2016, Archives, January 2016, The MFA Years

Advice from the Final Semester

Workshop: the calm before the storm.


“Let me tell you what I wish I’d known …”  – Lin-Manuel Miranda

I have one more semester before I am released into the wild again. So for those of you who haven’t started your program yet, this is for you.

When I started, I thought I wasn’t good. I was not as good as I am now, and I wasn’t as good as I will be in the future. But I was better than I had been, and I was making an investment in my future as an artist. Just by admitting that I needed an MFA program, and having the courage to fill in an application, I was leaps ahead of where I could have been.

It is okay to not know everything, to feel like you’re a sham. The job of an admissions council is not to pick the people who are the best, but those who are going to be the best.

You are going to be overwhelmed. You are going to worry a lot. You are going to feel really uncomfortable. It will feel like too much work, too little work, too weird of work, or just something that you have no idea how to do. You’re going to think, “Am I making the right decision, coming here and doing this? Do I belong?”

You do, because you are there. You can’t fake a writing sample.

You are going to meet new people. They are going to sometimes make you feel like they don’t like you or they are uninterested in what you have to say. It’s not true. They’re just as nervous as you are. And we’re writers. None of us know how to talk out loud. Tell them you love their work, and they’ll tell you the same. Offer to read their drafts, and they’ll return the favor. Be supportive, be open, and don’t be competitive. Even in competitive MFA’s, you are making connections and friends for life. You are all in it together.

You are going to make friends. They are going to be talented, imaginative, giving, and all of the things you hoped to someday find in other people. They will understand you and your weird life, because it’s the life they live. You will have long complicated analysis parties of Harry Potter, and then when you propose having a Hogwarts-themed activity for the upcoming semester, they won’t think you’re stupid.

You are going to read a book you do not want to read. It will be the book that changes the way you view literature. You will either say to yourself, “I will never do that.” Or you will say, “I never thought of doing that.” Either way, you’ve learned something.

You’re going to return to a book you used to love, and you’re going to hate it. It’s going to be like returning to the Shire. You’ve come too far for it to look the same. This will make you sad.

But you will also return to a book you forgot you loved, and you’re going to rekindle your love for it. You’ll understand it more fully, now as an adult and a graduate student, and you will grow into a more mature relationship with its words. “That was hard to write,” you’ll say. “I had no idea how much you meant.”

You will read a book that will not change your life whatsoever. That’s fine.

There will be a professor who believes in you when you don’t believe in yourself. You won’t want to listen to them, because obviously they’re crazy if they think you have talent. Listen to them.

If there is a professor who doesn’t believe in you, try to make them believe in you. If they still don’t believe in you, stop trying to impress them. But all of the professors I had believed in me, because they chose to teach me. Your professors will choose to teach you.

The stories that have always meant the most to you are the ones that haunted you through rattling windows when you were six-years-old. They’re just so familiar to you that you don’t realize what potential they have. The normalcy in your life will become the magic in others’.

The stories you’re writing when you enter will either drastically change or won’t interest you anymore. The book or short that you think is going to be your big break is going to be shelved. You’ll think it’s the end of the world. It isn’t. There’s always another story to tell.

You’ll find that there is no right or wrong way to write, as long as you write. It can be during the day, late at night, once a week, every single evening, or listening to rap music. I wrote most of my third semester to Broadway musicals.

You will feel awful after workshop, you will feel invigorated after workshop, you will be excited there is so much to change, you will be inundated with too many changes, you will make all of the changes.

You will not be perfect.

And that’s okay.

It will not be perfect. You will be poor. Your partner/spouse/family/Muggle friends will not understand why you are spending so much time on a degree that might end you on an adjunct payroll. They will not understand why you have to break out your laptop while everyone else is watching the football game. They will be hurt when you say no to going out because you need to stay home and finish that revision.

The ones who really love you will understand.

You will travel. You will go to conferences, you will go overseas. If you seek out opportunities, they will come.

Apply for scholarships and fellowships and GA’s and anything that will give you money. Even if you don’t think you’ll get it, try for it.

Write. Write everything. Write poetry, even if you suck at it. Write a visual novel, write a story about werewolves on the moon, write your memoir you will never publish, write write write. Because these are years where you are expected to learn, to do, to write. This is your time. Use it. Because someday you will graduate, and you will need to get back to writing and doing something else.

Graduation will come fast. Don’t be afraid. Be a little sad. Be a little happy. We study for these years so we can begin the rest of our adventure. This is only the first chapter. Celebrate.

Most importantly:

Allow yourself to be who you are. Don’t try to emulate your favorite authors. Don’t try to impress anyone. Find your voice. Because no one can write the stories you can.

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