What I Wish I Knew After My MFA Ended

April 23, 2014 § 151 Comments


A guest post from Sara Finnerty:

420-Jacquelyn-Mitchard-splits-limbo-looking-back.imgcache.rev1308082218874In the years after I got my MFA I was a miserable mess. I felt like a failure as a writer and a human being. I still feel that way sometimes, but now I try and fail and try again and I know that does not mean I am a failure, it only means I am a person like everyone else. If I could, here are some things I would tell my self six years ago when I was finishing graduate school.

1)   Don’t even try to get published. There are some people in your class who will stop writing altogether. There are some who will only tangentially write. You will never stop writing, but don’t try to publish right now because your writing is still borderline terrible. Yes, you have an MFA but an MFA does not give you the heart, the will, the confidence, the patience or the skill you will need to Be a Writer. And, actually, your writing is not altogether atrocious, some of it (after many edits) will be beautiful, but for years it won’t be the right time for you to publish. Publishing requires the stars to align and you don’t have control of that. Even if I managed to get this message to you, you will still try to publish because you believe you could be the exception. You could be the one that encounters “success” out of graduate school.

Function as if you are not the exception. You are not special. Write. Explore. And.

2)   Work on your mental health issues. This is as important, if not more so, than working on your writing and logging in your “10,000 hours.” You are a mess. You don’t know how to love. You are in a relationship but you are unable to trust. Your family back in New York is in shambles and you don’t know how to deal with them. You are full of anxiety, paranoia, resentment and sadness. You cannot be present inside your sentences or write with intention until you are fully present inside your own body.

You will spend years so afraid of failure that you will not put your heart and soul into your writing because it is safer that way. If you pay attention you will notice that you practice this kind of detachment with your relationships too. You are on guard at all times against potential hurt. But if you continue to live that way, behind your walls, afraid of rejection and abandonment, you will live a half-life and your sentences will be half-alive.

Learn to trust yourself. Learn to trust those who are deserving of your trust. Learn to trust that even if you do get hurt, you will be ok. Don’t be afraid. Your life and your writing will be bigger and full of love, I promise.

3)   Read the writers who you’d like to be when you grow up.

You want to be Aimee Bender, Annie Dillard, Milan Kundera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Samantha Hunt. You want to be smarter and more reckless and you want to regard the world as if anything is possible. Don’t read anything you don’t want to read. Stop trying to impress the imaginary literary masses with your reading lists. There isn’t time.

4)   Read literary magazines and send your work to your favorites.

Instead, you will carpet bomb lit mags for years and you will get hundreds of rejections. You will feel dejected and lost and will convince yourself that you are an awful writer who has been kidding herself all these years. You will get so frustrated that you will try to write what you think people want to read. Stop it. Waste of time.

Like I said, stop trying to publish. Take the time to figure out what literary magazines, online or print, you enjoy. Read them for pleasure and subscribe to them.

In graduate school, you went to AWP and discovered Black Warrior Review. You loved it and subscribed to it for years. Seven years later they published one of your essays. You wrote the essay for them, and sent it only to them. You would have never done this fresh out of graduate school. You were too worried about TIME.

5)   Forget about TIME and forget about OTHER PEOPLE. Forget about what you should have accomplished by now. Forget about how long it takes to write this essay or that novel. Do not compare yourself to anyone else. The race and the competition are imaginary. There is no race, there is no competition, and there is no rush.

You will meet writers with ten published novels who worry about the next one. You will meet accomplished writers who are seething with jealousy over other, more accomplished writers. You will meet writers who make you feel as if you are not a serious writer if you don’t have an agent or a novel. The writers who feel this way must be somehow damaged if they truly feel the need to feel superior to you. They are not. They are unhappy and unenlightened and they don’t matter. Get ahead of the game and just stop caring right now about other people and about timetables.

Instead, find joy inside of your every day. Find gratitude instead of self-pity. Take it as a given that you will never give up. An essay I wrote in graduate school, when I thought I was a shitty writer, ended up being published seven years later in The Weeklings. The publishing will come, eventually. Don’t wait for it, or hope for it, or hang your self-esteem on it.

What matters is the love you put into your work and the love you give to others and the love you graciously receive. The rest is nonsense.

6)   Don’t even think about “building a platform” or “going to the right events” or “getting to know the right people.”

