Last night, we celebrated another graduating class from the MFA program here at The Ohio State University with a gala reading and reception. It’s that time of year when thousands of MFA grads across the country come up against that question, “What’s next?”
The truth is that for many of those thousands of grads the answer is difficult. After the years spent studying craft and teaching in return for tuition remission, many wonder how to put the MFA degree to work for them in the real world.
When I finished my MFA in 1984, I ended up in Athens, Ohio, and I was lucky enough to get a teaching position at a local technical college where I taught five courses each quarter, most of them composition classes. I often wonder what I would have done had I not got that job, and my answer is the same answer I hear from many newly graduating MFAs each year at this time: I don’t know.
A few weeks ago, I was on a panel about the writer’s life at the Little Grassy Literary Festival at Southern Illinois University. One of the questions from the audience, chiefly filled with SIU MFA students, was, “What are some of the jobs you had before you ended up with a teaching position?” Oh, mercy, my own list was long: I worked on a Christmas tree farm, in the press room of a tire manufacturing plant, in the warehouse at a garment factory. I cut shoe linings at a shoe factory, worked as a pre-census enumerator, umpired men’s softball games, sold menswear in a department store.
My point is I was quite familiar with the world of work before I got my MFA. In fact, I left a comfortable job as the coordinator of a federally funded program that helped disadvantaged persons through the often-daunting process of applying for admission and financial aid so they could attend college. I could have stayed in that job, but instead I picked up and went to the University of Arkansas where I studied the craft of fiction writing while teaching two freshman composition classes each semester. I did all that for a lot less money than I was making in the real world. I did it because I had a dream of being a published writer and of having a tenure-track teaching position. Although, I did my best to maintain that dream through the unavoidable disappointments and reality checks an MFA program can bring to any writer, there was always some part of me that knew there were no guarantees.
Here’s the thing—and I know this is something recent MFA grads probably don’t want to hear—a writer’s life is never a sure thing. Each student who enters a program does it as a gamble, and just as with all gambling, sometimes you need a lot of luck. No one can guarantee that your dreams will come true on the other side of that degree, but you, just as I did, go after those dreams because they mean that much to you, because you’re brave, because you just can’t stop yourself.
In all the jobs I had before my own dreams started to come true—and through all the freshman composition classes I taught off the tenure-track, and through all those essays I graded—I found time to keep writing, to keep studying and practicing my craft. I also learned that being stubborn was a very, very good thing. You have to be a little mulish to keep hearing the word, “no”—“Sorry, this didn’t quite work for us.” “I’m afraid we’ve decided to go in a different direction.” “We regret to inform you.”—and to persist in the practice of what you love.
All of this is to say, the world of work and rejection will, for most of us, be par for the course. Those miserable jobs? They’re all material for the writing. The rejection? It’s there to harden you for the rest of the journey ahead. You’re going to need it as this life-long apprenticeship tries to slap you down from time to time.
Perhaps the most important quality a writer can possess is persistence. You came to an MFA program because your talents brought you here. Keep developing those talents. Keep doing the work. This is only the beginning of your journey. No one knows where the road might lead. Have faith.