You’ve Gotten your MFA, so What Now?

This is a pep talk I gave to graduates at Pacific University Low Residency MFA program where I teach. Usually during faculty talks, students sit quietly and respectfully to the pearls of wisdom uttered. However, during this presentation, I encouraged the students to stomp, yell, hoot, holler, shift in their chairs, shout out questions without bothering to raise their hands, and otherwise be outrageous in the aisles. I ad-libbed a lot, of course, but this contains the gist of the discussion...BJC

1. Writing 11. Taking a Job that will Allow You to Write
2. Avoiding Writer's Block 12. Gaining Teaching Experience
3. Getting a Trust Fund 13. Other Writing Jobs
4. Fighting the Lag 14. Editing
5. Publishing 15. Choosing More Education
6. Entering Contests 16. Hiring Editors and Coaches
7. Working on Literary Magazines 17. Keeping in Contact with Writing Friends and Colleagues
8. Starting a Literary Magazine 18. Attending Conferences and Residencies
9. Blogging, Facebook, and other Social Media 19. General Resources for Writers
10. Making Choices for the Writing Life 20. Promoting Writing and Reading in Your Community
21. The Oath


For two years, you all have written for deadlines. You have come to residencies and attended craft talks and workshops and roundtables. You have asked questions and listened to answers. You have eaten and drunk with other writers. You have been writers.

Now you must write without the pressure from an institution.

You need to find a new way continue writing, and you need to make time in the rest of your life to write, starting now. You need to write more, write better, write differently, write atrocious experimental pieces, entertain yourself and others, you need to tell the truth and lie. Write extravagantly, and edit brutally. And keep on doing so forever.

Avoiding Writer's Block

You have not been allowed to get writer’s block while you’re in the MFA program, and after graduation you will need to ward it off with even more vigor. Once I had surgery on an ingrown toenail. The podiatrist gave me a prescription for some painkiller, and she said I should not wait for the toe to hurt, but that I should “Stay ahead of the pain.” Some of you tell me that you get writer’s block. I would suggest that when this happens, you are merely blocked on one particular project. The simple solution is to have several projects going on at the same time, so that when you burn out on one, you move to another. And if I’m ever in the situation that I think I don’t have anything to write about, I simply pick up a great book and read a paragraph. I read the beginning of one of Flannery O’Connor’s stories or any section from Faulkner’s “Spotted Horses.”

Getting a Trust Fund

Seriously, this would be a good idea. Befriend somebody’s rich maiden aunt. Or marry rich. That would make your future as a writer a bit easier. The good news, for most of the rest of us, those who have chosen our families unwisely and foolishly married for love, is that most of the best writing in the world is produced by poor and desperate people, people who are, perhaps, like you.

Fighting the Lag

You are leaving one part of life and going to another. Writer Judy Blunt reminds us that you are not returning to the old life you had before the writing program. You are creating a new life that is almost certainly different from what came before. You are not the same person who came into the program.

I get nervous when I hear students say they want to take a break from writing. That is like taking a break from breathing, isn’t it?


All of you need to be thinking about publishing your work. Some of you are ready and some are not, but all of you should consider where you want to share your work with the world when the time is right. There are more opportunities than ever for publication.

You need to make an additional career to figure out how and where to get published.

Here’s My simple rule for those of you who want the most publishing success: study the market to figure out where work like yours is getting published. This involves figuring out what kind of work you produce. All of us need to be deepening our own understanding of our own work to know where our work belongs. This is hard because our work changes, and also the publishing world changes. For example, plenty of university magazines change editors every year.

On my website is an article that discusses publishing in great detail. It’s called “Devising a Publishing Strategy,” and it gets you started thinking about submitting your work to publishers. And a shorthand for that talk is: Go to and look around.

Some of you in this room have already been publishing. Some of you will now burst out into publication; for others it will be a long haul. Most of you will have to be the promoters of your own work, at least for a while.

Graduating student Tom Zalutko told me to tell you what I did about publishing after my graduation. I was a little extreme.

I sent something out every day. Every goddamned day I sent out a story or an essay. When my first collection was published, I had a one and a half or two percent success rate. Later, after my novel was published and nothing had happened for a while, I returned to sending something out every day.

Entering Contests

There are more contest opportunities than ever before. You can find out about them in AWP Chronicle, in Poets & Writers. Better yet, sign up for the list serve of the Yahoo group for creative writing opportunities, CRWROPPS.

In addition to information about publishing, CRWROPPS also has information about jobs contests, residencies, anything else you can think of.

