What I Wish I Knew After My MFA Ended

April 23, 2014 § 155 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. 

Of Spinning and Writing: In Defense of MFA Programs

May 13, 2013 § 22 Comments

A guest post from Tarn Wilson

hemingwayLast month in my 6 a.m. spinning class, sweating up an imaginary hill on my stationary bike—rap music thumping, my frighteningly enthusiastic instructor whooping encouragement—I realized, as disciplined as I believe I am, there was no way I’d be there that time of day, working that hard, if I didn’t have a class to attend. A teacher to yell at me. Sleepy people on either side of me spinning themselves awake. Then, in the loose way our minds make connections when we haven’t quite shaken sleep, I flashed to my MFA program. It, too, provided me structure and motivation to work harder than I thought I could.

As we shifted into sprints and our breath fogged the windows, all the arguments against MFA programs I’d read over the last several years spun through my head (in essays with names such as The MFA/Creative Writing System Is a Closed, Undemocratic, Medieval Guild System that Represses Good Writing): 

  • Writing programs produce “workshop style” prose, dulled by group consensus and shaped by a particular aesthetic, a reflection of the tastes of the famous and narrow-minded instructors.
  • Writing programs create an elitist, self-perpetuating literary community, which controls the publishing world and excludes innovative, outside voices.
  • Or, contrarily, the recent proliferation of writing programs has lowered standards, releasing into the world a mass of marginally trained beginners.
  • Besides, writing can’t be taught.

The arguments are well-reasoned and convincing—and I confess I don’t know enough about the most elite writing programs to address criticisms lobbed particularly at them—but they don’t speak to my experience, to the three years I spent in my low-residency MFA program, which did not transform me into a famous writer, but which challenged and stretched me, provided an inspiring community that has sustained me since, and reshaped, not just my writing, but my life.  

As the spinning instructor pressed us into a fast stretch on an imaginary highway, I tried to articulate to myself what felt like a bias in the critiques, not about what constitutes fine writing, but about what kind of person is a true writer. An image forms in my mind. A typewriter. A small room. A bottle of whiskey. The face looks familiar. It’s Hemingway! Not the real Hemingway, with his crazy neediness, but the Hemingway of our imagination. Independent. Charismatic. Curmudgeonly. He has a masculine confidence in his own words and worth—and his own distinct, controversial writing style. He doesn’t follow trends; he makes them! I recently read an old craft book by Robert Bahr, Dramatic Technique in Fiction, which crystallizes this portrait: “For the most part, accomplished writers are friendly, vivacious, entertaining people, but there is no getting around the fact that they have strong egos . . . they generally get along well with those who treat them with deference and are vicious competitors when challenged.” This Hemingway model suggests we are not worthy of being writers if we doubt ourselves or thrive in non-competitive community.

The truth is—whether caused by genetics, life experiences, or cultural forces such as racism, sexism, ageism—some of us do not possess the gift of confidence. But that is no reflection on our potential. Early in my career, I taught English in a school for at-risk teenagers. I finally abandoned my unsuccessful attempts at a traditional literature program and just let them write. They produced some of the most raw, rhythmic, original, poetic prose I’ve ever read. It stunned me. They resisted both revision and publication, so the world will never read their work. But I’d learned a secret. Remarkable writing comes from all kinds of people, from shy and bold, educated and uneducated, confident and self-defeating. In my many teaching years since, I’ve read beautiful, original pieces written by the talented and confident, the talented and insecure, and those who seemed to have no talent at all but who labor over their work. Each of these future writers deserves the opportunities that match their needs, whether a solitary room in Key West or in an MFA program.

The fan blowing on our faces isn’t enough to ease the muggy heat. Our sweat drips on the floor; moisture beads run down the window like rain. The instructor shouts, “Let me hear you, people! One long hill. Ten minutes. Go!” My thighs ache, but I increase the resistance on my bike and press on.

I’m not a Hemingway writer. I’m a people pleaser. I don’t admire this trait in myself. (I must have been born this way, because my hippy parents were deeply disappointed in my over-eager obedience.) This trait has worked against my growth as a writer because I’m easily swayed to fill my time with other people’s worthy work. But since I couldn’t seem to eradicate this tendency, I decided to use it on behalf of my writing. I applied to an MFA program because I knew I’d work hard to meet the deadlines and expectations of teachers I admired. It worked.

When I started my program, I hoped only that the structure would help me make writing a priority and I’d pick up a few advanced skills. I’d underestimated the power of mentors. I should have guessed: in my work with at-risk teens, I’d researched what fosters resilience in those from disadvantaged backgrounds. The number one predictor of future success? Mentors. The number one way to increase the percentage of underrepresented minorities in top career fields? Mentors. Yes, my MFA mentors were skilled writers generous with their wisdom, but even more, they showed me, in their various creative ways, how to build a writing life—especially in a culture that rewards very few writers financially and that offers constant, bombarding distraction. They modeled how to make a living, prioritize writing, navigate the demands of family and friends, and manage emotions around success and failure.

The critics don’t argue against mentors, but suggest writers should find them organically. Think Hemingway gathered with the expatriates in Gertrude Stein’s Paris salons. But not all of us know where to find a mentor, and even if we did, we’re too polite or shy to impose on their precious time. Critics argue that MFA programs are classist, but I also believe it’s classist to demand writers find their own support.  Now that I teach privileged teenagers, I recognize how much easier it is for those raised in well-off families to find mentors. They have spent their lives cultivating an appealing, graceful assurance. They know how to network, have access to people who know people, and have the confidence to ask for what they want. The rest of us need an MFA program.

And those complaints that MFA programs produce too many writers and that writing can’t be taught? I agree there is a certain luminous originality in the finest writing that can never be taught. But after years of seeing students’ awe-inspiring growth over a semester’s time, no one can convince me that most writers won’t improve, dramatically, with regular practice and structure and meaningful feedback.  (I think that is also a cultural bias, an American Western, individualistic, frontier mentality: many other cultures value apprenticeship, elders and generations of accumulated wisdom.)  The typical MFA program may not birth genius, but the students improve. And aren’t we all better off when people pursue their passions, when chefs, mechanics, surgeons, parents or musicians are happier and more skilled? Also, I believe what when we struggle with our writing, regardless of the final results, we think more clearly and understand more deeply—and our communities improve when any of us does work that loosens our hearts and defogs our brains.

I step from the bike and wipe the sweat with my soggy towel. My legs shake.  We clap for our teacher and ourselves. I gulp my water. I try to hold the shape of my essay in my mind long enough to get home and transfer it to the page.

But at home, the essay doesn’t organize itself as easily as it did in my exercised-fueled brain. I don’t want to blast the critics. Their arguments sprout from noble impulses: a desire to dissolve exclusive clubs, a passion for innovative writing, a respect for literature and love of excellence. So, as I have learned to do, I listen to my writing as I might a timid, wild animal. Carefully.  With attention. When I read the critics, I sense something else pulsing under the surface—is it my imagination?—the personal pain the writers may feel that their own creative work has not been recognized by the establishment.  Then I see that I, too, am not writing what I thought I was. I thought I was adding my voice to the debate about the value of MFA programs. I thought this was an essay. But it’s just a disguise. This is a thank you note to my program and mentors. This is a love letter.

Tarn Wilson is a happy graduate of the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University. Her recent essays have been published in Gulf Stream, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Inertia, Life WritingRuminate, and The Sun.


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