The MFA and Jobs

When I was in the process of applying to MFA programs, I was warned again and again that there may not be a job available for me once I graduate, that the landscape of academia had changed, and that I might even want to consider whether an MBA might make more sense. Aware of these warnings, I still enrolled in an MFA program, but I diligently followed instructions. I was not going to “waste” my time in a program. I was going to follow every suggestion I could to ensure I wouldn’t sink once I graduated.

I was told to “go where the money is.” I went to a program that was going to waive my tuition and pay me a stipend. Instead of taking out a loan to make up for the deficit in my stipend (because less than $1000 a month can be pretty hard to live off of), I worked a part-time job around my graduate and teaching assistant duties.

I was told to get connected through social media. The now famous Rebecca Skloot even dedicated an entire class to how to use Twitter. I started an account, and I tweeted and retweeted and hashtagged things related to writing. I turned my Facebook from a private THESE-ARE-MY-FEELINGS-AND-STUFF page with pictures from all the way back to my fledgling years in undergrad to a more professional/public one where I only post things related to writing or things I am comfortable with the world knowing.

I was told to start submitting, and even was required to show proof that I had as part of a grade for a class. By the January following my first semester, I got my first acceptance in a very small journal. Get in the best journals, I was told. I kept submitting, and I got published in better and better journals. Get published in other genresDiversify, I was told. So I took a fiction class and worked on a couple of stories. Then I worked on CNF. I got a story published and a couple of essays.

I applied for exclusive fellowships and teaching positions during my final year. I even sent a revised version of my thesis out to book contests. I was told, Get a teaching job. Get a fellowship. Win a book contest. So I applied; I revised; I entered. The exclusive fellowships and teaching positions went to individuals with lists of publication credits, awards, and honors that rivaled Santa’s Naughty list. Other people’s books won.

I was lucky that the part-time job I’d been working at the entire time I was pursuing my graduate degree took me on full-time. I was lucky that my full-time job allowed me to choose my own hours and that, occasionally, I’d have downtime in the middle of the day to be able to write, read, revise, submit, apply, tweet, post. I knew I wouldn’t work at this job forever, but without an idea where I would move next, I kept at what I was doing, thinking, If my book won a prestigious contest, I could get an academic job. 

All of the writers I follow and am friends with on Twitter and Facebook mostly work in academia at the collegiate level, and I saw that as my real goal, like Annette Bening in American Beauty whispering as she cleaned the blinds, I will sell this house today. I will sell this house today. I whispered, I will get an academic job. I will get an academic job. I dreamed of tweed and the same bright-faced students I had taught as a teaching assistant filling my semesters, of readings and book tours.

Then a dear friend of mine sent me a text message saying a position was open at a private school I really respected and had previously interviewed with. After reading the thoughts of other writers who had gone this route, I applied again, and after a rigorous process, was offered the job. This job not only allows me to do something I love (teach), but also gives me what I’ve been seeking this entire time: stability and security.

As the reality of this new job has sunk in, I’ve found myself withdrawing from the “world” of writers, though not from my private acts of writing. I’m not keeping tabs on open reading periods for journals, not stalking the progress of my submissions on Submittable, not posting who won what contest. I’ve noticed my detachment by just…noticing it. “Oh, I don’t care that guy got his panel accepted? Oh, I don’t care that woman’s book got published?”

My desire to submit to prestigious book contests has waned too. They cost money, yes, but I also don’t necessarily want what comes with a huge book prize. I’m an introvert at heart, and it takes a lot of coaxing and breathing to get through a lot of extroverted interaction. While I can teach my classes with passion and engagement, a book tour where I’d meet a lot of strangers and spend lonely nights in hotel rooms sounds awful. What I really want is to hold my book in my hands and for it to have a really lovely cover (my poet self does have some vanity when it comes to book covers…), and so I’m supplementing my contest submissions (since I haven’t let those go as of yet) with querying small presses that focus on the art that’s paired for the book.

When I was maybe in the first year in my MFA program, I interviewed Beth Ann Fennelly. I remember asking her something like, “What would you say to graduating MFA poets now?” She responded with something like, “It’s hard!” and I was surprised by the forceful way she said it, and that was maybe the first time I let that little voice of reason creep in and say, “Maybe it will be.”

