Posted on February 15th, 2013
I am only in my second year working as a freelance writer and editor. It’s been several years since I got out of graduate school with nothing to show but a collection of esoteric little stories bound in black and a piece of paper (that I never bothered to retrieve from the registrar’s office.) The MFA is supposed to be the beginning of a career in writing. But I didn’t even consider the possibility until many years later. After I turned thirty. After I spent years writing technical documents. After I got married and started popping out kids. After wasting a lot of good time and tirelessly avoiding my destiny. I have known what I wanted to do since I was a young girl, but actually getting to a place where I am doing it has been a long, winding road. I feel so far behind. And, honestly, I probably wouldn’t have made it this far were it not for the relentless encouragement and the reliable support of my husband.
Clearly I am not a good example of how to become a writer or pursue your dreams. But maybe I have some valuable advice to give anyway. After all, I have complete authority to discuss how NOT to go about it.
I forgive myself for wasting time in college. I was young and dumb. I worked too much. I was sidelined by a brief marriage and a protracted psych-out of a divorce. The best I could do was get through school and get decent grades. But by the time I graduated and made the decision to stay for an MFA, I knew better than to waste time. But I did it anyway. I was the shittiest graduate student in all the land. My three years at KU stretched to four years, and I didn’t spend nearly enough time focusing on becoming a better fiction writer. I have only one regret about the MFA, and that is not making the most of it. If I could go back and confront my younger self, I’d slap the glass of wine out of my hand and lay down the law.
1. QUIT YOUR MEANINGLESS JOB(S)
When you think about it, never again will you find yourself in a situation where your primary focus is supposed to be writing stories. Then real authors actually read them and give you feedback. This situation is very hard to come by after you graduate.
I had a string of low wage jobs during my first year as a graduate student: Working at a restaurant, hauling media equipment around campus, tutoring writers, and cleaning toilets on the weekends. With endless car problems and bills, it seemed like I was always struggling to make rent. I felt like a complete outcast at the few graduate student functions I managed to attend: broke, frumpy, and only vaguely familiar with the writings of Derrida.
Later on, I taught and interned as a technical writer. These were a big improvement, but the time constraints remained the same. I didn’t have much time left over after work was done. I should have adjusted my lifestyle so that I could live on less and write more. Or hell, READ more. It would have helped tremendously.
2. DON’T TAKE TEACHING SO SERIOUSLY
Like most people who get MFA’s, I got a teaching job that covered tuition and provided a small stipend to live on. The day I found out about being hired as a teacher, I quit a couple of the jobs. But teaching was really time consuming, and fear of making an ass out of myself in front of 50 young people spurred me to spend lots of time on class prep. And grading. And corresponding with students. I procrastinated by working, so it didn’t feel like procrastinating.
I’d thoughtfully comment on papers, posing questions in the margins, providing ideas for improvement, and urging students to elaborate on their arguments. I could do about two papers an hour this way, and I usually had at least 50 in the stack. And I observed that most students just flipped to the last page to see the letter grade. If the grade was high, they grinned and went on their way. If it was low, they started badgering me to change it immediately without regard for the comments.
Err on the side of giving higher marks in general. I stubbornly tried to uphold the standards of the university, but the litigious little buggers have nothing but time on their hands. A student who craps out a D paper in 15 minutes will spend 15 hundred of your precious hours trying to convince you – and the department head and the dean and the president and the police and the Pope – that he deserves a C instead. Just give it to him for gods sake and focus on your own studies. The studies that actually matter to your future.
Don’t blow it off, but don’t pour your heart and soul into it. Give your best to the students who care and let the ones who don’t care occupy a minimum of your attention.
3. DEFINE NETWORKING
In graduate school, there are networking opportunities and hopefully some chances for professional development. Neither of these were prevalent where I got my degree, but then again I wasn’t kissing ass and taking names and trying to build myself up either.
I hate networking. The idea of dogging people with the hope that they’ll do me a favor someday makes me deeply uncomfortable. It feels like lying and makes my palms sweat. Plus, I have this pesky down home Kansas streak that makes me thumb my nose at academic snobbery and excessively avant-garde writing. I just could not connect with many of the prime networking targets that showed up at university functions.
This is not to say I was a total recluse. I am shy, but I am also capable of meaningful human interaction. I loved some of my professors and spent lots of time hanging around in their offices shooting the breeze. One of my favorites was a fantastic guy and excellent poet who came to work in cowboy boots. He was completely unpretentious but wickedly intelligent. Another one – the one who became my major professor – was someone I initially mistrusted because he only tipped a quarter when I delivered his pizzas. But he was an inspiring teacher and an involved mentor, and he always gave generous, helpful critiques. He was the one who encouraged me to apply to the MFA program in the first place and pushed to get me in – a remarkably kind gesture that changed the trajectory of my life.
It was only after I left school that I realized that the time I spent hanging out with these guys was networking. Networking doesn’t have to be a miserable, false interaction. Find people you authentically admire and have a connection with, and it will come naturally.
4. DUMP THE BOYFRIEND(S)
Unless you are seriously going to get married to someone you meet while you are getting your MFA, don’t waste time on romantic relationships. (I accidentally wrote relationshits. Maybe I should have left it.) I spent way too much time with significant others who ended up being not so significant only a few years later. They were nice, decent guys. Okay, one of them was. But I knew from the start that we not compatible for the long term and should have just skipped right to the end where I moved into a friend of a friend’s basement and spent most of my time off work reading or writing. This didn’t happen until I had already graduated.
All of this is to say that I just didn’t do enough writing. I spent so little time working on what I allegedly wanted to do! Looking back, I don’t understand it. I think I was afraid of failure or something. I should have shacked up with roommates, rented a trailer, or slept under the bridge. I should have spent at least 90% of my waking hours working on fiction writing.
Once I got laid off, I finally got a chance – my first chance ever – to spend time writing. It was frightening, because WHAT IF I ACTUALLY SUCK? But really I only suck an average amount, and the suckiness is not nearly as bad as I feared. I have written more in the past year than I did in 4 years of graduate school. I have finished a novel, a graphic novel, and lots of smaller projects. Editing manuscripts and collaborating with other creative people inspires me daily. I knew this was what I wanted all along, and I am just thankful I finally had no choice left but to finally do it.