This isn’t you. You will never be able to do these things. Just be genuine and be yourself. You will spend years after graduate school, frozen and resentful, terrified of going to readings because readings bring out all your social anxiety and the inevitable comparing of yourself to other people. Heal your neurosis and from time to time, go to readings. Mostly everyone there will be happy to talk to you because they are just as neurotic and anxious as you are. Here is what you can say to people: “Hi. I’m Sara.” Then ask questions. It is fascinating to find out what people do, where they live, what they write, who they know. Don’t even talk about publishing. Talk about your life. You will be so afraid of people asking you about your publishing life but in truth that is a very personal question, just as personal as “Are you dating anyone?” or “How much are you getting paid at that job?” You don’t have to answer. Change the subject. Be inspired by other people’s words. You love listening to people tell stories, and you always have. That’s all a reading is.

7)   You will be grateful for your MFA. It got you out of New York. It gave you structure and a work ethic and exposure to all sorts of crazy people, situations and art. It was what you needed at the time. Mostly, you will be grateful for California, this place that has healed you. Stop putting so much thought into whether you should leave or not. Stick around. Buy a comfortable pair of flip-flops.

8)   Try to figure out what you need and give it to yourself without guilt. If you need a few days or weeks off writing, take it. If you need to power through, push yourself. If you need to isolate, go ahead. If you would benefit from interaction, push yourself to do so. Your needs can change from day-to-day. Give what you need to yourself when you can, and quit beating yourself up about it.

And you never need to listen to anyone’s advice, or live anyone else’s life. Figure out what works best for you.

9)   I am glad you won’t know how much work you will put into your first novel only to set aside. It will be agony for you, this process of writing it. It is unlike any novel you have ever read. Writing it and piecing it together will be like pulling out your own eyeballs, but you love your characters and you love playing with the possibilities of what a novel can be. You will gain weight and be covered in stress rashes. After graduate school, for years, you will overhaul your little book countless times, and you will try and fail, over and over, to get it published. This will break your heart but it will be the best thing for you, because the worst has happened. You wrote a book, and it failed to be published, and now you go on. You will write another book and two novellas and stories and essays and you will do it because there are stories in you that you need to tell and you are listening.

You will let go of all your ideas of how your publishing career should go and you will feel freer and lighter than you have ever felt. You will learn good luck can come to you at any time. You will learn that you love writing just the way you did when you were a little girl, that you are lucky to be this thing—a writer—that makes life never-boring, that gives you access to entire new worlds and roads through your own heart.

You are lucky. Don’t worry so much. Keep going.

Sara Finnerty has essays and stories published in Black Warrior Review, Role Reboot, htmlgiant, The Rumpus, Frequencies, The Weeklings, Mutha Magazine, Jersey Devil Press and others. She is originally from Queens, NY and currently lives in Los Angeles, where she co-curates The Griffith Park Storytelling Series. 

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§ 151 Responses to What I Wish I Knew After My MFA Ended

  • MarinaSofia says:

    I think I’ll print this out and put it somewhere above my desk – it really spoke to me, even though I don’t have (and never intend to have) an MFA. Very inspiring, though bleak – the love of writing outweighs everything else.

  • My MFA was a marvelous experience. It gave me affirmation as a writer. The hard work comes afterward when you have to “become” a writer. Don’t let anyone tell you are not. We all find our way, our voices, in our own particular process and sometimes it takes a lifetime. But while you’re finding “it” — you are STILL a writer. Write!
    Great piece. Thanks Brevity!

  • Amy says:

    Huh. I did not find this inspiring. Only bleak. I feel sad for this person, although I suppose it’s great that she finally decided to get published and has a good list of credits.

  • D. Howell says:

    Wow. I haven’t gotten an MFA and have no plans to, but this post was exactly what I needed to hear at exactly the right time.

    Thank you. This is one of those things that bears re-reading when my spirits run low.

  • Robin Kirk says:

    This is atrocious advice.

    • Joy says:

      What’s your advice then?

      • jnchaney says:

        I would say to try and publish as much as you can and to write as much as you can. I have several friends who have all published their first book. And hey, if you can’t go traditional, there’s always indie. The market for self-publishing is blowing up right now and there are plenty who have found success doing it. You have a lot of options these days.

  • Rebecca Frost says:

    Perfect. Brilliant. Spot on. Echoes my conclusions, and many of my experiences. Contrary to what some say, I find this essay to be in no way bleak. Accurate, liberating. Championing true-ness in one’s self. As a result, yes, I feel lighter, brighter, and able to continue writing. With love and trust. Thanks for sharing your way. Great device, too, the message to your past self.

