Life after the MFA

This is the time of year, nearing graduation, when a number of newly minted MFAs find themselves wondering what their futures hold. They’ve put in their time. They’ve written and studied and taught. They’ve practiced their craft. Many have even published in a few journals. On the whole, they’re writing better than they did when they entered their programs, full of optimism and allowing themselves to dream all good things.

But now what?

The fact is a number of folks who now hold the Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing find themselves not knowing what they’ll do for employment. I was one of them in 1984. I moved from Fayetteville, Arkansas, to Athens, OH, with no job and no prospects of one. Luckily, I found one teaching five sections of mostly freshman composition at a technical college, and I kept writing, moving on to a non-tenure track instructorship at what was then Memphis State University (now the University of Memphis), and then to a Ph.D. program at the University of Nebraska—Lincoln. Twelve years passed between the end of my MFA program and the publication of my first book. Along the way, there was rejection after rejection. Many times, I threatened to stop writing, but I never did. I didn’t know how to stop. Writing had become not only something I did, but also something that I was. It was a part of my identity. It was how I moved through the world. I couldn’t put it away from me any more than I could have stepped outside my skin.

So I want to tell those of you who are feeling the dread and panic of uncertainty on the other side of the MFA that your lives will amaze you in ways you now can’t even imagine. We never know what lies just around the corner. I certainly didn’t know that one day, I’d get a call from Lois Rosenthal, then editor of Story, telling me she liked the story I’d sent her, or that editors at The Georgia Review, Glimmer Train, Harper’s, and others would follow suit. I didn’t know that Sarah Gorham at Sarabande Books would call and tell me my story collection had won the first Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction. But what if none of that had happened? What if I hadn’t published a thing? I like to think I would have found other paths to fulfill me. I like to believe that for the most part we all move toward happiness. We have a natural instinct for joy.

This isn’t to say there won’t be misery along the way, but I have no doubt that some of you will eventually publish that first book and follow the road to whatever opportunities it presents. Others will find talents you don’t even know you have, and those talents will lead you to happy lives. There are lovers to find, families to have, charities to aid, travels to enjoy, further education to seek—all sorts of adventures to sustain you. And in those low times—as surely there will be those times—you’ll find ways to survive the disappointments that make up not only a large part of the writer’s life, but of all life. You’ll find ways to thrive even if your dreams have to be adjusted. Be flexible. Be open to the world around you and all its glories. Move confidently into the future. Love the simple fact that you’re alive.


  1. Tina Neyer on April 20, 2015 at 12:11 pm

    Lee, I really appreciate these words of wisdom. My guess, from following you on Facebook, is that we are relatively the same age. So for me the urgency to publish is much like that of an incessant knock at the door. Writing is an extension of me, a part of me. I feel that my words hold value, otherwise I wouldn’t seek to publish. I’ll keep at it. Thanks again for this post.

  2. Lee Martin on April 20, 2015 at 2:42 pm

    Dear Tina, you say that writing is an extension of you and that your words hold value. Absolutely! And the same will be true even if you never publish, which, of course, I hope you do many times over. Keep doing the good work. There are many roads to happiness.

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