It's been eight years since I graduated from my MFA program, and I've probably learned more about the world of writing in those eight years than I did in the program itself. At the very least, I've certainly learned more about myself as a writer since graduation.
I'm not saying I didn't learn anything in my program because I did. I learned a tremendous amount about the craft of writing. However, it's the things I didn't learn regarding how to be a struggling writer that have surprised me the most. And so, here are five things I wish I could go back and tell my younger MFA self to help prepare me for our writing life after graduation:
1) DON'T BE ALARMED WHEN THE RIGOR OF YOUR MFA PROGRAM LEAVES YOU NOT WANTING TO WRITE FOR SOME TIME AFTER YOU GRADUATE. You won't be sure if it's just that it took so much out of you to get your MFA thesis done or if you aren't writing because the whole experience left you feeling ridiculously insecure, but you'll spend close to a year not writing anything new. In fact, each time you sit down to write, you'll be filled with an inexplicable melancholy. You won't really have anyone to talk to about it because you'll feel guilty about not skyrocketing into literary fame shortly after graduation. You'll chose to get a "real" job. To start paying back your student loans. To start building your fall-back career. You aren't getting any younger, you'll remind yourself, sometimes several times a day.
2) OTHER WRITERS WILL BECOME YOUR GREATEST SUPPORT AND SOMETIMES YOUR BIGGEST OBSTACLE. The shared experiences with other serious writers will give you the much-needed emotional support you so desperately crave. However, the jaded and pessimistic writers who are still trying to get something going for themselves while secretly feeling like it will never happen will cause you more grief than you are ready for. Be careful about who you spend your time with. While it's uplifting to have a fellow writer scoff at your latest rejection letter with you, it's not very comforting to have a fellow writer lay out all the reasons you shouldn't have even tried in the first place: "My friend, Eva, is the best writer I know, and they rejected her, so you're better off just saving the submission fee and spending it on a cup of coffee instead."
Seriously. That's one kind of enthusiasm-sapping fellow writer you will meet out in the real world. Try to remember that going negative is just their coping mechanism. Strive to find your own coping mechanisms that lean toward the opposite.
3) YOU'LL BE SO MUCH HAPPIER WHEN YOU STOP CARING ABOUT LANDING A TENURE-TRACK TEACHING JOB. Okay, so you bought the bill of goods that promised a writing-filled life. You bought their promotional material's claims of an MFA degree that would allow you to spend your mornings writing and spend your days teaching other aspiring writers in a nicely stable tenure-line faculty position. Only, you'll learn soon after graduation that the chances of landing that kind of promised gig are slimmer than hitting the NYT bestseller list with your debut novel.
You'll be an adjunct English composition professor. You'll be treated poorly most of the time. And, you'll come to despise many of the people you once respected because of their unapologetic role in personally benefiting from such an exploitative system. HOWEVER, you will still have the potential to have a modified version of that writing-filled life you dreamed of. You'll get to write (even more in the summer because there won't be any courses for you to teach) and you'll get to teach writing (albeit academic writing to students who really, really, really want to be anywhere else but in your class, but it's still teaching writing). And if you can let go of some of your resentment over the academic bait-and-switch promise they sold you, you'll grow to be content. Happy even.
4) A LOT OF PEOPLE WILL NEVER TAKE YOU SERIOUSLY AND THAT'S NONE OF YOUR CONCERN. You'll fight for quite a while to be taken seriously as a writer, and you'll be bitterly disappointed. You'll wonder why other writer's smaller achievements are so gloriously celebrated and why they are showered with so much respect and awe, while you and your accomplishments are so easily ignored. Then one day, you'll realize that it's because you need to stop looking at other writers and their accolades and their seemingly diamond-encrusted paths, and instead, focus solely on your own. Focus on staying the course. Focus on the stories in your head that are wrestling to get out of your brain and onto the page. Be happy for the other writers who are getting recognized for their work--how great that must feel for them! Don't resent them. They deserve it all, too. Remind yourself that you don't write for the respect, anyway. You never have. No need to start now.
5) YOU'LL WANT TO GIVE UP. A LOT. BUT YOU WON'T. AND SOMEDAY, SOMETHING WILL HAPPEN AND YOU'LL LOOK BACK AT YOURSELF AND WHO YOU WERE AS YOU WROTE THIS LIST, AND YOU'LL THINK: "DAMN, SHE WAS TENACIOUS AF." And you'll be so proud of us.