  • Charles Coe says:

    I don’t give (or listen to) pep talks anymore. When a young writer complains to me about how hard the craft and business are, I just nod and say, “You’re right. It’s really tough. In fact, it’s so tough that if you can live without it you probably should.”

  • Richard Gilbert says:

    In an essay of immortal lines: “What matters is the love you put into your work and the love you give to others and the love you graciously receive. The rest is nonsense.” Amen.

  • MPS says:

    Fantastic advice. So often, we rush to try to “achieve,” but in that anxiety, lose sight of what really matters – to us and the publishing world.

  • I’m smack in the middle of my MFA, and this is probably all great advice for me to keep in mind, though at 47 years old, I’m pretty impatient to Get On With It.

  • This strikes me as a list of things one should largely do (or start, or finish doing) before the MFA, not during or after.

    • I agree. I would give very different advice to young writers: start submitting and throw yourself into the world as soon as you can. Most of us need those rejection letters.

  • Darlene Morse says:

    I hope most of this does not apply to me because I am finishing up my studies but I am soon turning 63. If not now, when? On the bright side, my mental health is pretty good! So I got that going for me.

    • Lee Kisling says:

      Darlene – well I’m just finishing my BFA in creative writing and I just turned 63. I’ve had a little success. I don’t worry about time.

      • Darlene and Lee, thank you so much for posting. I will be receiving my Bachelor’s Degree in December, at the ripe old age of 58. I felt alone in a sea of 20 somethings until I read your comments. I think I will go for the MFA in January. LOL

  • Doré Bak says:

    Sara, thank you. I believe you’ve hit the heart of the matter.

  • Danielle says:

    This is pretty much perfect.

  • Sigrun says:

    A beautiful list!

  • Tom McGohey says:

    When students ask me about getting an MFA, I tell them, sure, if you think you’d enjoy taking classes with other writers, but don’t approach it like Med school or Law school. It won’t make you a writer; it probably won’t make you anything you weren’t already heading towards in the first place. But maybe you’ll be lucky enough to hear something really simple but helpful, like when Russell Banks visited our workshop and said, “You don’t choose your obsessions, your obsessions choose you.” I found that so obvious and enormously liberating, and stopped fretting over writing stories about the same thing. Didn’t make my stories any better, but it made them more fun to write.

    • Seems like we all feel the need to get our permission slip signed before we consider ourselves “real writers”. Some of us need to keep getting the damned thing signed over and over again. That is what contributor’s copies are… just another signature on a permission slip.

  • Kristin says:

    How did you get into my head and my heart and put all of these things I have been unable to articulate or even to acknowledge into such honest language? Magic.

  • Kristin says:

    Reblogged this on kilo november whiskey and commented:
    Oh, yes.

  • kmorsewriter says:

    I had a great professor and poet, Rosanna Warren, tell us on the first day of our MFA program that we shouldn’t get too comfortable. “An MFA program is like a bus station”, she said. Seeing the looks on our faces, she amended, “It’s a really nice bus station, there’s snack machines and everything. But don’t fool yourself into thinking it’s anything but a temporary stop in your writing life.” It’s good to read this post and remember that funny, horrifying moment. It’s good to remember why we started writing in the first place, before the baggage of cultural capital and academic careerism were piled on top of our joy.

  • This is written from the heart. And that’s wonderful and it’s good and fine and nice and well done. Thank you.

  • Reblogged this on Pulling Rooms Together and commented:
    “You are lucky. Don’t worry so much. Keep going.”

  • Advice that heals. Thank you.

  • Absolutely awful advice. Possibly the worst I have ever seen. Bespeaks of a lot of other issues as well.

  • Sandra says:

    Find joy everyday. That is the best advice, but the path for everyone is different and so some of the other numbers on this list do not apply. Building community after the MFA has been very important for me. As a few other post-ers mentioned, when you finish your MFA midway in the journey of life, you have a few more things figured out, and perhaps needed the MFA to give yourself permission to believe that you are not only a mother, wife, worker and homemaker (fill in your own list) but also a writer.

  • This makes me angry. Let’s not assume that all writers will grow at the pace. Submitting an incomplete or unpolished piece won’t hurt your career, and in fact, those rejection letters are what push most writers to improve. Cacooning yourself from the big bad world is not the way to grow.

