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Get the Most Out of Your MFA Program

Whether you're in graduate school working toward your MFA in Creative Writing or just considering the path, read on. This column shares some of my wisdom from hindsight. I hope you find it helpful.

Get into the writing habit

The single most important thing you can do while in grad school is get into a regular writing routine. You've got to catch the bug now so that you keep writing when you get out. Plus, the more you write, the more you'll have to choose from for your creative thesis. If you just write toward workshop deadlines, then you may not end up with a cohesive collection or polished whole.

This is especially important if you plan to submit your thesis to first book awards. If you're lucky enough to win a first book award, then your chances of getting an academic teaching position greatly increases. So if that's your vision, then write, write, write.

Work on the lit mag

Not all writing programs sponsor a literary magazine, but if yours does, get involved. For one, it's helpful to see how a journal operates, since you'll be sending work out yourself. This type of experience makes it easier to deal with rejection slips when they come your way. And for two, it'll look good on your curriculum vitae or résumé. You may even find that you'd like to start your own magazine at a later date.

If you're in a low residency program, contact the editors of any lit journals in your area. Ask if you can volunteer as an assistant editor or reader. Or check with an online journal that you admire.

Submit work to lit mags

Get into the habit now. It can take a while before a magazine picks up a story, poem, or essay. So start circulating your work once you feel it's ready for publication. If you graduate with a publication history, you'll have a better chance of securing a writing residency or teaching position, if that's what you seek.

Take a class in another genre

Poets and prose writers have lots to learn from each other. My MFA program required me to take an upper-level undergraduate poetry class. And my writing really grew that semester. I started to pay closer attention to language and infused what my poetry teacher referred to as "thingyness" into my prose. Conversely, a fiction class might help a poet expand outward and focus on narrative and character.

Apply for perks

If your graduate program offers perks, such as special teaching or focused-study fellowships, apply. The credentials you pick up in school can be put to work for you in the real world. Believe it or not, an MFA degree in and of itself doesn't open all that many doors.

Don't become a bitter writer

It's easy to adopt the attitude that editors and jurors are stupid. That's why they only pick writers with publication histories and other such recognition. They need somebody else to tell them that a writer is good. Right?

I'll defend editors first. They receive a lot of submissions. Often in the thousands. And most of them are not paid for what they do; they do it for love. Can you blame them if they prick up their eyes when they see a cover letter that lists other publications? Try reading a mere ten twenty-page stories in a row and see how long you stay fresh. I'm sure there are some dunces out there. But in my experience, most editors are generous people who love publishing new writers.

This paragraph is in defense of jurors who sit on panels for awards, grants, and writing residencies. There is only so much money to go around in the arts. Jurors want some sort of reassurance that those they choose will truly benefit. So they look for writers who are not only gifted but dedicated. And a writer's past recognition is proof of his or her dedication. I'm not claiming that every juror has a pure heart, but giving in to bitterness will just rot your own. And you need it in this world.

Copyright © 2003–2009 Angela Jane Fountas. All rights reserved.
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