My advice to graduating MFA students?

*Don’t stop writing. Ever.

*Blaze your own trail. You might be meant to teach at the college level. You might also be meant to be a waiter, a yoga instructor, or a corporate lawyer. Find what fits for you, and don’t stop writing. If you find yourself jealous of someone else, figure out what you can do to get what they have (submit more, apply to teach at a college, submit to a contest, etc.). Use your jealousy to find out what you really want.

*Submit. Write because you want to write, because you need to write. Then when you have something, submit it. Submit frequently. Submit because you want to be part of a literary conversation, because you love journals and love to receive them.

*Subscribe to journals. Do it because you want to be part of a literary conversation and because you love them. Do it because you want words to stay adrift in the wind.

*If you decide to or do write a book/collection, decide what you want in terms of getting it published. Do you want it published? If so, by whom? What comes with your book publication? Are you prepared for that? Do you want the things that come with it (a book tour, an aggressive Twitter campaign)?

*Don’t stop writing. Ever.

 

Other thoughts:

http://chronicle.com/article/What-Becomes-of-an-MFA-/45719/

http://thebillfold.com/2013/03/i-got-an-m-f-a-and-now-i-teach-english-in-the-middle-east/

http://creative-writing-mfa-handbook.blogspot.com/2007/10/opportunities-after-mfa.html

http://www.fastcompany.com/3007541/mfa-new-mba

http://www.themillions.com/2012/09/got-an-mfa-need-a-job-consider-working-at-a-creative-agency.html

 

Six Months After…The MFA

Before the finality of graduating from my MFA program really set in, I wrote about MFA postpartum, an existential crisis brought upon by being chucked into the world after growing fat and content writing, reading, and talking about writing and reading with other writers.

It’s been six months since I graduated, and my concerns have yet to appear. I’m still writing. I’m still submitting. I’m still blogging. I’ve gone through periods of, “AM I A GOOD WRITER??? AHHHHHHHHHHHHH!” but they’ve been few and far between and assuaged away by talking to other writers and being reminded that I’m not unique; we all go through the same doubts, and thank goodness we have each other.

Attending the sort of MFA program I did meant a high degree of productivity. We were expected to write eleven poems per semester. By the time I graduated, I had written at least sixty poems in the space of three years, not even including the poems I wrote in my free time. Class was Wednesday nights most semesters, so I usually wrote a poem on Tuesday and then edited it multiple times to try to remove anything ultra-embarrassing. Once I received my workshop’s critiques on a poem, I’d edit it another time and then start submitting it out to journals (which I did with a religious fervor starting the December following my first semester in the program). The poems I wrote never spent very long outside my hands. Sometimes, I’d just re-read my own work to “stay in touch,” to remember the feel and texture of them. I was constantly digesting, appraising, and cutting away.

By spending so much time with my own work and participating in workshop, I got a pretty clear idea of what were my writing strengths and weaknesses. The more I edited and the more I took in the critiques of others, the easier it got for me to see what were the things holding my poems back (physical truth over emotional truth, story over the musicality of language). Because I was generating so much work in such a short amount of time, my aesthetics cycled through changes quickly: from realistic to dark farm to mythical. By the time I graduated, I felt like I had achieved a greater grasp of my own voice, what I love, and how I could keep improving.

After August, I went through a period of trying to figure out how to navigate returning to work full-time with my second full-time job of writing and being a part of a writing community. The amount I wrote suffered, but not terribly. I wrote some CNF essays, a few poems. I received my best acceptances to date. I edited my full-length manuscript (Swallow Tongue) and submitted it to a handful of contests. I read a lot. I continued to blog. I submitted individual poems, essays, and stories plenty of places.

January 1st, I started trying to write 30 poems in 30 days. Since I knew I was going to write a poem the next day, I gave up on editing. I wrote the poem and didn’t look at it again until I typed up a draft process for it later. Three weeks into that, I started a “reading deprivation” which meant I tried not to read anything, including e-mails, books, literary journals, text messages, blogs, etc. for a whole week. I wasn’t perfect at it, but it gave me time away from reading, to think of words in my own way and not to rely on the words of others as inspiration for my own.

