7 Nuggets of Wisdom I Wish I Had Followed While Earning an MFA

By Katya Cummins

I’ve decided to launch a new column here at Niche Features called “Letters From the Editor.” My hope is to write interesting and informative articles that address my own observations about writing, publishing, books, literary magazines, MFA Programs, or anything else remotely related to a writer’s life. To start with, I have decided to share 7 nuggets of wisdom that I acquired while earning an MFA in creative writing, but which I had difficulty fully appreciating until I had graduated and had time to fully reflect on their significance.

Be social. It is a truth that most writers are very shy. There are a few Castle’s out there. However, the unfortunate reality is that being good at writing and trusting in the writing process is only half the battle. Forming a social network within the literary community is just as important. Being admitted into a program is a good place to begin forging those connections. If you’re very shy like me then the MFA is a good place to begin practicing. So go to the majority of informal social functions as well as the formal ones—even if it’s only for an hour.

Reading dead authors is important. Too many aspiring writers believe they don’t need to read in order to become successful writers. They especially see no point in reading dead writers like Homer, Milton, Shakespeare, Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, Hawthorne, Austen, Twain, Tolstoy, or Chekhov. But those who want to write well must also read extensively, both from a deep love of literature and to situate themselves within literary traditions. Beyond that, opening yourself up to literary lineages will allow you to read your peers’ work with a deeper understanding and appreciation. In addition, you’re less likely to reinvent the wheel.

Reading super, super contemporary authors, and across cultures is also important. If you don’t know another language then read as many translated novels and translated books of poetry as humanly possible. If there are multiple translations of the same novel then be sure to choose the “best” or most accepted translation of the work. Read everyone. Read beyond the accepted literary canon and even beyond the authors who have been labeled as “canon breakers.” Ask yourself: who has won recent literary prizes and have I read their books? In order to be active in the literary community you need to know who is known in the literary community.

Literary scholarship is important. It is difficult to say anything “new” about literary work. The best you can hope for is to add your opinion to literary dialogues, and hope that someone else didn’t publish your opinion on his or her blog first. But this does not mean that knowing how to apply literary criticism to your work or someone else’s work is an outdated and useless exercise. It simply means you have to engage in some “outside the box” thinking, but not so “out there” that the established modes of literary criticism are cast completely aside. This also does not mean that you have filter everything you read through a Marxist or a Freudian lens. Sometimes a short story about a group of men folding chairs is just a short story about a group of men folding chairs.

Really listen and consider your workshop comments. Yes, we’ve all been there. In the privacy of our own homes, while eating comforting bowls of ramen or mac n’ cheese we’ve cursed those peers and our workshop leaders who said this or that about our writing. We’ve called them dumb and stupid and narrow-minded. We’ve accused them of “just not getting it.” However, before you toss their assertions aside be very certain that you aren’t being too defensive, or taking their comments as a personal attack. Give yourself time to decompress and read the comments once you’ve gained enough emotional distance. Keep in mind that some of your best readers won’t necessarily be the people you hang out with outside of workshop. Most of all remember that workshop is WHY you wanted to be accepted into an MFA in the first place. Having people who are required to read your work is a rare occurrence. Don’t waste the opportunity by erecting walls.

There may be people in the MFA who write better than you. Instead of wasting energy feeling jealous of that peer whom you perceive to be better keep in mind your own strengths as a writer, and consider what you can learn and glean from their work. Also keep in mind that you wouldn’t have been accepted into an MFA Program if someone didn’t believe in your talents as a writer in the first place.

Write. You’ll have bad days. Everyone will. Sometimes it will be difficult to ignore all the social politics. It will be difficult to avoid comparing yourself to everyone else, especially when you witness peers having minor or significant successes. Just remember that you’re ultimately in the MFA Program to improve your own writing, and the only way to do that is to write and then write some more.

This post was originally published on Niche’s website on July 30th, 2015. 



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