It’s that time of year again—graduation—which means the time has come to bid a fond farewell to another class of MFA students. On Saturday night, here at The Ohio State University, we celebrated, as we always do, with a gala event at which twelve poets and prose writers showed us exactly what they’d been up to these last three years. The readings they did were dazzling and proof positive that something can happen in an MFA program, something necessary and good. This isn’t to say that the MFA is the only path to writing success—not at all—but only to say that people who are dedicated and hard-working can leave a good MFA program better writers than they were when they began.
But now the real work begins, the honing of one’s talents over the course of a lifetime. So there are some last things I want to say to the newly-minted MFAs, both from our program and from all the others.
It will be hard work at times, and at other times so rewarding. For the first time since you entered your MFA programs, you’ll find yourself solely responsible for practicing your craft. No workshop deadlines, no writing assignments, no required reading. Just you and what you’ll be willing to do to continue to improve.
You’ll be tempted to take yourself too seriously at times, to let success convince you that you will always succeed. Likewise, you’ll be tempted to fall into despair when the writing isn’t going well, when you’re not publishing, when you’re watching others win awards, grants, etc. Try your best not to fall prey to either extreme. Take the time to celebrate the success and to let it send you back to your writing room with a bit more confidence, but never let your ego get in your way. People will say no to you all through your writing career. No matter how much success you have, there will always be people who will say no. Understand that setbacks and disappointments are sometimes necessary. They can toughen us in a good way. They can also teach us things we need to know in order to go farther, climb higher. Never let despair be a long-staying visitor to your writing room. Take a day or two to friend it. Then, kick it out and get back to work. A writing career is made of peaks and valleys. You’ll learn that as you go. You’ll learn to be comfortable with both success and disappointment. You’ll get to the point where neither will affect you for long. You’ll know that the work matters more than either of them.
If you can manage it, be kind to yourselves. Don’t judge your work too harshly, but by the same token, don’t let yourself off the hook too easily. Work to develop a dispassionate editorial eye. Writing is a lifelong apprenticeship, and it will constantly challenge you. It will ask of you things you didn’t know it would ask. Rise to meet each challenge.
Above all, be kind to others. As your career develops, be kind to those who now stand where you once did. Give of yourself to those young writers. Remember that you didn’t get where you are without the help of those who came before you. Unfortunately, the writing biz is sometimes full of snark. Try your best to not be one of those people who lift themselves up by diminishing their fellow-writers. Remember, we’re all in this together. So many people outside our family will never understand why we do what we do and what it costs us. Try to be a supportive presence within this family. Try to stay in love with the writing itself and try to share that love with others. It can be a pleasant, fulfilling life if we’ll only follow Isak Dinesen’s advice to write a little each day without hope, without despair. Above all, remember why you do what you do—because you love to move words around on the page. Stay in love with your journey, and trust it to take you where you’re meant to go. Open yourself to the world around you. Be glorious. I wish you all everything you want, and more.