Now that it’s been nearly two weeks since the 30-in-30 ended and three since I did the reading deprivation, I find myself choosing to give my work time. I’m not bringing it out to read and interact with, not constantly standing over it with a knife. I’m putting it away and not looking at it. I edited a few poems I wrote last year, and I’ve felt less…pushy. If I knew after reading a poem that something needed to change and I knew how to change it, I would. If I knew something wasn’t working but couldn’t figure out how to change it, I let it go and moved onto another poem. I’m more accepting today that the answers will come, and I can’t make them any sooner than they’re ready.

My MFA was dominated by trying to fix things now, and if I wasn’t able to, falling down a pit of, “Why isn’t this coming to me right now? Why why why?” I’ve matured enough as a writer today to understand my writing needs time and space and that the right line or image will surface when it’s meant to.

I’m also re-evaluating the amount of time I spend reading. While it’s helpful, I can also find myself getting caught reading and reading instead of going out and experiencing. Chekhov said, “If you want to work on your art, work on your life,” and we (any writers like me who feel a bit anxious about Twitter and cocktail parties and rough winds) are at risk of getting caught in a monomania that hurts our ability to create. Since I’m also working a full-time job, I don’t have as much time to read and comment and tweet. The amount I’m able to spend reading has to adjust, so I’m still able to write and live a happy life.

The MFA made me produce, learn how to edit, and be a part of a community of writers. I sponged that all up for three years, and now, six months after leaving that, I’m seeing what works and what doesn’t. Like the term (“MFA postpartum”), graduating with my MFA with a firmly established writing self is like bringing a newborn into the world. Here I am, six months after I had that baby (graduated), and now I’m working out how I can both take care of that infant (my writer self) and the rest of my life (partner, housework, job, etc.). For some writers, this may be a period of depression and withdrawal, but for me, it’s been one of deeper self-reflection and maturation. I’m coming more into my own, and I’m grateful for it.

Why I Have To Be A Writer

When I was in the second or third grade, we had to write and illustrate a “book” that we then glued between two pieces of cardboard and covered with contact paper. Many of my classmates had already decided they were going to be doctors or firemen, but I hadn’t found anything to decide on yet. I remember being embarrassed that everyone could name off their future career sincerely, but I had no idea. Be a doctor? I hated blood. Be a firemen? Fire didn’t like me, which is why I was frequently nursing a scald from touching a hot pot (a lesson I still sometimes need to re-learn some 20+ years later). When I wrote that story, some mystery where a man wearing a black shirt with a snake on it was the one to steal something, I knew I wanted to be a writer. In the 4th grade, I got the highest score possible on a standardized writing test. One of only three students at my entire elementary school to score so well; I was on top of the world.

Come middle school, all of that changed. I took another standardized writing test in 7th grade, but didn’t get the highest score. In the 8th grade, I took a career aptitude test that didn’t tell me to be a writer; it told me I’d be well-suited to work in the post office. I was proficient at differentiating between words, which, I was told, would be great for a mail sorter: Mr. Jones vs. Mr. Janes.

In high school, I wrote plenty, but easily got defeated when I wasn’t the one winning contests or awards. By my first year in college, I was writing and continuing to take creative writing classes, but was inwardly adamant about trying to find another calling, trying to find something with “financial potential”. I sought out pre-law, art history; I took classes in Ancient Greek and the liberal arts.

I cherished my creative writing classes, but felt constantly like creative writing was the bad boy everyone cautioned me away from. He was always lurking around the quad, wearing leather and looking all hot and slick, but I wanted to be a good girl and date a good boy, so I focused on the classics, on religion, on humanities. I thought about majoring in Ancient Greek and then going to law school. I transferred colleges and finally made English: Writing my major, but I studied for the LSAT. I “compensated” for my major with volunteering for the rebuilding efforts on the gulf coast after Hurricane Katrina. I started tutoring young kids. People thought big things would happen for me, thought I’d join the Peace Corps or start a nonprofit.