    • neighsayer says:

      I think you’re not so much in disagreement here. She says ‘don’t publish,’ but it’s more like ‘don’t worry if they’re not buying yet.’ Really, as a middle-aged fella, I’m not very interested in reading the thoughts of even brilliant 20 year-olds. Life experience matters.

  • There is nothing quite like writing and teaching and sharing your thoughts with others, no matter what they may think. Lovely piece.

  • […] What I Wish I Knew After My MFA Ended. […]

  • Tom McGohey says:

    “Allow your judgments their own silent, undisturbed development, which, like all progress, must come from deep within and cannot be forced or hastened. Everything is gestation and then birthing. To let each impression and each embryo of a feeling come to completion, entirely in itself, in the dark, in the unsayable, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one’s own understanding, and with deep humility and patient to wait for the hour when a new clarity is born: this alone is what it means to live as an artist: in understanding as in creating,” Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

  • the dictionary project says:

    I love this! It echoes so many of the struggles, fears, vulnerabilities of my cohorts and I post MFA. The MFA can be a wonderful experience. For me, it offered an opportunity to make space for writing and take myself seriously. However, I learned after that I was only beginning. That the book I wrote in the MFA would not be the book I wanted to send into the world. And that this was okay, because it was still a book I needed to write (to get me to the next project and so on). Most notably, I appreciate #5 about TIME and OTHER PEOPLE. Obviously, discipline is essential in a writing life. But putting false urgency on our work and forcing a timeline for when and how it needs to be is a recipe for disappointment. And comparing ourselves to others can be a recipe for creative paralysis. We must take ourselves and our work on its own terms and do our best to be true to our writing and ourselves. Thank you for this.

    I’m surprised at some of the hostile comments on here. Perhaps this isn’t the advice you’d give or in line with your way of doings things, but I think it’s pretty presumptuous (and a bit egotistical) to call it wrong or awful or atrocious.

    I find the advice to be heartfelt from lived experience and to be very resonant with my own. I’m grateful.

  • Tim says:

    pathetic. the therapy treatment known as MFA is really self-indulgent and pathetic. I fell sorry you people. no offense, but go help someone in poverty or hunger and quit being so self-involved.

    • the dictionary project says:

      Whose to say that people aren’t talking to and writing about people living in poverty or living in hunger? Stories create social change because they move people to action. There is more than one way to help others and it doesn’t necessarily point to narcissism or self-indulgence.

  • […] loved this Sarah Finnerty essay over at Brevity, about expectations following the MFA, which is really about expectations of all […]

  • Bobbi says:

    I finished my MFA a year ago. I do not have “mental health issues” to work on, nor am I depressed and in a deep pit of despair. Rather, I’m quite delighted to be finished with the program and don’t feel some crushing pressure to Be A Writer OR ELSE I WILL DIE. I teach, and I write when and what I please. This post is needlessly dramatic nonsense.

  • […] link was posted on Facebook and, curious, I read it: What I Wish I Knew After My MFA Ended. Why was I curious? If I continued my studies from undergraduate I probably would have gone into […]

  • […] read with interest this piece by Sara Finnerty on Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog. It’s a list of things she wishes she had […]

  • neighsayer says:

    I enjoyed this, and I think I can offer a parallel, if rather different POV:

    There is already plenty of stuff out there that is what publishers want to publish, and it mostly isn’t world-changing. Rather than try so hard to write highly polished, competent, “popular” stuff, write what you think you’re not already seeing everywhere, and some of our stuff written in that idea will get through, some of it will be so good and the ideas so important that publishers will publish it, not because they want to, but because they have to.
    If we succeed at writing what our professors think we should write, and succeed at it – we’ll be professors.

  • I’m not a writer (my degree is in video production), but a lot of this sounds familiar. I wish I’d known a lot of these things too, and I’m still learning them.

  • I am bookmarking this so I can read and remind myself of these brilliant points you make. Thank you, I really, really needed this, especially as a writer attempting to get her first book published. Thank you!

  • gorskil says:

    Love this. Reminds of Theodore Roosevelt’s quote — “Comparison is the thief of joy.”

  • short foray says:

    A great read! I would say though, that rather than issues of fear of failure and so forth being things to be addressed before getting published, in my view, it’d be a lifelong project to slowly chip away at those insecurities

  • bringreaner says:

    This is wonderful. Thank you for sharing!

