Waiting to Hear From MFA Programs? Editors Share Wisdom
As I am currently experiencing, for the first time, waiting to learn of your fate in regards to MFA programs can be quite the stress magnet. It’s unnerving to release your writing to the world in any sense, whether in workshop, as a submission to a literary journal, or at a public reading. There is something unique about being on the outside of the MFA selection process that makes exposing your writing to people even more personal. I asked a few editors to weigh in on advice for when all is said and done.
- Matt Broderick, Reviews Editor, TRR
Question: As thousands await word on whether they've been accepted into MFA programs, what wisdom would you impart on those who find themselves on the outside looking in? For those who receive letters of acceptance?
Kris Baker Dersch, Producer/Editor, No Extra Words Podcast:
I'm not an MFA trained writer myself, but as someone with many years of higher education and someone who is a former educator, all I will say that a good education never hurt anyone and those given the opportunity should get as much out of it as they possibly can. For those whose opportunities lie elsewhere, remember that there are lots of ways to a good education so learn as much as you can from whatever opportunity you are given.
Lucie Shelly, Associate Editor, Electric Literature's Recommended Reading:
I don't have an MFA and I don't plan on getting one. As someone on the outside of the MFA track, it seems to me that the greatest benefit of entering a program is having the uninterrupted time to focus on your writing. You do also get to meet other writers, and have the opportunity to build a network. With these benefits in mind, I would advise young writers to do their best to build these conditions into their life. Get a writing group together, go to readings, submit as much as possible, talk to editors. Time is the trickiest one to create, but if your passionate, you can do it. For those who receive letters of acceptance, well done! I would say think carefully and avoid putting yourself in debt at all costs. Even successful writers say they feel financial strain at times. And of course, make the most of your time in the program.
Philip Elliott, Founder/Editor-in-Chief, Into the Void:
I'll keep my answer to this one brief. An MFA program is only ever a supplement to your writing career. If you want to write, you will write. You may even find that by missing out on an MFA, you instead decide to get a job somewhere, writing in your spare time, and through all the people you meet and the life experience you gain, your writing flourishes. MFA programs often exist in their own bubble outside of the world, and also, it is possible that you can burn yourself out writing-wise while doing one, slowly eroding your passion. Writing is not life. Life is life. That's important to remember, regardless of whether or not you are accepted into an MFA program or not.
Joe Ponepinto, Publisher and Fiction Editor, Tahoma Literary Review:
Just because a writer wasn’t accepted into an MFA program doesn’t mean it’s the end of the dream. Those programs are only one path to the writing life. There are dozens of great books and independent course opportunities, and thousands of web sites that can deliver similar information as the established schools. They’re not that hard to find if you know what you’re looking for. What you’ll miss out on mostly is the level of discussion that MFA programs offer (from both teachers and students), and the possibility that your program has connections to publishing opportunities, so look for substitutes. Search out non-program writing groups and organizations. For example, here in the Seattle area, we have Hugo House, which offers classes and seminars led by well-known and well-qualified authors. Get involved and you’ll start to connect with people who can provide both the education and networking you’re looking for. Many other cities have similar resources. If you don’t live near one, look for online communities.
Kelly Davio, Publisher and Poetry Editor, Tahoma Literary Review:
Our advice to both groups is this: an acceptance or a rejection from an MFA program isn’t a referendum on your talent, your potential, or your worth. Whatever the outcome of your applications, hard work, lots of revision, humility, and a willingness to take criticism will be at the core of your development as a writer.
James R. Gapinski, Managing Editor, The Conium Review:
For those who are accepted, I’d tell them to be a sponge. Listen to everybody around you. Trust your mentors. Respect your peers. That acceptance letter or phone call makes you feel like a champion—and it should—but remember that you have a long way to go, and you’re probably not as clever as you think. For those on the “outside,” I’d say that MFA programs are not the only path to becoming a better writer. Yeah, I learned a lot in grad school, but I also learned a lot simply by being a good literary citizen. Read books. Read literary journals. Submit to literary journals. Join a local writing group. Attend a reading series or open mic. If your area does not have a robust literary scene, then you can still get involved on discussion boards and Facebook groups. Watch authors talk about their work on YouTube. Fall in love with a good podcast. The digital world makes it possible to connect with the literary community no matter where you live.
Jessica Rosevear Fox, Editor and Publisher, Killing the Angel:
For those who receive letters of acceptance, congratulations! Enter the program with an open mind and a drive to work hard. You will get out of it what you put into it. While the program has a set limit of when it starts and ends, your journey as a writer will likely extend much longer than that with a far less linear trajectory, so take everything in stride. If you are not accepted into a program, don't sweat it. Keep writing, find community in other ways, take a class, and submit your work for publication.
Suzi Garcia, Poetry Editor, Noemi Press:
An MFA is a door to many things: institutional support, institutional validation, and many, many opportunities. Take advantage of the opportunities. And find a community. Yes, in your program, but outside of your MFA as well. I received two minors while I got my MFA, and the people I met in those areas helped make my academic career much more satisfying. If you can’t take classes outside of the Creative Writing/English Department, get involved in other student groups. Establishing connections outside your MFA Program can provide essential lifelines, especially if you feel alienated or unsupported in your program. Even if you don’t, I know I felt like I became a better-rounded writer and person by indulging in passions that fed my writing and personhood.
And if you don’t get an MFA now, don’t worry about it. It can be hard to find community IRL, but seek out a reading series or writing group in your area. Or make one! And there are plenty of places outside your direct community— apply for scholarships to residencies and online courses. I took an online course with Tim Earley between my undergrad and MFA that was so much fun and helped me create the sample that got me into an MFA. There are also writing groups in spaces like Facebook where you can connect to others and even keep yourself accountable.
Lastly, I recommend keeping an eye out to get involved in journals and presses. So much work can be done remotely, and you can even work from home. My Noemi family supports me, they push me as a writer and an editor, and through Noemi, I have found both a place and a platform. I got involved in Noemi through no connection to my MFA, but because a friend thought of me. Don’t think of an MFA as the only way to improve your writing or to find other writers. Those opportunities are out there, just find the best place for you.