Succeeding in Your Creative Writing MFA

some tips and tricks from the eye of the storm

Succeeding in Your Creative Writing MFA
Photo by David Goehring on Flickr cc0

Some tips and tricks from the eye of the storm

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

A Masters program can be an intimidating thing and plenty of people who begin one end up feeling overwhelmed before they reach the half-way marker. Often, this is because of secondary responsibilities, with family and work being the two most serious contenders. In the United States, where employment compensation remains well below the level necessary for self-sufficiency (despite the misleading appearance of low unemployment overall), many people working on their graduate degrees find themselves forced to work one or more jobs while attending some form of full-time program [1]. Even for those who attend low-residency programs, designed to ensure that the student has some leeway to design the schedule which best suits them, the workload of a Masters degree is one upon which the load of supporting jobs creates an untenable situation.

When it comes to family, too, many put their plans on hold in order to attend to matters at home [2]. Women, especially, tend to put their plans for higher degree education on hold when faced with new developments in the home.

Life satisfaction was particularly lower among employed graduate students …, as full-time work and full-time study share conceptual similarities … . Compared to undergraduate students, graduate students occupy multiple roles and responsibilities. [Journal of Education and Practice, Vol.7, №6, 2016]

Clearly, though people are still valuing the graduate degree, not even close to half the population are actively pursuing one, let alone reaching completion .

But what can be done to improve the experience for those who do recognize the value of a graduate degree and are undertaking such a program? Based on my experience, coming from a low-income situation with a primarily self-taught and home-schooled upbringing, I hope to shed a unique light on those elements which I have observed, in my own life and the lives of my peers, to be the most important for success

The importance of community

A study in the Journal of Education and Practice, researches concluded that one of the main stress points for a graduate student is the lack of perceived support compared to that provided to undergraduate students. Even more telling, those students (whether graduate or undergraduate) who have a stronger financial support network are more likely to succeed than those without that privilege. This makes sense. Most undergraduate students are going to be younger and those from moneyed families are likely to have few secondary life considerations. Graduate students are likely to have to support themselves on top of managing a more complicated set of life circumstances.

But, one of the things which graduate students specifically lack beyond these two points is a sense of community. While graduate students are more likely to be married and have a family than undergrads, they are less likely to have a wider support network of friends, peers, and extended family.

In Western culture the “nuclear family” model has stripped society of that most important feature of earlier generations: that of a close-knit support system; an immediate community of people who can offer direct and physical aid during times of stress. Worse still, unhealthy myths have arisen regarding the supposed nobility and moral superiority of “going it alone,” culminating in such concepts as the “lone wolf” (a painfully ridiculous idea around which many young people — usually men — congregate). In the wild, the lone wolf grows depressed and dies — the pack is the thing which keeps it strong.

I’ve seen the impact of this myself. One of the reasons I’ve been capable of managing to juggle my MFA alongside work, health issues, and all the normal bits and pieces of life, is because I have been able to rely on the connections of friends, family, and peers.

And so, as my first piece of direct advice goes: connect, connect, connect!

Whether or not you are currently in a Masters program, or else just beginning to consider it as a viable path, take the time right now to begin building the connections you’ll need to prosper on the path ahead.

Photo by Elijah O'Donnell on Unsplash

Plan early, plan well

One of the ways people let themselves down when it comes to their graduate degree is through a lack of planning. It might be possible to “wing it” if you’re lucky, in good health, and financially sound — but I’ve seen people who assumed they could rely on one of these points get hit hard when something unexpected comes their way. It’s a lot harder to be dynamic when something major strikes than most people assume.

Which is why the key to success is preparation.

My MFA is a low-residency program, the sort which allows me to continue my normal life throughout my education. This means I can work, spend time with my family, and generally live as normal — as long as I can attend two 10-day residency periods each year and keep up with the reading lists and writing assignments due each month. In many ways, this provides me an advantage over traditional degree programs. It also requires a level of self-direction which has scared more than one of my traditional grad-degree friends.

Without an external structure to keep my workflow balanced from week-to-week, I become the arbiter of all aspects of my schedule. If I fail or succeed, it’s all on me. I’m perhaps lucky in that I enjoy being self-directed, and my experiences with home-schooling as a kid and with my low-residency bachelor’s program helped ensure that I had the skills to flourish in my current setting. The key to that success?

