I’m thinking about all the MFA students these days who are making the turn into the homestretch. Only a couple of months to go until thesis defense time and then graduation. Exciting times, but also nail-biting, teeth-grinding, hair-pulling times. I remember my own anxiety about my post-MFA life, a life that included teaching five sections of composition each quarter at a technical college. Still, somehow I managed to work on my craft. Then I made a move to Memphis where I taught only four courses each semester, and I continued to work on my craft. While I was there, Stan Lindberg, then editor of The Georgia Review, came to be part of an editors’ symposium. I had the pleasure of picking him up at the airport, and we hit it off well. In the course of our conversation, he made the suggestion that I consider a Ph.D. program, and I decided he was right. That was really the beginning of all that’s come since.
So, if you’ll permit me, here are a few pieces of advice to those of you about to graduate:
1. Remember that graduation is often only the beginning and not the end.
2. No matter what work you have to do, or what it asks of you, don’t forget that you’re a writer. Work on your craft. Give it as much time as you can. Forgive yourself when you fall short of your goals.
3. Pay attention to the invitations that the world gives you. Often, a visitor comes with a piece of advice. See if that advice strikes something in you to the point that you know you’ve just heard the thing you need to hear.
4. Find ways to remain active in the literary community. Take community workshops, attend writers’ conferences, go to readings, ask questions of the guest writers, start your own writers’ groups, keep subscribing to literary journals, volunteer with community arts groups, look for non-traditional teaching opportunities through summer arts programs, continuing education classes, whatever it takes to stay connected to people who care passionately about the written word.
5. Accept that you’ll be envious of peers who succeed before you do. Keep practicing your craft. Try to remember that the world has a way of leveling these things out. One day, you’ll publish something or win an award, and you’ll want those same peers to be happy for you. Won’t you feel guilty if you had no good will for them in your heart when they stood where you do now?
6. Expect to succeed, but accept that many times you won’t. Keep in mind what Richard Ford said, “The thing about being a writer is that you never have to ask, ‘Am I doing something that’s worthwhile?’ Because even if you fail at it, you know that it’s worth doing.”
7. Your craft is a refuge. It is necessary. Out of all that will disappoint you, what you do between the margins matters most of all. It can save you. Treat it kindly. Although you may be tempted many times to forsake it, don’t. Love what you’ve chosen. It is the best expression of who you are.