  • worzelodd says:

    I never went to University, I shleped through school in the idiot classes, and have cleaned up after others all my life. Now I am old and write for the joy of it..write for joy, and read to keep your mind healthy, who cares if it is deemed rubbish. There.

  • So many important points in one article Some that really stood out to me:
    “Work on your mental health issues.”
    “Read them for pleasure”
    “Do not compare yourself to anyone else”.
    “find joy inside of your every day”.
    “What matters is the love you put into your work and the love you give to others and the love you graciously receive”.
    “Just be genuine and be yourself”.
    “Here is what you can say to people: “Hi. I’m Sara.” Then ask questions”.
    “Give what you need to yourself when you can, and quit beating yourself up about it.”
    “You will learn that you love writing just the way you did when you were a little girl,”

    Thanks. That was a great article.

  • simplyunwind says:

    simplyunwind.wordpress.com..please check out my blog.

  • Reblogged this on Danilo Bortoli and commented:
    Voltei para o WordPress por causa de posts assim.

  • You think you have problems? What about all of us would-be authors who lack a MFA? We struggle with POV and tense constantly. Even spelling may be a challenge. Some of us lesser educated writers have the imagination and story telling skills, but stuggle to writthe first word of a book! You have talent and will go far.

  • No MFA here (2 degrees in psychology). I love your post – being an aspiring writer and a human being seeking happiness and peace, your words spoke to me. Congrats on being a successful writer, and also cheers to you on becoming a happier person. Cheers and all the best!

  • Adora Myers says:

    If I’d known then what I now now! I loved this and can fully relate.

  • I am only a high school student. But this offers priceless advice for writers in general. Thanks! –Nhi

  • michaelsomers says:

    Reblogged this on Michael Somers.

  • Rowena Vik says:

    Thgis was beautiful to read – thanks! My yoga teacher always says – ‘*infinite time and no ambition’ – your post was a fabulous example.
    *I think she got it from Vanda Scaravelli

  • Thank you SO much for writing this. Absolutely brilliant and extremely helpful. I will keep all of this in mind while working on my first novel. I met a writer the other day who told me to throw away all of my books on writing and just write. This post backs up his statement with clear reasoning.

  • lindakbolden says:

    Well written by an Author who understands the crazy world of writing. Be blessed, because your words were taken from the minds and mouths of many, many writers, who know what youre going through.

  • Gulab Shah says:

    good thank you so much for writing this a brilliant and good thanks again
    Pleasing Care

  • cecilia3928 says:

    Reblogged this on cecilia3928.

  • neillbarry says:

    Some of this I agree with but some of it well it sounds pretty negative. It doesn’t hit my g spot and i think discourages young writers a little, which in a tough world is unnecessary. Reality is a bitch but I would rather look at the positives and not sweat the negatives. Success or failure will come and each person must work out for themselves if the tough business is for them.

  • neillbarry says:

    I think people should write for pleasure, to work through pain, or to convey stories. In any of these cases money shouldn’t be the driving force. Money should be the result of doing your craft well.

  • […] What I Wish I Knew After My MFA Ended on the Brevity […]

  • Rahul Singh says:

    I’m not sure if it was intentional, but the post somehow passes a message not only to the aspiring novelists but extended genres per se. Much to learn from it. Great. Thanks for sharing.

  • Elisa says:

    tip: there is no fully present, there are no…if only or if only….
    you write or you do not write, simple

    there are no self help should lists that make one famous and making money

    only creating and putting it out there provide opportunity for the self to express and perhaps for others to like or hate that expression enough to want to pay to read it

  • NGZG says:

    Reblogged this on Natalia Gasson painter and illustrator and commented:
    I am not a writer, but this seems like good advice for any creative

  • ashokbhatia says:

    Highly instructive post!

  • Maggie says:

    Goodness… it’s like this was a letter written to me. Thank you for this, Sara.

  • Lauren Mead says:

    This post hit home for me in a lot of ways. I especially like how you describe other people asking about how much a writer has published as being something just as personal as asking “are you dating anyone?”

    What a great pep talk! I’ll have to remember these tips while I’m writing🙂

  • Reblogged this on Laura Don't Speak and commented:
    Interesting read, considering I’m currently applying to grad schools.

  • EJP says:

    Thank you for this. I’m about to start my MFA and I have a feeling I will be needing this advice!