You guessed it: planning.

When I know an assignment is due on such-and-such a date, I begin work on that project immediately. I don’t hold myself to absurd expectations regarding my ability to complete a project, but neither do I allow myself to wait before beginning to lay down the “bones” of my next essay or creative assignment.

In late 2019, my entire region of California got a mandatory evacuation order. With a massive fire on the horizon, spewing ash into the air, over a hundred thousand people were suddenly homeless and on the run. Understandably, I contacted my program and asked my graduate mentor for an extension on my work. Considering the nature of the emergency, he agreed. I already had a good portion of my work finished, but I asked for an extension anyway. Why? Because part of planning is knowing your limits. Recovering from a sinus infection, with a sick partner and two cats to take care of, and forced to evacuate my home, I made the call to be proactive in the only way I could: making my situation clear to the people in charge of my program.

And, despite taking these steps, I got almost all of my work in on time — excepting two workshop pieces which were arbitrarily due at an early date (to allow my fellow workshopees ample time to read and comment). My mentor later remarked that never, in all his years of teaching, had he had a student manage to submit work — and quality work — under such circumstances.

I managed to submit my work and keep up with my graduate schedule because I began writing early — I didn’t wait until the last minute, or for inspiration: I sat down as soon as I had submitted my previous packet’s worth of writing and began working on the next. I knew exactly when pieces were due, and I knew exactly what sort of work I would be submitting. All I needed to do was sit down and write. But I also knew my limitations: I made certain that, by contacting my program, I had the support necessary to succeed. Even though I barely took advantage of the extension, the freedom it gave me allowed me to write without panicking.

Advice on when and how to write will vary from person to person. Some people need dedicated periods where they work, each day, as if they were going to a standard 9–5 desk job. Others write sporadically, whenever they can, throughout the day. Due to my life and schedule, this latter fit me best. I set a daily word count that I needed to hit, made sure to mark every day that I wrote in my writing journal, and didn’t allow myself to end the day without having met my goals. I also ensured that my goals contained a small amount above and beyond the requirement, thereby ensuring that I created a cushion in case something unexpected (like the sudden conflagration of my home State) should occur.

There is no “one size fits all” advice — everyone has different life circumstances. But we can all “plan for success” and figure out what that means for us. However, some universal points to remember are: start early, don’t wait for inspiration to strike, and set reasonable daily goals which you can safely achieve.

Photo by Arallyn! on Flickr cc2.0

Parting Words

One of the hardest things to do, I’ve found, is to write without inspiration. When you’re in the “flow” and the proverbial Muse is working her magic through you as you put words down on the page, the feel is ecstatic — it’s a feeling I think all creative types long for, a natural high that comes simply from the pure unbridled act of creation.

Unfortunately, the dear Muse is fickle and rarely comes when you call. If I had waited for inspiration to strike before putting together my packet work, I might not have managed to meet my assignments last semester when forced to evacuate. The only way I got there was by sitting down, every day, and writing.

That meant that I wrote a lot of stuff that I didn’t like — I wrote a lot of bad sentences. And I wrote bad sentences again. And again. Day after day.

The perfectionist in me hated this, naturally. But perfection isn’t how art comes into the world. After I wrote those bad sentences, I went back and edited them into good sentences. In a year, as my skill grows, I’ll look back on much that I’ve written and see all the places where I can edit again and further refine, further improve. Accepting this as natural — understanding that flaws in our work will always exist — no matter how skillful we become — is a vital part of success. Having the Muse strike is fun — but editing is rewarding in its own way, and I wouldn’t trade it for all the flawless sentences in the world. It’s the process of editing, of returning and realizing how much I’ve grown as a writer, that keeps my motivation fueled.

And so, my parting words of advice are simple.

A writer is someone who writes. Simple. Write every day, edit every day, and refuse to allow the Muse’s moods to rule your schedule. In workshop, treat the work of others with the greatest respect: every apparent flaw you find in someone else’s work is a gift — a chance for you to become a better writer even as you support the writing of someone else. And, finally, make friends among your peers and share your work every chance you get.

Hi there! I’m Odin Halvorson, a librarian, independent scholar, film fanatic, fiction author, and tech enthusiast. If you like my work and want to support me, please consider becoming a paid subscriber for as little as $2.50 a month!

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