Whether you’re new to UCF and Orlando, coming straight from undergrad, or are a returning student, starting the MFA Fall semester can be daunting. I was returning to school after an eleven-year absence, living on the opposite side of town, and trying to balance my pre-MFA social life with my new one. By the end of the year I realized there were a few things I wish I’d known at the start of the Fall semester and had done differently. I asked current and past MFA students what they wished they’d known or done during their first semester at UCF. Hopefully our candidates starting in Fall 2015 can take this list under advisement and won’t have any wish-I’d-dones at the end of the year.
Meet ALL the Professors
If you don’t have a class with a professor in your genre, take the time to schedule a meeting with them to introduce yourself and talk to them about their writing and writing outlook. Jonathan and I learned both how easy this is and how important. Thesis committees are formed early in your second semester, so it’s key to know which faculty members would be the best for your committee. You can only know that by meeting them all!
Organize Your Time & Make Writing a Daily Habit
Class assignments and reading will take up a lot of your time, but writing should be your first priority. I’m going to say it again in the hopes that it will echo backwards in time: writing should be your first priority! Organize your time, decrease your time wasted on social media or other distractions, and develop good habits that allow you to seek inspiration and then cultivate it into poems, stories, essays, comics, and screenplays. Nearly all the advice I received advocated writing daily.
No, Really Write A LOT
During your first semester, start refining your thesis idea and produce as much content as possible. If you’re stuck, write something totally different. Challenge yourself and take risks. Write to find your voice, find the thing that you love to write about most, find the thing you’re obsessing over, and then use your workshops as a testing ground to improve your craft. Write all the time and write every day—it will only make you a better writer.
Go to PARCELS
PARCELS is the MFAs In Progress Reading Series. There’s one reading a month, and you should be there. In fact, Ben says you should volunteer to read at PARCELS because the organizers will just keep asking you to read, so you should just get it out of the way. If reading in public sounds daunting, convince a friend to read the same night you do. You can fret together and afterwards talk about how nervous you were reading the first ten sentences. (We’re all nervous during those first few sentences.)
Go to other local literary events to rub elbows with the Orlando literary community. There Will Be Words, Literocalypse, UCF’s own Writers in the Sun, and other events allow you to meet other writers, hear fantastic work, and share your own. You never know what connections you’ll make or how far they’ll take you.
Check Your KnightsMail!
Make sure you regularly check your UCF email so you don’t miss any important information about your classes or the program. The program assistant, Lauren Rausch, Our Lady of the MFA, sends out useful information about assistantships, job openings, thesis and registration deadlines, and everything you need to know to succeed at UCF (and your future). If you’re not getting those emails, check that you’re on the department listserv by emailing her.
Find the Best Parking On Campus
While the closest garage to Colbourn Hall is Garage I, Ben reminds us that Garage F by the arena is free to park on the upper floors. The only downside is that it’s a bit of a walk to class. There is also a faculty lot directly next to Colbourn Hall (accessible with a few twists and turns—just trust your instincts to get there). After 5:30pm “vehicles with valid permits may park in any unreserved space unless otherwise posted,” which means that you can get the best parking for your evening classes. Lucy recommends this as the best place to park.
A valid student parking decal for the 2015–2016 school year is $95.88 for the year, or you can purchase one by semester for $45.01. Parking passes can also be purchased as a hang tag for a few dollars more—a useful option if you’re planning to switch cars frequently.
Develop Regular Exercise Habits
If you’re taking Ben’s advice and walking from Garage F you might already be getting in your exercise, but if you’re not, Leslie recommends a strong habit of going to the gym multiple times a week. It’s not just to keep in shape (or get in shape, for some of us returning students), but exercise can help with stress management. Your tuition and fees pay for membership to the on-campus gyms (of which there are two), and you can get reading done on the treadmill, so there’s no good reason to skip the gym!
Know Where to Eat On-Campus
Most eateries on campus can be found in the Student Union, in the John T. Washington Center (aka “the breezeway”) and in Knights Plaza. But the Education Building (next to Garage I) hides an Einstein’s Bagels—a great place to pick up dinner or coffee on your way from the garage to Colbourn Hall. The UCF Library Cafe serves good coffee and hot chocolate as well, and there’s $2 ice cream cones in the Student Union on Tuesdays!
Make Friends! Say Yes!
Get to know your classmates and do stuff with them. Get dinner before class, have drinks after, go to movies on the weekends, and drag each other to local events. Danielle came to UCF from out-of-state and says that socializing helped her feel less homesick. I’m a returning student, and saying yes to events and getting to know everyone helped me to feel like I was part of the community.
More than just socializing, get to know your classmates as writers. Leslie advocates forming an outside critique group made up of classmates who “get” your writing. Last year my cohort did a “mini-workshop” where we each did a 15-minute speed critique, passing stories around in a circle. Almost everyone workshopped one of the stories by the next semester—and had a much stronger workshop because of it! Your cohort is not your competition; they are your support!
Go to Submission Soirees
Submit your stories! The community you’ve been building as you say yes to events and make friends is going to help you get published, too. Submission soirees are a chance to have someone chanting behind you to hit “send” on that submission, or to get advice from people who may already have stacks of rejections and acceptances.
Some personal bookkeeping will be needed as everyone has a personal wish list of where they’d like to be published or where they think their work will fit best. Keep a tiered list that works for you, and then keep track of your submissions, including when you made the submission and which version of the story you sent.
Get Books Cheap: The Library & Used Bookstores
While your UCF ID gets you amazing access to the UCF Library, including inter-library loans, your Orlando address can get you an Orange County Library card even without a Florida license. Just let them know that you’re a student and they’ll mail the card to your Orlando home.
If you’re more into owning books than borrowing them, BrightLight Books is one of the best used bookstores in Central Florida. It is located in Casselberry and has a great selection of contemporary and classic fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. They also accept used books for credit or cash.
Two undergraduate organizations—Sigma Tau Delta and The Cypress Dome Society—host used book sales each semester outside Colbourn Hall. Books are priced by suggested donation. Book sale hours end by 5pm, though someone may be able to help you after hours.
Explore Central Florida
There’s lots to do in Central Florida that will help you de-stress and find inspiration and sustenance. This is a short list of the suggestions that were sent for this blog:
- Harry P. Leu Gardens—the first Monday of each month is free; wonderfully relaxing place to write and read.
- Wekiwa Springs State Park—get a reprieve from the heat in the cool natural spring water; $6 per vehicle.
- Maitland Arts Center—$3 admission for seasonal art exhibitions.
- Orlando Museum of Arts: 1st Thursdays—showcases works by local artists, live music, food and drink; admission is $10 for non-members, free for Museum Members.
- The Enzian Theater—a dine-in movie theater that shows primarily independent and foreign films.
- Orlando Shakespeare Theater—student discount tickets available; the 2015–2016 season includes Monty Python’s SPAMALOT, The Tempest, and Pericles.
- Dandelion Community Cafe—organic, vegetarian-, vegan-friendly food.
- Four Rivers—some would say the best BBQ in Orlando.
If you’re driving around Central Florida a lot, you might consider getting an E-Pass for toll roads. They can be purchased at Publix and you can set up an account online.
Many thanks to Leslie Salas, Danielle Armstrong, Ben Buckingham, Lucy Sneeringer, and Jonathan Phin for sharing their suggestions, advice, and experiences.
Alli Martin is a second-year MFA candidate. Between degrees, she worked in editorial at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. She is the graduate assistant on The Cypress Dome, UCF’s student literary magazine. Her fiction appears in the 2011 anthology Dreams of Steam II: Brass and Bolts.