When I graduated,  several college administrators asked what I’d do, and I said something self-assuredly like, “I’m going to go into a nonprofit.” “I’m going to take a year off and apply for law school.” I collected generic recommendations from several of my professors and twenty copies of my college transcripts. I never wasted my money on the LSAT, though I did study for it for over a year. I took a job as a grant writer at a small nonprofit  and stopped writing creatively altogether. I was miserable. My boss made me extremely uncomfortable, and the company was shady. I started applying for other jobs the second week I was there, but nothing came through. All of the grants I applied for, we didn’t get, and they laid me off.

It was after being laid off that I finally decided to apply to an MFA program. I hadn’t written anything in over a year, but I felt a strong push to do it. I contacted my undergraduate poetry professor to get a more tailored recommendation, and she said she would do it. She tempered her acceptance with a litany of warnings about how the poetry field is not like it used to be, there’s too many people right now pursuing MFAs, and academia is harder and harder to break into, etc. etc.. I got her recommendation and set money aside to apply to seven different programs. Around this time, I ran into the provost from my college. She asked, “What are you doing nowadays?” I told her I was applying to get an MFA in poetry. She looked at me through her thin-rimmed glasses and said, “Oh. I always thought you’d save the world.”

After realizing I was too terrified to move anywhere on my own, I decided to apply only to the one program in my area, and decided if it was meant to be, I’d get in. I did get in, but they didn’t give me any money. I didn’t want to go into debt pursuing this whole writing gig, so I again tried to fantasize about other lucrative educational opportunities. I called my father and told him, “I think I’ll get a Master’s in Teaching.” He told me, as he usually did, “That sounds good.” The deadline to apply had already passed, so I had to wait for the spring semester deadline. Mid-August, a week before U of M’s classes were set to start, I got an e-mail offering me an assistantship, which meant waived tuition on top of a stipend, for the MFA program. I accepted it, quickly registered for classes, and started the following week.

Fast-forward three years, I wrote a thesis, I defended it, I took my comps, I graduated. I applied for several fellowships and several teaching jobs; I got none of them. My undergraduate poetry professor was right: academia is hard to break into, especially with so many people graduating with an MFA right now.

I was talking with a poet yesterday who told me something to the extent of, “Since I’m never going to get rich or really famous doing poetry, I don’t have to be overly ambitious. I can submit when I want to submit.”

I don’t feel that way. I am dogged. My ambitions (writing, submitting, editing, keeping up this blog, getting my book published) aren’t going to pay off for me financially, but they will and do pay off for me spiritually. They also keep me engaged and involved in a community of writers. I write and submit continuously, and while I rarely practice it, I entirely believe in the wisdom of, “Writing 10 minutes every day for 6 days is better than writing for an hour one day out of the week.”

I’ve spent most of my life seeing writing as something I need to “get over”, the bad boy I need to stop fantasizing about when I’m on dates with clean-cut boys. Now, I know that writing is that bad boy that pulls me from the wreckage I can make of myself and helps me bloom into a more competent and confident human being. It makes me better at my job, at my relationships, at my ability to handle life. I must choose the bad boy, every time, or sink into a hole of despair that comes from denying that part of myself that makes me feel wholly alive, wholly happy. I may not be saving the world, but at least I can start with saving me.

Busy Days

Another week has slipped by, and it’s Friday Saturday, no, Tuesday! I’ve been working on this entry for far too long now. University of Memphis started back last week, and it’s been strange to watch my fellow MFA-ers return to their studies and stresses without me. Some are teaching, some are working on The Pinch, some are just taking classes (and that’s quite enough).

I thought this time of year would hit me, and I’d go through another run of grief of, “oh no! My MFA is OVER!” Instead, I’ve felt so much relief. During my MFA, I was working/teaching at U of M, taking a full course load, writing, reading, and teaching at another school. Now, I can focus on just teaching and writing. No classes have to take. No homework. No teaching at more than one school. It’s comforting to know that I can write when I want to, and that I can set up a workshop group if I want to. I’m so grateful for my MFA experience, but I’m also so grateful for this break. Now, I can’t imagine putting myself through that high-intensity stress again. Maybe someday in the future, but definitely not soon.

