I don’t think anyone anticipates that an MFA program, or graduate school in general, will be easy. Your professors will expect more of everything from you—time, work, effort—than your undergraduate professors did. The workload will be heavier and more intensive. There will be more stress and less sleep. You will either learn to meal prep or you will become very familiar with community microwaves and campus eateries. There will be an elevator that is undeniably scarier and shakier than the rest, and it will most likely be the one you have to use most frequently. Parking, as always, will be a nightmare.
But what you can’t anticipate, and what no one prepared me for, is how graduate school makes you feel. So, as a dutiful elder, I hope to impart my musings, however wise they may or may not be, upon those who will follow.
Plan Ahead and Take it Day by Day
There is no syllabus day, no free space on the bingo card. You dive right into coursework, and then you slowly make your way to land and collapse on the shore at the end of finals week. So, my first piece of advice is to figure out how to plan.
Invest in one of those really nice planners they have at office supply stores, the ones with calendars and meal charts and goal setting guides. Or buy a cheap planner from Target or Walmart or the Dollar Store and make that thing work for you. Find a calendar app for your phone or computer that does all the thinking and reminding. Figure out what works best for you and do the heck out of it. For me, it’s bullet journaling. I buy a grid-lined or dotted Moleskine and create my own planner at the start of every semester. I draw out monthly and weekly calendars, color in my class schedule, and make a special page just for all of the semester’s due dates. Mapping everything out like this allows me to schedule the rest of my life in a way that leaves room for the work I need to do. I know when I need to front-load my homework during the week so that I can go out of town for the weekend, and I also know what weekends I can’t make big plans because there’s a looming deadline. Knowing what’s coming for you allows you to brace for impact, but it also shows you where there’s room to breathe.
Though it is important to consider the bigger picture when planning your semester, as you enter a new week, you also have to learn to take things day-by-day. I have days when I have the morning off to run errands and get homework done, but I also have days when I’m on campus from 10am until 10pm. What I had to realize, was that you’re not always going to be as productive as you think you should be. There will be days where you get ahead of everything, and there will be days where you fall behind. Don’t allow yourself to fall too far, but also don’t beat yourself up over going to bed as soon as you get home from class. Be as productive as you can be today. There is always tomorrow.
Allow Yourself Small Joys
Along the same vein of taking things day by day—take the time to do something you enjoy.
My busiest day of the week is also the same day my favorite podcast releases a new episode. On those days, I take my hour and a half lunch break, leave the building I spend most of my time in, and eat lunch on a bench in the sun while I listen to my podcast and watch people walk by. When I’ve had to spend an entire day inside an office or a classroom, sitting outside and doing something that involves no cognitive effort on my part recharges me just enough to make it through the rest of the week.
Find a nice spot on campus, read a book that’s not for class, watch an episode of a show you’ve always loved or have been meaning to try. Give yourself something nice. It is absolutely and totally necessary.
Making Time for the Thing
One would assume that being in an MFA program for Creative Writing means one would have time to write. One would be wrong. Between coursework—assigned reading, academic writing, feedback giving—and whatever it is you’re doing to keep the lights on, the time you have to write is often the time during which you are most exhausted.
So, I will tell you the thing every writer says that every writer hates hearing—make the time.
For me, this means scribbling down notes in my phone whenever a thought comes to me. Writing a story in pieces during lunch breaks, the few minutes I have in the morning before work, and the few minutes I have at night before I fall asleep. Designating a few hours over weekends to get something on the page, even if it’s not good. And then, of course, I have to make the time to revise.
If you won’t find the time now—when you’re reading extensively about the craft, when you’re surrounded by professionals in the field who are willing to help, when you’re amongst a creative community who is doing the same thing you came here to do—then when will you?
You Belong Here
From day one of my first year as an MFA student, I was scared that someone was going to find out that I wasn’t good enough. I stressed over every word I wrote, every email I sent, every thought I spoke aloud. If there was a conversation happening that I couldn’t understand, a concept being discussed that I’d never heard of, I felt anxious—why didn’t I know that? Why do they know that? How did I even get in here?
Upon conducting some informal research, I have concluded that everyone in graduate school has Imposter Syndrome. We’re all worried that, one day, we’ll say the wrong thing, and everyone will realize that we aren’t supposed to be here.
If you’ve been admitted into a graduate program, I am here to tell you: You are supposed to be here. You deserve to be here. You belong here. Other people read your work and said, This person can do the thing. So, you’re here to do the thing. Buy yourself a planner. Learn to read more than one book at a time. Join some sort of caffeine-related rewards program.
Welcome to the MFA.
Kara Delemeester is a current MFA candidate at UCF with a focus in fiction. She holds undergraduate degrees in both Writing and Secondary English Education from The University of Tampa. In the future she plans to live in Florida always and make a career out of getting high school students to appreciate the art of writing. In the meantime, she can be found making pancakes, reading Michael Chabon, and taking care of her cat.