  • Specs says:

    Reblogged this on In The Chrysalis and commented:
    For my writer friends–this is one of the best discussions of writing I’ve read in ages. Enjoy.

  • […] week, Brevity published Ms. Finnerty’s essay about her post-MFA life. Her experience has taught her specific things about love, trust, and […]

  • Reblogged this on valleygirlsecrets and commented:
    ooh this is good!

  • Brigitte says:

    Beautifully written, heartfelt and writing born of experience and life’s thrills and heartaches — the best kind. Thank you.

  • Andrea says:

    It’s like you wrote exactly what I’ve been thinking for the past ten years. Thank you.

  • The Guat says:

    This was awesome. I love five and six and I can totally relate to that whole failure bit and seeing everyone around you rise at a faster pace. Very cool advice. Congrats on being Freshly Pressed. Nicely done.

  • Cassidy says:

    This is very thought-stirring… Thank you.

  • rbbjr says:

    Reblogged this on R.B.Bailey Jr and commented:
    Good advice

  • This is a lovely piece that certainly speaks to what I have been feeling – and describes the depth of the writing journey beautifully. Thank you.

  • This is great. My best friend is currently going through an MFA program. I’m going to share this with her.

  • jillianbain says:

    Really enjoyed this post! Follow for follow?!🙂

  • Writing is agony, but I love it with my entire being. I never got an MFA, but I’ve been writing since I could hold a pencil. So much of what you said resonated with me. Thank you for sharing this beautiful post!

  • Martina says:

    I resonate with these words and I’m not a writer. The advice can be applied to any path, especially the part about love and how the rest is nonsense. YES! I also like the reference to Malcom Gladwell’s 10,000 hours. It reminds me to redefine success beyond money and power. Be true to yourself and and let go of the nonsense. 💖

  • Martina says:

    Reblogged this on SpiritualEyezed Life and commented:
    I love how I can apply this advice to my own life and the path I’m on, even if I’m not a writer with MFA (Master’s in Fine Arts?).

  • seanpfarley says:

    Holy Christ, did I jump into a vortex and read something meant specifically for me?? Wow. This is amazing. It speaks to me in so many regards. No, I do not have an MFA, not even a BA, but I love to write. I do it when I can. It’s cathartic. But you narrowed down exactly what I KNOW I would tell myself ten years from now…but now I don’t have to. Thank you!

  • There are so many things that I loved about this post. Thank you so much for championing the idea of finding joy in who you are and where you are. That’s when the best stuff starts happening.

  • alenyajoy says:

    Thank you for writing this and sharing it. This kind of realistic encouragement and wisdom is important for any creative person to hear.

  • […] friend Kristy who has, hands-down, the coolest house in all of Erie, Pennsylvania, just posted this link. I have only read it once because that’s how bad it hurts, because it is so painfully, […]

  • artslawyer says:

    Excellent article!

  • Tandi says:

    How lovely this is! Thank you. I think the very same advice applies to blogs. I don’t really get how it can be more about trying to increase readership that just being oneself and loving what one does. The reader may or may not follow, but that isn’t want blogging, and telling stories is really about.

  • yokojanee says:

    Reblogged this on Yokojanee's Blog.

  • taylorjewel says:

    “What matters is the love you put into your work and the love you give to others and the love you graciously receive. The rest is nonsense.”
    Beautiful! Your article comes to me at a pivotal time of my life, and it reminds me of just how lucky I am to be ME. Thank you so much for writing this.

    /|\

  • […] What I Wish I Knew After My MFA Ended. Writers! This is for you. […]

  • […] MFA-related items to share. First, Sara Finnerty’s “What I Wish I Knew After My MFA Ended.” Next: Karin Gillespie’s “A Master’s in Chick Lit.” Unfortunately, I came […]

  • I like some of what has been said. I will be beginning my MA in October and I do agree it can be difficult to compare yourself to to others but let me tell you, it’s that very thing which got me writing again.

  • […] What I Wish I Knew After My MFA Ended | BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog. […]

  • Ooh, this is too true. I just completed an MFA in Fine Arts, and found it the hardest thing I’ve done, but so rewarding, many friends and ideas have come of it. But I do remember when I first came to America to begin the MFA (3 years ago, from Melbourne, Australia) I was struck by the ambitiousness of the students in the US, and the straight-out-of-undergrad-into-a-MFA demographic…all these ambitious young people who’ve never been out of school and learnt all that stuff you speak of yet…about life skills, and being a good friend, and being loving and kind to others and yourself…not grading everything. It is certainly a different mentality. My plan is to return to Australia, and continue as I was, enjoying my life and finding ways to continue making art, because that really is the way I find the approximation of meaning in the world!

