Surviving the MFA

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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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