Contests are important. They support magazines. Assume that every magazine is struggling, that the editor is unpaid, that everyone is working as hard as they, and if it takes them a while to get to your work, that’s par for the course. Contests give you a leg up. By paying your fee, you are narrowing the field to those who are willing to pay a fee, and there is a deadline for consideration of your work.

Working on Literary Magazines

There are things you can do with literary magazines beyond just sending work to them. You can support them, say, by sending them money. But knowing how cheap you are, I’d suggest you try to become involved in working on literary magazines, reading and selecting work for inclusion, editing, advertising, designing, etc.

If you work on an established literary magazine you will find out quickly how much work is out there, and how good it is or is not, and you will see how the process of choosing stories works. You will be a wiser submitter of work once you are involved in the reading and consideration of work by others.

Many of you got free wine at the Urban Decanter in Forest Grove in celebration of the new issue of Silk Road. Remember that joy. Note that it came as a result of hard work by a lot of people, editors, readers, and designers. Many people in this room have worked on Pacific’s literary magazine, Silk Road.

Some of you may remember Alissa Nielsen, an excellent fiction writer who graduated from Pacific last year and is currently an editor for Silk Road. I asked her to share a few words about her experiences since graduation.

After the MFA
Alissa Nielsen

It has always been my goal to find a job that fosters and inspires or, at the very least, supports my writing. Whether it’s teaching, editing, arts administration or something completely separate from the literary world, it ought to be a job where one can find the time and energy to write. I aim for a career that fuels, rather than depletes me so drastically that I lose the will to write.

The standard advice that everyone gives folks leaving an MFA program goes like this: keep writing. It sounds easy—you just keep doing what you’ve been doing, yeah? Since graduating a year ago, it’s been a bit of a struggle for me to remain devout to my writing routine, but I’ve found that having a job where I’m immersed in reading and the art of writing—where I’m constantly analyzing and considering what makes for good literature—has fueled my inspiration to write.

I’ve enjoyed working for a literary journal (Silk Road) because I love being part of the writing community and I love to read. It’s intriguing and illuminating to learn more about the other side of the literary world—the dreaded industry. You’re able to see what kind of work is circulating out there and how truly difficult it is to get published. You can improve your editing skills and have some fascinating discussions with other editors about writing. The sheer fact that you’re reading so much inspires new ideas for your own work. More than anything, working on a publication has made me feel like I’m part of a long literary tradition of writers publishing and supporting other writers. It’s the most thrilling thing to publish an excellent emerging writer whose work has yet to be discovered.

Thank you, Alissa!

Starting a Literary Magazine

Many people in this room have started their own literary magazines. Josh Goller has a magazine called The Molotov Cocktail. Eric Miller published one issue of Funny Sexy: A literary magazine for funny sexy humans, and he is asking for more submissions Christopher Kerr has published two issues of Projector. Susan DeFreitas has a multi-media action plan, Hypertext Meditations: Explorations in hypertext fiction and poetry and beyond.

In my own life, I had a literary magazine, The Letter Parade. It was mostly an artifact through which I communicated with my friends and I published my own essays. Which leads me to:

Blogging, Facebook, and other Social Media

Blog entries can be a form of literary art if you want them to be. There are excellent blogs about writing, including famous ones like Maud Newton and less famous ones such as The Pop-Up Princesses, which is a blog about writing put together by four women here at Pacific. I have been told that if one expects to be a blogging phenomenon, one must blog at least two times a week.

I don’t know how you all feel about Twitter, but if you put in the right search words, you can locate every writing blog and website in the English language (or whatever other language you prefer.)

Making Choices for the Writing Life

I used to travel. I used to be president of Goulash Tours, Inc., a bicycle touring company offering eight-week bicycle tours in Russia, Eastern Europe, and the Balkans. I stopped traveling in order to write. Some of my fellow writers bought nice houses and furniture that all matches the wallpaper. My husband and I bought a $25,000 house in a swamp and carved furniture out of stumps. Now I’m starting to think that the swamp might be the whole secret to my recent success. It is very Dionysian in my backyard—just ask the mosquitoes. (This is in part a reference to Joe Millar’s craft talk about the Dionysian vs. Apollonian elements of our writing and lives.)

I have no children. I will die miserable and alone, but I will have books published. I’m not saying you should give up a decent home or send your children away, but I’m suggesting there might be choices to make in your life, and I want you to always take your writing into account. Try to make decisions that will strengthen your opportunities to write, if not now then in the long run.

