My post-MFA-graduation year

January 18th, 2018

I graduated from my low-residency MFA program at Pacific University a year ago. (Shameless plug from a happy graduate: if you are considering low-residency programs you have to look into Pacific. You have to at least research it. Especially for poets, the faculty is drop-dead fantastic.) I officially completed the program and received my MFA in January of ’17, but returned for the June ’17 residency to participate in the official graduation ceremony. (I’m so glad I made that choice, but that’s another post.) And now it’s been a year, and our private Facebook group is full of students posting pictures of their stacks of books to read for the coming semester and full of the excitement-bewilderment-joy-fear of students entering thesis semester and full of pictures of graduating students standing at the lectern delivering their graduate presentations. And though there are many things I miss about Residency, and above all I miss the dear friends I’ve made along the way, I also feel ready to be on this side of things, the post-program side.

I won’t pretend I didn’t have a rough landing in June when teary-eyed and maybe a little hung-over I boarded my Portland-Amsterdam-Z├╝rich flight for the last time. I won’t pretend I didn’t land here in this non-English speaking country wondering how in the hell I was going to maintain my writing life. Would I continue to read as widely and as critically? Would I keep up my creative output? Now that nobody was watching, how hard would I keep working?

The best thing I did, and something I urge everybody who’s closing in on graduation – whether from a full-time or low-residency program; whether you live down the block from three writers or an ocean away from everybody; whether you write prose or poetry – was to become part of a small group of writers who continued to exchange work after graduation. This is my number one piece of advice for the post-graduation year, perhaps the only useful piece of advice I have. Before you leave your final residency, sit down with a small (altogether I’d say any larger than 5 is going to be hard to manage – my group consists of 4 poets) group of writers who you connected with during the program and make a formal arrangement about exchanging work. Seriously, no casual oh we should keep sending work business in the hallways. Have a meeting, get out your calendars, and set your first deadline. Make a plan. Agree among yourselves in advance what kind of feedback you want (this can always be re-negotiated); what date of the month you’re going to send your work; set an expectation about how much work to send (poets, set a number of poems; prose writers think about a page- or word-count); decide in advance if you want to share writing prompts each month or give each other reading assignments. Basically, set out the kind of arrangement those of you in low-residency programs are already used to with expectations for what will be sent in each “packet” and when they’ll be due.

This plan was a life-saver for me in many ways. It keeps me in touch with the people who have become my most important first readers and colleagues and conversation mates. I get to keep reading their poetry. It holds me accountable to continue creating new work. I’m not alone. I keep learning as my friends mention books they’re reading or poems that inspired them or add epigraphs to their poems that make me think, “oh, I should read that.”

I’ve found my post-graduation writing a bit riskier, a bit bolder. Some of it has to do with current events and the stories I’m reacting to, the things I can’t stop thinking about. Some of it has to do with knowing My Advisor is not going to read this. I never had anything other than positive, encouraging interactions with my advisors. Critique was delivered fairly, with the intention of improving my work, calling my attention to writing habits I rely on that I may not be able to see myself, and encouraging me to move more deeply into the work. I never felt shut-down or disrespected. If an advisor and I disagreed about a series of poems I wrote – and one did – this disagreement happened openly and above board and in the spirit of pushing me outside of my comfort zone. I felt safe in my program, I really did. (Since this is the internet and you can’t see me, I need to say I’m an upper-class conventionally attractive white woman so take my experience of feeling safe in the workshop space and in the packet exchanges with that fairly large grain of salt in mind.) And yet. There were things I couldn’t write, knowing it would go in the packet to my advisor. That’s on me, not my advisors, but it’s a thing that I’m only aware I was doing now that I’ve been writing for a year post-graduation. But the writing group we formed feels wildly safe in a whole different way, and that’s sent my writing in interesting (to me, anyway) directions.

The other post-graduation decision I made was to be The Person Who Shares Stuff. I post calls for submissions, fellowship opportunities, contests, you name it, to our program’s Facebook group. I email friends about opportunities that I think are particularly well-suited for them. I say, Hey! I don’t live in Portland but you do so apply for this! I retweet calls on Twitter. My experience at Pacific was of a very supportive and non-competitive student body (again, other people might have had other experiences but I found us to be a supportive bunch within and across genres and cohorts) and I want to hold on to that spirit of community as I move out into the larger poetry world which is – um, sometimes not that. This decision keeps me connected to the larger writing community in a spirit of generosity.

I’ve kept writing. I wrote a lot in the year since graduation, especially in the sixth months following the June ceremony. Leaving a structured program can be scary, but leaving with a plan can ease the transition and turn it into an opportunity to experiment and explore.

 

 


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