  • This is a fabulous piece of writing. I second every suggestion.

  • katllama says:

    I appreciate your honesty, Brevity. It’s helpful for me to witness another’s process. May you continue to write raw, beautiful prose. Thank you.

  • hemmingplay says:

    I pretty much agree with everything you said. My path was different, but there are similarities, too. I got my master’s in journalism and went into the newspaper world. The plus side of that was the daily deadline, learning to apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair and learning how to write fast and hard and do things I never thought I would ever. Everyone in the newsroom wants to escape, eventually, and write non-fiction. Many of them do.

    I didn’t, right away. I had small kids and convinced myself that t was more about them than me. It was, really. So I took a job with regular hours and good pay in higher ed. 25 years. Now I’m working on that novel I always promised myself I would write. Whether I finish is or not is almost beside the point. It’s important to try, though. I only wish I’d known how many years of diversions stretched ahead of me when I walked out of school. Or, maybe not. Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans, as Lennon said. But now, I’m grateful for the years that have passed. I have so much more perspective and wisdom now. And if I don’t get it all out of me and written down, it doesn’t matter, because I’m doing what’s important to me. You are, too. Don’t despair. there’s always time.

  • I believe you have gotten to the core of the matter. I intend to pursue an MFA in New York as well, and your words have reaffirmed my decision, which I must admit has been going through the grinder for a while now. I’ve always believed that the publishing process is the frosting on top of the cake. Of course that’s our ultimate goal as writers, but it’s the experience—that cathartic journey that allows you to know yourself—that constitutes what it truly means to be a successful writer. Thank you for the words of encouragement. It’s nice to know that I’m not alone🙂

  • Number one should make me feel bad but it doesn’t because it started happening a year before I finished my degree (which was less than two weeks ago). Still have a ways to go with rejection since I’ve just started with building backbone.

  • […] “What I Wish I Knew After My MFA Ended” by Sara Finnerty, on the Brevity blog: https://brevity.wordpress.com/2014/04/23/mfa-wisdom/ […]

  • If I’d read this some years ago I doubt I would have agreed with most of it. I’ve had a fifteen year break from writing and now I’ve come back to it without the fear, with a lot of self esteem issues behind me, and I’m loving it. To be able to write with an honest voice is the best of feelings. This was a fantastic post.

  • Nan says:

    I do not have an MFA but do have a manuscript which has been put aside for years. And I have wasted far too much time trying to build a platform which seems to give agents comfort but not me. A few years ago I tried learning to play the violin as a diversion. If nothing else this effort gave me real cause to doubt myself. Left me thinking I was meant to be a writer after all. Or at least not a violinist…

  • Sean McCarthy says:

    Too long, ended up skimming first line of each paragraph.

  • Reblogged this on A bunch of junk from my mind and commented:
    Exactly what I need right now

  • You are brilliant. I am in tears.

  • libbywalkup says:

    What a beautiful piece of earnest writing.

    Some of you commentators seem to miss the part where the narrator stated this was advice to herself, not to you, you can find it helpful, or you cannot, no need to get your panties in a tizzy.

    Others seem to think that spending the time to learn to write well is a waste of time, true one is capable of doing so without an MFA, but I wonder what you’re even doing reading a literary magazine. An MFA is no more self-indulgent than buying a house or drinking a soda or stopping to read an online literary magazine. Narcissism comes out in all sorts of ways – irrational anger at a random essay about an MFA for instance.

    What a disappointment to find such negativity in such a wonderfully literary space. I wish all the best day and evening or evening and day.

  • kevinsterne says:

    I vehemently disagree with points one and six, but I sense those are purely for you. Very interesting overall. Thanks for this!

  • jgiambrone says:

    “Work on your mental health issues.”

    One of the first things I wrote in my 20s was an exploration of consciousness, meditation and Primal Therapy (Janov and Holden). I then moved toward very psychological fiction.

    Trying to sell your writing sucks. It’s a road paved with endless rejection slips. Pretty disheartening. And now there are so many alternatives to sitting around reading a book that it boggles the mind. Just getting noticed is a full time occupation, and honestly needs a crew.

