Dear Incoming MFAs,
Firstly, allow me to congratulate you all on getting into an MFA program—this is no small feat. You should all be proud of yourselves and your work; I trust that you’ll find FAU to be a nurturing program where you’ll have the chance to hone your skills (and develop new ones) as writers, be exposed to opportunities that will help you grow professionally, and develop longstanding relationships within a community of like-minded people who take their art just as seriously as you do.
As I prepare to graduate and embark upon my next endeavors, I would like to take a moment to reflect a bit on my time here in the MFA program and offer up some advice for navigating the next three years of seriously pursuing your art. Disclaimer: these suggestions may not be for everyone—what you get out of this program will depend, largely, on what you want out of this program—but they are reflective of my own experience here and what I wish I’d known starting out.
1. View Your Responsibilities as a Full-time Job.
Many of you, I imagine, will be entering this program as Graduate Teaching Assistants. This means that, in addition to completing your academic work, you will be teaching two sections of Freshman Composition each semester. Teaching—although the most fulfilling job I’ve ever had—can be very time consuming. Between time spent in class, lesson planning, office hours, and essay grading, you will have plenty to do. I don’t say this to induce anxiety or overwhelm you. In fact, I say this to hopefully assuage your worries. If you treat the totality of your responsibilities at FAU as a sort of full-time job, balancing all of your work won’t be a problem. I recommend carving out some sort of schedule for yourself (even if it’s just a mental one). Allot yourself the necessary amount of time to read your assigned texts, work on any lit essays as they arise, get your grading/teaching tasks done, and, of course, write.
A wise professor at FAU once told me not to forget the real reason I’m here: to write. Your writing, in other words, should always come first. Especially if the inspiration strikes; don’t ignore your muse because you teach the next day and you haven’t figured out a lesson yet. Many of my lessons have been scrambled together on my way to campus (and, ironically, these have been some of my best classes).
Somewhat related to this: don’t view your required lit classes as an inconvenience. Allow them to inform your writing as well. Learn the theory and pay attention to how the authors you’ll study have employed it. Although it may not seem so at first glance, these classes can also serve to improve your craft.
2. Be an Opportunist
One aspect of MFA programs (and this one, more specifically) that often gets overlooked is the amount of extracurricular opportunities that will come your way. It is such a rare circumstance to be in, to have three years to focus on your art and to be inundated with opportunities streamlined straight to you (no need to hunt!). Take advantage of as many of them as you can while you’re here. There will be calls for submissions that magically appear (thanks, Mary) in your inbox. Submit to these places and others. Submit your work voraciously in the next three years—your publications can make or break your job search post-graduation. I’m sure you’ll be told this all the time by your professors as well, but I feel that this sentiment cannot be overstated. Submit, submit, and be rejected. You’re a writer, rejection is just an unavoidable hazard of the occupation. Embrace it. Allow rejection to become an ally, let it make you stronger and fuel your drive to revise and improve.
Apply for every other opportunity that comes up. There will be grants, competitions, travel stipends (see: the Swann Summer Scholarship), calls for conference papers/readings, chances to teach Creative Writing (both to undergrads at FAU and in the form of community workshops), and invitations to work on Swamp Ape Review, the MFA’s national literary journal, visitations by renowned writers (see: The Sanders Writers-in-Residence) and agents. My advice to you is to attend, apply, and participate. Many of us will not again have such easy access to so many professional opportunities post-graduation.
3. Start Thinking About Your Thesis, Now
When I first got to FAU, I had no idea what I was planning to write for my book-length thesis project. That’s okay, most of us didn’t. The sooner, however, you can come to a decision on this, the sooner you can start working on it; and the more time you have to work on it, the stronger and more realized your thesis will be. This might sound obvious, but I think it’s worth explicitly pointing out. This should not be a source of stress for you, though, especially not in your first semester, and you won’t want to tether yourself to one idea too early on. Be flexible. Throw ideas against the wall, try some out, see if they stick. Some won’t, and that’s okay, you’ve weeded those out. Pick a topic or a framework that speaks to your individual strengths as a writer, challenges you, and will sustain your interest for two-to-three years. Again, don’t fret if you don’t have a clue now, but be looking for clues as you write and read and workshop.
Side note: try to take classes with as many different faculty members as possible. When it comes time to choose your committee, you’ll want to have an idea of what kind of writer you are, which professors your work seems to speak to, and which professors will give you the kind of feedback you find the most useful. The people you ask to be on your thesis committee should, like much of writing, be a matter of audience.
3. Forge Friendships and Concoct Community
The stereotypical writer is often portrayed as a more introverted individual, as writing is so often a solitary task. This may or may not apply to you. Either way, I encourage you to be open to developing relationships with others in the program, both personally and professionally. A friend and I sometimes refer to this as the “constant workshop,” as many of our conversations wind up becoming discussions of the pieces we’ve been working on lately.
Some of the most useful feedback I’ve ever received has been given to me at the bar in casual conversation. The possibility of finding lifelong friendships and familiar readers here is very real. This is a truly priceless accident of the MFA program.
These next three years will pass by swiftly. You’ll attend your first day of workshop and, the next thing you know, you’ll be writing an advice column to a group of incoming MFAs you’ll never meet. So make the most of it—be prepared to put in many long nights of hard work, pursue every opportunity that comes your way, and have fun writing—experiment, try new things, augment and obliterate any and all boundaries you may have in how you approach your work. You will not become a writer upon the completion of this degree. You are a writer as long as you’re writing.
Be well, be good, be great, enjoy,
Dustin J. DiPaulo
Dustin J. DiPaulo received his MFA in Creative Writing from Florida Atlantic University in 2018. He currently lives in South Florida and has no clue where he’ll be in a month from now, but is oddly at peace with this.