Friday, December 7, 2007

writing beyond the MFA

Before delving into the real topic of my post, I wanted to take a moment to join in the recent spate of holiday-gift-madness posts with some suggestions of my own.

We are artists after all, aren't we, writers? Why not make something for those you love? We owe it to ourselves and our careers to support art, our own medium and others. Giving something homemade is giving something of yourself. Write a story or a poem, knit something (if you knit), bake a cake (you don't have to be a pro) or some cookies, craft something. Or support other artisans. Gift-giving does not have to support the store-bought culture of our country.

Ok, that aside...what to do if you are graduating this semester with your MFA? Have you realized at this point or some earlier point what a useless piece of paper that diploma is? Do you think I'm a dick for suggesting so? Do you still hold hope that your thesis manuscript will get read by agents, editors, and you'll be offered a contract in a few short months? Pinch yourself, or pinch me, and take heed. Below are some suggestions for life after graduate school.

1. Keep writing no matter what. Even if it's only for ten minutes a day. Even if you think it's not "good writing." Because regular practice helps you maintain your commitment to writing.

2. Explore alternate form of writing and publication, whether it's journalism, essay-writing, screenplays, blogging, or hypertext. If there's something you wanted to try but never got around to, do it now while the enthusiasm (or world-weariness) and discipline of the student is still at least vaguely familiar.

3. Think long and hard about what you want to do for a living, if you are going to be getting a full-time job for the first time in 3 years. Or ever. How much time will it leave you for writing? Are you going into something you are passionate about or are you just trying to pay the bills? After all the time, money and debt you've gone into for the MFA it can be challenging to channel your energy into something that (unless you're teaching or working in publishing) is unrelated to writing. How important your writing is to you--and how good you are at managing your time--are the most critical tools for building a steady writing practice. But it helps to pick a job that feeds you and challenges you in ways that mimic writing (as my profession does all the time) or else are unrelated but still of interest to you.

4. Join a writer's group, find a writing buddy, etc. If you can, make it someone outside your graduate school circle. Some many voices sound the same as certain styles and voices are privileged in MFA programs. I often felt like I couldn't relate to the stories in workshop and I'm sure I was not alone. (While Emerson seems to have expanded its graduate-level queer population since I began, it could stand some ethnic diversity and an influx of students of various ages and backgrounds.) My San Francisco writing group is comprised of people who are gay, straight, Asian, white, 20something, 50something, commentators on NPR and short story award finalists and published authors in varying genres. And then there's me. While it's not as comfortable as the MFA community you're leaving, it's good practice to surround yourself with people at a higher level that you are, if only for teh advice they may have.

5. Create community in any way you can. Write to share your voice. Attend readings, poetry slams, art exhibits, movie screenings. Help edit a literary journal or volunteer at one of the big guns ( Ploughshares, McSweeneys, Storyglossia, or one of the 826 entities).

6. Know, first and foremost, that how you succeed or struggle with your writing at this point is entirely up to you.

I'd love to hear other suggestions. Sometimes we all need a little push to continue our commitment to the things we love.

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