  • Reblogged this on KLE and commented:
    I can get down with most of what Sara has to say here.

  • Thank you Sara, sometimes with the pressure to “get published” we forget how much we love visiting with our characters and living in a world of our imagination. Your words were inspirational.

  • lindsay says:

    What a beautiful collection of wisdom here. . . that reaches into the tattered soul of anyone whose world sustains with words. Just last night, I told my husband that it was time for me to step out of the snow globe and enter the reality of my life, my now nearly 40 years of life. At what point, I asked him, do you stop dreaming? Never, you’ve just reminded me. Not even in spite of failure. I need to read this again and again and again.

  • kouparn says:

    Thank you. I needed this.

  • asamryfhpl says:

    Reblogged this on Street Writer and commented:
    For my fellow MFAers.

  • hereisthirty says:

    I love that this comes from an MFA graduate. I think about getting my MFA. I struggle with my writing, and my commitment to writing, and my thoughts about myself as a writer. This was such a worthwhile read.

  • Wonderful advice. I’ve been stressing over a story idea. But I shouldn’t. It will come.

  • Mackenzie says:

    Fucking brilliant. I’m heading in to an MFA program this fall. Thankful that I was lead to this essay today. The sentiments are similar to things I should have realized after finishing my undergrad. Thank you, thank you, thank you for writing this.

  • Thank you so much for such an honest, and inspiring post. The part about not having to tell people your ‘publishing history’ if you don’t want to, really spoke to me. I really IS like being asked what your salary is and personal questions like that. Not to mention, I feel like it’s always asked by people who either a) know nothing about the industry or b) people who do know about the industry and are trying to bring you down.

    This post was a breath of fresh air. Thanks again,

  • nancyzeller says:

    Art is never easy, and a degree is just the beginning.

  • This essay breaks my heart. I see writers struggling, lost and despairing in today’s market realities. If you choose to be a fiction writer, my only recommendation is to get an accomplishment ‘under your belt’ and the easiest way to do that is to write a short story and rewrite it until, in your estimation, it is perfect. Read what Poe had to say about the form and then consider that there is a new genre of literature called MultiTouch Fiction that allows even a single short story to be read by millions. This is a wonderful opportunity to differentiate yourself: advice we are told is vital in today’s marketplace.

    Disclosure: I am the leading proponent of MultiTouch Fiction, a revolutionary new genre of Literature that will accelerate the transformations currently underway in the publishing industry. MultiTouchFiction.com (a WordPress site) is straight commentary and analyses: no ads, no selling, no BS. There is not now, or will there ever be, a single reference to my own work. Good luck to everyone!

  • I felt like you were writing this letter to your own self, not every person who pursued a MFA ever. Funny that it seemed to annoy some people. Sometimes you know when you are just not ready or you have a story to tell but you want to hang onto it until you can tell it better. No shame in that.

  • nishulkh says:

    A Master’s in Creative Writing seven years ago left me convinced that I made a terrible mistake. I stopped writing and ignored the stories that kept popping in my head. I’m glad I was lead to this post first thing in the morning. Thank you for the honesty.

  • Beth Bates says:

    Reblogged this on Lit Grit and commented:
    I’m re-blogging this wisdom list as a reaction to the commenter who called it “atrocious advice,” whom I would redirect to Sara Finnerty’s point #2. xo

  • Vern Pliml says:

    Well it was quite a excellent post.Thanks for writing such an info here.I’m hoping you’re going to continue enlightening individuals in future also,by way of such a useful info.Continue the brilliant task.

  • There is so much truth and common sense in this one article, I’m not sure if you need to read anything else! Just remember the number one rule, the most important advice as an artist you are ever going to hear: don’t listen to anyone’s advice.

  • […] the posts I found the most useful were the personal ones—the individual offerings of wisdom after the MFA—what writers had to say, once the journey was done; or things they wish they knew, years […]

  • Good article! This was entertaining. But I don’t get one thing: Didn’t the author—and her friends—have to uh, get jobs—do something–to pay the rent and buy food? I don’t have an MFA, but I’ve always been so busy working I didn’t have time to be depressed or worry about what someone else was writing. I write on my days off, and yeah, get published in various places, and I go to readings when I can. Readings in New Orleans are pretty informal, and everyone is working several gigs to survive.

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