Also, if you want to write about interesting things, surround yourself with interesting people. If your friends are dull, be concerned that it might rub off on you. While I was writing this, a tweet came up “ Marry somebody you love and who thinks you being a writer's a good idea,” a quote attributed to Richard Ford.

You may be given a choice on a given evening, about whether to attend a literary event or a non-literary event. Choose literary if you can. Choose a book over a movie.

Okay, and the last one is going to sound bossy, but here goes. Stop judging people. It’s fun to be mean sometimes and judge people, but it can suck the life out of your writing.

Taking a Job that will Allow You to Write

My friend LL won the Iowa Prize and then took a job driving a bus because she could work 30 hours a week, have her mind to herself and get insurance for herself and her kid.

Most people take teaching jobs if they can get good ones because teaching obligations are flexible time-wise. There is a lot to say about teaching jobs, good and bad. Some feel that the very creative energy that they need for writing is used up in the process of teaching, while others feel energized by their students.

Many of us would love to work in a bookstore. The pay isn’t good, but we get to be around books and might get a discount on them. If you go the trust-fund route, or if you marry rich, maybe you can own your own bookstore. Just be aware that most bookstores make a good part of their income selling coffee at this stage in the game.

Other jobs that might make sense to help pay the bills include (freelance) editing, grant writing, technical writing, or doing whatever you did before you received your MFA, but with a decidedly more literary slant. Tolstoy was a doctor; John Grisham was a lawyer.

At Poe War, John Hewitt gives an alphabetical list of jobs writers tend to hold: Under the A’s you’ll find: Acquisitions Editor, Advertising Writer, Agent’s Assistant Assistant Editor, Author.

University Teaching Jobs:

Some of you, hopefully many of you, are thinking about teaching. With your MFA terminal degree you are qualified to teach at the university level.

If you have a book by a good press and an MFA, you are qualified to teach at the graduate level.

Typical course loads for four-year colleges are two to four courses per semester. At Community college you may teach as many as five or six. There are lots of part-time opportunities, but the pay and benefits vary wildly from state to state and school to school. Depending upon where you live and where you want to teach, there might be a tremendous amount of competition for teaching jobs.

Some of you remember Kyle Lang, who graduated from our program two years ago. He shares his teaching experience here.

Kyle Lang wrote:

When I left the Pacific program, I already knew that I would serve in the capacity of TA in the Fall. I was excited for the opportunity but didn't use my summer months wisely and was soon confronted with the idea of teaching a class of 22 with little to no experience and/or techniques. The first semester was hit and miss, what I lacked in experience and knowledge I like to think I made up for in enthusiasm. Oh, and a hardcore commitment to revision.

That first year saw me correcting two to three versions of every major assignment while also grading daily writing assignments. It was a lot, and thank god I only had two classes. I've since revised my strategy to include a lot more peer review, ungraded daily writings, and other such things. I have to say that the last two years have taught me a lot.

In terms of getting the other teaching position, I lucked into it. I called the Department Chair at PCC on the day he found out an instructor wasn't going to be able to complete the term due to cancer. Not the way I wanted to enter the institution (at another's expense) but what can you do? I finished one of his classes out for him and have been able to stay on as an adjunct instructor ever since. They have since bumped me up to two classes per term instead of only one.

This leads to my biggest piece of advice. Don't take on too much too fast. Teaching two classes at two different institutions, balancing two sets of expectations, and two diverse student bodies has been the biggest challenge of my short teaching life. I love the teaching, but the logistical challenges can sometimes become overwhelming.

So, in terms of MFA students looking to explore this path, I say...beware. My creative productivity has definitely suffered as a result. Reading 54 student narratives in a week and a half can make you pretty jaded. I've been able to find mechanisms that keep me writing but at times it seems like sheer force of will that keeps me moving down the page.

On the flip side of this coin, I have learned a lot about my own writing by having to verbalize techniques and craft elements. It is a rewarding life, but a demanding one. Can I see myself doing this for a long time? Yes, I can. Have I had to establish boundaries and make other sacrifices? Yes, I have. Would I do it again? Yes, I would.

I would say that Kyle may not be working a job that is conducive to writing at this time, but he is positioning himself for having more writing time later.

Gaining Teaching Experience

Some of you are graduating from Pacific without any teaching experience, so if teaching interests you, then you need to consider some unconventional ways of getting experience.

MH., one of your fellow students, is teaching at a prison, as part of a program that pays. If this is something that interests you, look into it locally. Be warned that many of these prison teaching situations do not pay. In a prison, you will learn a lot and hopefully your students, a captive audience, will appreciate you.