Last week was a week of submitting. While I’d like to try to condense all of my submitting/reading/writing, etc. time into a two hour block on Friday mornings, I don’t think that’s possible. After my high of getting an acceptance from one of my dream journals, I was quickly brought down back to earth with two form rejections. So, I submitted one of my fiction stories to several journals last Monday (as I talked about here), and even sent out another 5 poetry submissions. Right now, I have 41 submissions out in the world. Many of them are more than 100 days old (the oldest being over 300 days old!), and many of them are personalized for the journal I was submitting to, so a lot of my work is currently out in the world.

No draft last week. Dealt with headaches galore as well as a whole mess of “this is what we have to do before we officially buy this house” kind of stuff. Hopefully, I can nail one down this week, but I also have this pile of poems I need to go back through and revise in the hopes of having new work to send out. On the upside, I received contributor interview questions from PANK Magazine and sent off my answers today. My first ever interview!

Hope you all had a no-labor kind of labor day. Those are certainly the best kind.

 

MFA Postpartum

I keep reading on the internet about a “MFA postpartum”:

You have worked at your degree for 2 or 3 years, maintained a high level of productivity and stress, been around other writers, talked constantly about writing, taught writing, hammered out a thesis, and now you’re…done.

The job market is extremely poor. Your fantasies of being accepted for a fellowship or an academic teaching post are dashed pretty immediately (unless you’re a rockstar and went to Columbia and have already published a book or something, at which point, we all hate you).

You’re watching some of your peers go off to pursue Masters in other fields (ones with job potential after they graduate) or PhD programs in creative writing. You wanted your MFA to be the end of your educational career, but now you’re realizing that a PhD in Creative Writing may overtake your MFA, and you are wildly jealous of the fact that your peers enrolled in one are saving themselves from entering the pain and desolation of the job market for another blissful years.

You go through a dry spell. No writing, no submitting, for some length of time. You wallow in self-pity, thinking, “I’M A TERRIBLE POET/WRITER/ESSAYIST!” Come August, you stalk the school supply section and ogle notebooks with creamy pages, ballpoint pens, and cleverly-patterned file organizers. You watch those who can afford to buy them (and have actual need for them) come and go. You weep uncontrollably.

You go through periods of insomnia. You hate your job (if you’re lucky to have one). You hate your apartment. Sweatpants start to be your go-to outfit on days when you aren’t working (and sometimes, when you are). You flounder. You stalk Submittable and Duotrope, waiting endlessly for decisions on pieces you submitted while you were still in your MFA program. When you get rejections, you mentally tack them up inside your brain and go to them whenever you’re feeling particularly irritable and self-hating. People find you increasingly and increasingly surly. Your writing ritual has now become a self-flagellation ritual of stalking the poets/writers/essayists who are doing better than you.

(Want to hear how this might affect you in the long-term? Read this.)

~

My graduation for my MFA has really thrown me off. My month-long stint in Spain was my last formal “class”, and the final portfolio I had to turn in by July 25th was my last graduate-level work, and then my commencement is August 12th. I feel like I’d already be farther along in the “grieving” process if I wasn’t in this weird limbo state of “I don’t have any more work to complete, but I still have several weeks before it’s ‘official.'”

Am I in a full-on MFA postpartum? No, not yet (and hopefully NEVER as bad as the above). I know that every time I’ve done something that was my “last” (LAST portfolio EVER! LAST graduate workshop EVER!), I’ve had a bit of a cry. I’ve also been feeling uncentered, like, “I was a MFA student for THREE YEARS, and now I’m a….what?” My writing ritual is still working. I’m still submitting (though it’s annoying in summer when all of the journals I want to be published in are conveniently closed). I have this book I don’t quite know what to do with yet, but I have it! I do feel disillusioned by fellowships and the job market for academia, but I’m grateful that I currently have a job that I do like, and I’m hopeful that something in that area will work out sometime down the road (who knows?). I also think that come August, when people do go out in hordes to buy massive amounts of notebooks and folders, I’ll cry again because I love school, have always loved school, why can’t someone pay me to be in school forever and ever and ever?

