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.
Good advice for any emerging writers, Lee…. whether or not we’re finishing up an MFA. You are so right that writing can save you. It saves me every day.
Thanks for saying that, Susan. I imagine that you feel like I do: writing is a spiritual activity.
Thank you Lee. This information is so so true and so important it hurts! I’d like to know, though, what did Stan Lindberg say about a Ph.D program? I’m not ready to graduate from VCFA yet, but am considering a Ph.D for the future.
Sophronia, Stan Lindberg told me a Ph.D. program would help diversify my teaching preparation, so I could enter the market not only as a creative writer but also as someone versed in composition studies and modern British and American Literature (my two areas of concentration in addition to my main area, Creative Writing). He also pointed out it would give me time for a more intense study of my craft as well as time to complete my first book. He was right on all counts. Would I have gotten to where I wanted to be without the Ph.D.? Maybe. It’s hard to say. I only know I never regretted the decision. The five years I spent in Lincoln, NE, were golden.
Moving advice. And sound. It affirms what I have indeed practiced to some degree for 25 years since I got my MFA. At 50, I’m in a small, committed writer’s circle, attend the occasional conference or workshop, submit to contests (just to force myself to adhere to random deadlines) and become more who I am with every process of struggle and completion. It is indeed the best expression of who I am. Thanks for this, Lee.
Thanks for sharing your story, Auburn. It’s good for folks to hear from those like you who are on the other side of the degree.
Hi Lee, Good advice this time of year. So good, in fact, that I’d like to link it in to the blog I run for USU’s graduate students. While we don’t have an MFA, we do have a number of creative writers who would benefit for the such cogent advice. Hope you are well. Evelyn
Hi, Evelyn. Please feel free to use this however you see fit. Congrats on the forthcoming book!
I think a PhD in Fine Arts is simply another way universities can squeeze more blood money out of student turnips and slow the flood of MFA grads into a non-existent job market. One doesn’t need university sanctioned workshops or a degree to keep working on his/her craft. Being involved in the (mostly free) community literary scene will inspire any aspiring writer to write; competing against others for a grade in an MFA class (or, yes, some places even offering a BFA!!!) guarantees grubbing for recognition in the world of po-biz.
Hey, Jefferson. Thanks for your thoughts. I agree that one doesn’t necessarily need academia to keep working at his/her craft. I always wanted a teaching career in addition to a writing career, so in my case a Ph. D. following an MFA meant sense, but that sure doesn’t mean it’s the right choice for everyone. To my way of thinking, what’s most important is for someone to find the environment in which he or she will thrive and to keep practicing the craft.
I’m currently in the new MFA program at the University of Tampa and I’m a little nervous about getting closer and closer to graduation. This article has really helped me and I thank you for writing it.
You’re welcome, Kossiwa.
I thank you for this blog entry. I’m in my second semester in the University of Tampa’s new MFA program and I’m a little nervous about graduating. I’m still going to need a job once I graduate and I’d like to teach. If I do get a teaching job at a four year college I’d get my Ph.D could you write a blog entry on other options for after you graduate from an MFA program. Right now I’m writing more than I’ve ever written during the tutorial part of my low residency program and it feels great. Thank you for a much-needed entry, telling me to always stay focused on developing my writing craft.
Kossiwa, I’ll see what I can do about a follow-up post. Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment.
This is great, inspiring advice. I’m in my first semester of my MFA in creative writing at Queens University in Charlotte. I love this perspective!
Thanks, Anjali. I wish you all the best with your MFA experience. Thanks for taking the time to make a comment.
Boy, I have a lot to say on this …not that I can bring myself to actually say it…
Buddy, it might be helpful for the current MFA students who are following this conversation to hear you talk about your post-MFA experience, but, of course, I’ll leave that up to you.
Maybe there’s an essay in it. I’ll chew on it as I attend a reading later this week given by one of my very successful classmates.
[…] Back in the fall of 2011, we were lucky enough to have Lee Martin– Pulitzer Prize Finalist author of The Bright Forever and many others– host a reading in Cherry Hall. And let me tell you: he knows how to captivate an audience. At the time I was a freshman, new to all things English and completely captivated. On top of all that, he has some truly impressive writing. That’s why, when a professor recommended sharing Martin’s post-grad school advice, I knew it would a great source to share. As someone who plans to go to grad school (eventually), but also as a student graduating soon, I found his advice extremely applicable. Students, grad students, parents, professors, and anyone else in-between: you’ll find his suggestions helpful. You can read his Post-MFA advice here. […]
Even though I am in the middle of my MFA, I am happy to learn that I’m already practicing a lot of this. (Validation is nice.) About two years ago before I started my MFA, I made a decision that it was time for me to emerge as a writer into the world. I made the leap and haven’t looked back. And the thing is I feel like a real writer now: I am publishing a bit, writing a lot, volunteering for stuff, going to conferences, and being a literary citizen. The world may not know it yet, but I’ve made it. I think making that internal switch is important for us delicate writers. Thanks, Lee, for sharing this advice!
Alexis, I love what you have to say about taking the leap and feeling like a writer. We are what we do, right? I agree that so much of this journey is becoming a literary citizen. So much falls into place after you make that commitment. Thanks for taking the time to share!