MH also is substitute teaching at a college. She went to a local college, talked to a creative writing instructor, offered to help out, and ended up substitute teaching. She’s now got something to put on her resume.

Also, look into substitute teaching in high schools in the area where you live. The pay varies, but it can work out for those of you who like kids.

Other people in this program have told me they are teaching at summer camp. The YMCA has some opportunities for teaching courses in the summer. Look up their programs online or walk into your local YMCA or YWCA building and ask.

My friend Susan got an MFA for free at Notre Dame without teaching experience, and she now teaches writing at three places: Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, a local bookstore, and at a local college’s community outreach program.

Contact your local library of community center and offer to teach a workshop. They may not pay much (or anything), but it’s a way to get some experience to put on your resume.

Other Writing Jobs

I am currently writing something for Bicycling Magazine. My friend Heidi is an edgy, bitter writer and editor, and she made a little money writing for Cat Fancy magazine. My publicist’s husband loves passenger trains, so he has a column in a train magazine. Do you have a hobby about which you could write on the side? Look around for where you might publish. Many writers have two writing identities, such as Carl Hiaisen, novelist and columnist. Barbara Kingsolver considers herself an environmentalist first and then a writer.

Write for newspapers and win Pulitzer prizes, like your fellow student, Rick Attig.


It’s a slow haul establishing yourself as a freelance editor, but if you have the skills, you can do it. There are editors among us even now, in this very room.

Choosing More Education

You can study and receive additional MFA degrees. Is there someone you would love to work with? Go track that person down where he or she teaches! Pile on those degrees.

You can also get a PhD. Many PhDs are English PhDs with a creative dissertation, which mean the candidate must take the preliminary exams in English Literature, but there are some purely creative PhDs now. Getting a PhD usually signals your commitment to the academic world. If you get a PhD you may be qualified to teach at the graduate level without necessarily having a book.

When I asked one friend, KW, what it was like to get a PhD, I believe her words were, “it was the most humiliating experience of my life.” Or something like that. But she’s happy she’s got the degree now.

Hiring Editors and Coaches

Perhaps your main concern right now, coming out of the program, is not making a living, but is figuring out how to finish a piece of writing that you think will help establish your career when it is published.

It is possible and appropriate to hire someone to help you polish a piece of writing or even to act as your writing teacher or coach. There are lots of great editors and teachers out there who need money and will work for you. You can look online, on writing sites, or in writing magazines. Be sure to get one with references you can trust, because you will probably pay upwards of $30 an hour for these services. If you need an editor, consider my friend Heidi Bell, who copyedited my book American Salvage.

Keeping in Contact with Writing Friends and Colleagues

Keep in contact with writing friends and colleagues. It’s worth saying twice. Continue to hone your editing and critiquing skills. As you become the best writer you can be, also learn to be the best critic you can be. That way your writing friends will need you as desperately as you need them. Keep the relationships you have and work to build new ones.

I would not have written and published the books I have written and published if not for my writing pals. Our meetings are irregular nowadays, but we communicate a lot by email. We share work, ideas, frustrations, and so on. Keep in touch with other writers, be in writering groups and share. If you ever find yourself not writing, get thee to a writers group. Find a writers group at a bookstore, a library, or a coffee shop

Or take a workshop. Workshops are offered at colleges, bookstores, libraries, or privately by individuals who are often uniquely qualified. Wherever you live there is probably some kind of writing community, and you’ll need to find your way around it. If there is not one locally, then you may want to start one.

Maybe you say you don’t have writing groups in Fly Speck, South Dakota and there are no book stores, libraries or coffee shops. How are you going to hook up with writers there? you ask If you are truly isolated, then you can use online resources. Keep in touch with your friends and fellow graduates. Ask around to find out what are the good online writing groups; you may have to try out a few before finding the right one.

Attending Conferences and Residencies

Go to the Associated Writing Programs website, and you’ll see the option “Looking for a Writing Center or Conference.”

You can find one-day workshops, week-long workshops or residencies that might last for months. You can attend the big three-day conference, the AWP conference where you’ll see more writers and aspiring writers than you can shake a stick at. Some workshops are good for rejuvenating you and helping you mix with other writers; other workshops offer concrete opportunities to show an agent a manuscript. Figure out what you want from a conference and then try to find one that meets your goals.

Katey Schultz is a recent graduate of the Pacific MFA, and she is spending the two years following her graduation traveling and attending residencies. In answer to a few questions I posed, Katey Schultz writes:

What I’m doing:

I'm traveling across the U.S. for two years attending writing residencies. My working goal is to have a draft of my short story collection submitted to publishers by the end of this two years. But how I actually spend my time in each place is always dictated by the place itself.

