through graduate school and beyond." If you can sustain a handful of relationships with fellow writers, she says these can be just as important as the diploma.

Jeanne Gassman, a Vermont College of Fine Arts alumna now teaching writing in Phoenix, says she credits her advisers for helping her complete a publishable manuscript.

In many ways, your faculty advisers provide that first critical editorial eye.

Derek Alger, managing editor of PIF Magazine and graduate of Columbia, says students should look for faculty "who don't view writing as a competitive game, and [who] believe in helping others."

After all, you're going to want to publish your work, right? Melissa Hart, author of Gringa, was a shy student in her writing program at Goddard College. She says, "I watched enviously as other students shared meals with their teachers and asked them for professional advice and agent or editor contacts, never realizing that I might do this, as well."

Hart says she wishes she'd taken time to consult with faculty "to really get a sense of what it's like to work as a professional writer and to ask for referrals." Thankfully, she was a self-starter and her thesis was published—but it took her years to learn the ins and outs of the business. "If I'd asked my MFA faculty members for help," she says, "I might have found the process to be a little faster, a little easier and a lot more understandable."

In addition to writing, your future might include editorial work. Florida State University graduate Valerie Wetlaufer, author of Scent of Shatter, says students should volunteer with campus publications. "I found it enormously helpful to get a sense of how a lit mag works," she says. "Even little things like formatting a submission I learned from reading [submissions] for The Southeast Review."

It's also a good idea to develop your teaching skills while you're in academia. Gassman relays a valuable lesson she learned from a panel discussion: "[S]tudents were told, ‘If you want to teach after you graduate, you should be teaching now.'" She adds that both formal classes and informal workshops "develop networking opportunities that can lead to full-time employment as teachers."

Some schools offer travel grants for students who wish to attend writing conferences. At the University of Michigan, writing program director Eileen Pollack says students use such funds to attend the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference, the Prague Summer Program and other scholarly events. "[We] want students to get a sense of the dimensions of the larger literary world," she says. "Obviously, all sorts of opportunities can spring from chance encounters at a conference."

Events like these expose stu-dents to a variety of editors, publishers and literary journals. "Wandering the book fair at AWP is a great way to get acquainted with a wide sampling of the diverse journals that are out there and the wide sampling of people who produce them," Pollack adds. If your school doesn't offer a travel grant, try to set aside funds so you can take advantage of opportunities to network
off campus.

Pollack says Michigan students aren't pushed to get published, but as they near completion of the program, professors start to talk about how and when to submit work, and the school even helps defray the cost of sending out manuscripts. Check to see if your school offers postage reimbursement for submissions.

"And above all else," says Alger, "keep writing." This may seem like a given for MFA students, but it's important to write more than you have to. Writing beyond what is required is a habit you want to develop for life.

Judith Barrington is a prize-winning poet and memoirist who received a Master of Arts from Goddard in 1979. "The low-res program where I teach, University of Alaska Anchorage, is a three-year program, and [that 's] one of the many reasons I think it's really good," she says. "My advice would be to give yourself a third year of planned reading and writing with good feedback, and consider it a further apprenticeship. Two years is fast!"

If you have the option to add another year, you might find the benefits outweigh the extra time and financial commitments. That was certainly the case for Wetlaufer. "The third year gave me the time to immerse myself in course work," she says. "I was really able to devote myself to turning my thesis manuscript into a book, and, in fact, it is the manuscript I'm sending out. Two years just wasn't enough time for me to get the manuscript I wanted."

If at all possible, don't work full time while attending the program. For Christopher Nelson, a Jacob Javits Fellow at the University of Arizona and author of Blue House, this is imperative. "Take out loans if you must," he advises. "The two or three years go quickly, and you want to immerse yourself in your writing and not be distracted by other things. The MFA is something you do once: Give it everything."

A creative writing program can be one of the most rewarding—and overwhelming—experiences of your emerging career. Take advantage of all the opportunities it affords you, and you'll not only get the most from your MFA experience, you'll also be setting yourself up for the writing life after graduation.

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