Why so hopeful? I read an article yesterday where the question the narrator continually asks herself is, “Do I have enough?” I do. I have enough. My life isn’t perfect, but wow, I’m about to graduate with an MFA in poetry, something I absolutely love. I have a writing ritual! A fancy blog! My husband and I are looking to buy a house in a city I never thought I’d commit to, but I might be committing to in a big, big way, and I don’t know how my life is going to end up, but it’s enough, right now, it’s enough. It’s all so much enough, that it’s pretty unbearably wonderful.

Comps

I can now officially look around and exhale a sigh of relief. All of my major MFA duties are completed. All I need to do is wait to hear whether I passed and then run around campus getting all of those signatures (graduation isn’t real until you’ve done a lot of paperwork).

Comps was particularly painful. For other people, it might be easy, but for me, it wasn’t. Our program gives you seventy-two hours to answer four out of six essay questions, in about six pages each. So, over a weekend (usually), you have about three full days to write about twenty-four pages of coherent argument.

I agonize over papers. I go back over them again and again and again. On Friday, the first day of my comps, I just sat in front of my computer writing, writing, writing until a merciful fog settled over my brain, and I could do nothing but sit next to my husband and watch reality TV. That was not the way to go about it. I should have  sat down and figured out the examples from my reading list I wanted to use for each essay question and type those up and get a clear sense of an outline. Instead, I thought that if I just write enough, I’ll figure out what I’m arguing and then be able to go back and hack things down.

In that fog, thoughts started running through my head like, “I don’t need that piece of paper! I can just give up right now! Then I wouldn’t have to write anymore! I already have my book. I won’t be able to get a job with an MFA anyway, so who cares?? I WOULDN’T HAVE TO WRITE ANYMORE! I COULD GIVE UP NOW!”

Thankfully, I put myself to bed and woke up much more clear-headed. On Saturday, three essays came together easily. All of the writing I had done had helped, and I had a clear vision for how to approach each one. Before signing off to watch Gray’s Anatomy episodes, I typed up the examples I wanted to use in my fourth essay. Sunday, I finished the fourth essay by 2pm. I came home from a meeting and spruced up the other three (did MLA citation, added some to ones that were a little shy of the six page limit), and sent them off.

On Sunday, I actually started to enjoy the writing. My Comps questions required me to specifically engage with my own work while also referencing the work on my MFA Reading List.

One of my questions was, “Myth plays a large role in your poetry. And yet many writers today avoid it for reasons such as the feelings that it seems unauthentic, unmodern, dishonest, remote emotionally, and/or artificial. Poetry since the time of the Romantics, and especially since the advent of Confessionalism, seems to be moving in the direction of placing a high priority on the poet’s own life more than traditional things like myths. How does a poet go about making myth her own? How can it become authentic and honest and close to poet emotionally? Use examples from your list as well as from your own poetry to answer this and to provide specific support for your answers.”

This question, like the others I answered at my Thesis Defense, really required me to explore the why behind my writing. Why do I do things a certain way? What emotions do those things create? Do other poets do similar things? I ended up using Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s poem, “Rome,” and Sandra Beasley’s “Another Failed Poem about the Greeks” to back up my reasoning for taking myths out of their historical contexts in order to create emotional rifts that point at modern concerns.

Comps really grounded my choices. I had to apply an academic lens to my own writing, so writing is not something isolated and mystical, but something that can have theory and weight behind it. For me, having this blog really helped me in preparing for this exam. I was already used to talking about my writing and some of the whys behind it, that it wasn’t such an extension to apply that to this exam. There is also this quote by W.H. Auden: “It is a sad fact about our culture that a poet can earn much more money writing or talking about his art than he can by practicing it.” Having to read not only critical work written by poets about poetry, but also lots of poetry by lots of different people, really got me thinking about the art of writing and the art of writing about writing.

Now, I get to wait to hear the official verdict and start packing for Spain. Yup, I’m doing a creative writing study abroad program in Alicante, which I leave on May 31st for and return on June 26th. All in all, it’s been a great semester and looking to be a great summer too.

What are your summer plans? How is your writing ritual holding up?