How I figured out how to do it:

First, I got laid off from my part-time job slinging coffee. That helped a lot--really. This was about 7 months after graduating from Pacific...right when that student loan grace period expired. I had been living part time off my wages as an editor and writer for a while but somehow had this idea that I had to have all my ducks in a row before I could ever fully take the leap into a full-time writing life. Well, we all know that nobody ever has all their ducks in a row, so losing my job (with 9 days notice, at the height of the recession) was upsetting to say the least, but in retrospect it was a very good thing.

Being unemployed was a psychology in and of itself. Suffice it to say that without any restrictions on my schedule, I had a lot of flexibility when applying to residencies. The first two came by recommendations: The Wrangell Mountains Center in Alaska and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (where Joe Millar, Dorianne Laux, and Ellen Bass go). I looked them up and found out that scholarships were available for AK and VCCA acceptance was not contingent upon whether or not an artist could pay. I got a full ride to AK, went to VCCA for $10 per day, and was on my way. The experiences I had at those two places were enough to fuel my passion to plan two years on the road. I had never before hit such deep places of immersion and revision with my own work--yes, even deeper than the revisions I did for my thesis at Pacific--and I had never before felt so free to live each day in a balanced way, all in service of becoming the writer I want to become.

The people I met at each of these places in turn knew about other residencies. To my surprise, some of them had even been to the same places--overlapped or just missed each other at Yaddo, Jentel, McDowell, etc. The more I listened in on these conversations between artists at various residencies, the more I learned that there is basically a "circuit" of places any artist can go. If you have money, fine. If you don't, fine. You can shape your experience depending on your financial needs and that's just what I did.

My real heavy hitter was being selected as Writer-in-Residence at Interlochen Arts Academy. It's a part-time teaching gig, so I get room/board/stipend/insurance and I teach 2 classes of 9 kids each. I wanted to front load my 2 years on the road with a paying gig so that I could afford to travel to all the other places on my list, including Weymouth Center for the Arts (free with a fiction prize I won), and Jentel Artist Residency Program (free). Additional applications have been sent to: Fishtrap Eastern Oregon WIR program, Headlands (CA), The Gershwin Hotel (NYC), and Vermont Studio Center’s full fellowship program. More in the works…

I should also say that I’ve been waitlisted at The Anderson Center, rejected at Ox-Bow, later accepted at Ox-Bow, given partial fellowships to Vermont Studio Center (which I still could not afford), rejected from The Wurlizter Foundation, and wholly ignored by The Gershwin Hotel (though I’m applying again). I anticipate more rejections and more acceptances the deeper I get into this. The trick is keeping the applications out there, and only applying to places that are fully funded or offer scholarships.

Link to Katey Schultz website here

Thank you, Katey Schultz, for inspiring us and letting us know that not everyone has to stay home and live in a crappy house in the swamp.

General Resources for Writers

The AWP Writer’s Chronicle magazine & website

Poets & Writers Magazine

(go here for instructions for signing up to have CRWROPPS email alerts sent to you)

Promoting Writing and Reading in Your Community

Once you’re finished with the program, you might well be one of the only writers in your circle of friends or even in your community—and certainly you will be the most dynamic and enthusiastic about your craft. You might be the only writer some people meet. So don’t hesitate to spread the love and fun of writing. You may even create a job for yourself somehow.

Offer to visit the schools. Don’t read your raunchiest work while you’re there.

You can teach a community about literary readings. When you read, as an example, you must be as interesting as possible in order to get folks to want to attend another reading. And another.

Encourage your children and other children and adults to be readers, whether its vampire novels or whatever else these crazy kids seem to be reading.

Support your local independent book stores. When you have a book, they will be the ones who sell and promote it. If it’s an option, buy coffee at the bookstore in order to support them.

Get on the board of local arts councils and libraries and make sure they are supporting literary art. In some towns there’s a real bias toward supporting visual arts over literary.

Check into school board action, make sure they’re not banning books. (Or better yet, make your spouse do it so you can stay home and write.)

The Oath

Say this aloud:

I will live a literary life. I read books and write.

Repeat daily as needed.

Thank you all very much for your attention. Good luck!

(Acknowledgements: Thank you Alissa Nielsen, Kyle Lang, and Katey Schultz for letting me use your words. Thank you Shelley Washburn, Director of the Pacific University low residency MFA program for all her support.)

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