I’m no expert, but I have survived an MFA program. Think of the following points as signposts that helped me negotiate the MFA process. My hope is that new or current students can start speculating on a few of these points and learn from my mistakes, or the mistakes I’ve seen others make.
#1: Count Your Blessings.
In 2009, I couldn’t buy my way into an MFA program. I couldn’t even make it onto a waitlist. The fact is, not everyone finds a home in one of these programs, and that’s a good thing to remember as your assignments start stacking up, and the work starts to feel like more of a hassle than a privilege. If you’re in a writing program, you have access to the shared knowledge of many accomplished instructors, visiting writers, and peers who share your passion for the written word. From time to time, you may also be asked to read your work to public audiences. These are valuable opportunities to share your work and gain competency as a reader, so don’t take them for granted. Writing programs notwithstanding, it’s not every day you find a crew of people who want to talk about writing, let alone share it with the public. Consider yourself fortunate!
#2: Read More.
Confession: I entered UCF’s program on a steady diet of Cormac McCarthy, with a little bit of George Saunders on the side. I hailed from a pretty elitist literary background, and if we weren’t talking either high, canonical “litrachure,” or one of the two aforementioned authors, then there was a good chance I hadn’t heard of the book in question. During my first semester, I was embarrassed to find that all my peers knew of great names I’d never even heard of: Amy Hemple, Kevin Canty, Karen Russell, Denis Johnson, Stuart Dybek, Barry Hannah, Mark Richard, and so on.
If you buy into the argument that all great writers are also masterful “borrowers,” then it stands to reason that you’ll have the best chance of producing great work if you’re reading a wide variety of great work, since, to a certain extent, we write what we read. So, ask your peers and professors for reading suggestions. Find your writerly “tribe” and get a feel for what kind of stuff is being published. If you don’t know what’s out there today, you won’t know what you’re responding to, or what conventions you, as a writer, want to resist or reinforce.
#3: Find Your People
I’d have a difficult time overselling the benefits of a well-structured writing workshop. Having a number of capable reader-critics close at hand to offer up impressions / advice is invaluable. However, I’d also argue that some of my most valuable conversations and bits of feedback occurred outside of class, with peers who shared interests similar to my own. To put it simply: nothing is more valuable than finding a friend (or several) who gets what you’re trying to do with your writing, and is willing to look over your work and offer honest (at times, even harsh) advice. While classroom workshops can be prodigiously helpful, participants may not always have time to formulate their best feedback. They might not understand what you’re trying to accomplish, or they may not like what you’re trying to accomplish.
Find friends who are willing to make a little extra effort, and reward them by doing likewise. The MFA program doesn’t have to be limited to what happens inside the English building. Some of my most inspirational reading / writing recommendations took place outside of class.
#4: Don’t be a Jerk
Workshops can be tricky environments. When you’re in the critical role, you want to offer something helpful without coming off as an abrasive know-it-all. No one enjoys hearing that their writing contains clichés, “purple prose,” or lame similes, so make sure your criticisms are constructive in spirit.
When your work is on the chopping block, take your proverbial lumps with a measure of grace. Remember that you’re better off hearing criticism from workshop members than from editors. After taking part in more workshops than I can count, I find that one truism perseveres: writers with cool, humble attitudes seem to get the most out of their critiques. I’ve seen workshop participants turn red with anger, I’ve seen them bawl, and I’ve seen them pout. None of these responses is productive. Keep in mind that most members in workshops are trying to be supportive. They want to help your manuscript reach its fullest potential. If you come off as defensive, self-pitying, or hostile, your peers will probably feel very awkward about offering criticism, which means they’ll probably start generating the kind of watery, kid-gloved feedback that inhibits your growth as a writer.
#5: Know Your Journals
Another big weakness of mine was that initially, I wasn’t terribly familiar with the publishing market. I knew of the biggies: Tin House, Glimmer Train, VQR, McSweeney’s, etc., but I was ignorant of so many other cool journals. The truth is, there are literally thousands of markets—print-based and electronic—that publish creative writing. Every day, several of these entities go defunct, and several new names are added. In terms of sheer scope, the market can become kind of overwhelming, so it’s good to know which journals fit your writerly interests. There’s a difference between publishing a story in Salt Hill vs. Sand Hill, for instance, and that’s just one of many examples.
Writers often disagree on the merits of a service like Duotrope, but I think this site can be useful when it comes to researching journals. A simple Google search of “[Journal’s Title] Duotrope” should take you to a page that lists some relevant statistics. One important consideration for me is what percentage of submissions actually get approved for publication. If a journal accepts 25% of its submissions, I probably won’t send them a story. More prestigious journals will also nominate their favorite pieces for the coveted Pushcart Prize, and a simple Google search for “Top Literary Journals 2014” should give you a pretty fair idea of the current rankings. You may also want to consider circulation. I’ve published stories in journals that don’t reach very many readers, and sometimes I regret not spending more time investigating said journals prior to submission.
#6: Cultivate Outside Influences
My MFA friends and I circulate books like they were prison cigarettes, and sometimes I wonder if we develop a kind of tunnel vision. Opening myself up to a slew of unfamiliar writers (Kevin Canty, Karen Russell, Stuart Dybek, Robert Boswell, Jennifer Egan, Mark Richard, Denis Johnson, etc.) did wonders for me, stylistically, conceptually, ethically, and so on, but why should we limit our inspirational fare to books? I humbly recommend dropping the books and visiting an art museum from time to time. Better yet, paint something—a house, a headache, whatever. Paddle a kayak. Play a round of tropical mini-golf (hey, I got a story out of it). Chomp into a stranger’s deep-fried Klondike bar. Lose your wits in the sonic wilderness of a Sun Ra album. Or, if you must read, read something that sends you tumbling in an obverse direction. Fiction writer? Read some poetry, or vice-versa. Read a cook book. Read obscurantist lit theory, or the dizzying quantum theories of Stephen Hawking. These kinds of habitual shifts allow the brain an opportunity to do that weird thing that brains do, that working-behind-the-scenes thing. Let’s face it, we rarely make breakthroughs while we’re holding vigil at our computers, trying to force breakthroughs. Distractions can be wonderful, so try the indirect course.
I hope that one (or more) of these points will prove helpful to incoming MFA’ers. You may have some shaky moments, and like me, you’ll probably make mistakes, but that’s part of the fun. One final suggestion: if you don’t already do so on a regular basis, considering spending time with a musical instrument. It’ll do weird things to your brain, and weird is good. Don’t worry over whether or not you’re any good. That never stopped me.
Nickalus Rupert spent most of his life near the Gulf Coast of Florida. He completed an MFA in Fiction at UCF in 2015. Currently, he is a first-year PhD candidate at the University of Southern Mississippi. His work appears or is forthcoming in PANK, The Pinch, Tin House’s The Open Bar, The Rumpus, WhiskeyPaper, Atticus Review, Night Train, and elsewhere.