Friday, August 31, 2012

An English Graduate Advisor’s 12 bullet points of advice for first year MFA students

1)    It’s normal to feel intimidated your first semester.  You’re here to learn, and you will, so try to relax into that process. Most things hurt less if you stop clenching your muscles.

2)    For the love of everything that is wonderful in this world, meet with your advisor the first semester of classes. I mean me, you know; I can talk to you about classes, expectations, what a thesis committee is, and when you should be thinking about completing a Plan of Study. Lots of relevant, helpful info here, promise (I feel like I’ve earned this exclamation point)!

3)    Get to know the other MFA students. Ask them questions about the program, classes they’ve taken, and the thesis process. Graduate school isn’t the time to be shy.

4)    For real though, about being shy? The more you participate in class discussion (well, as long as it’s thoughtful), the more you’ll get out of classes. This is a lesson I learned a bit late, as I’ve always been something an introvert. So learn from me - speak up.

5)    Once you’ve started talking to and hanging out with all the other MFA students, form a writing group. Send each other work a couple times a month. Get together to discuss it. This is the kind of thing that can continue once you’re out of school (it did for me).

6)    Join EGSS. This is a good way to meet those other Grad students I’ve been talking about.

7)    Take classes with as many creative writing professors as possible. Get to know the department.  This will come in handy when you’re forming your thesis committee - you’ll know who you’d like to work with and why.

8)    Consider taking classes outside of your chosen genre - writing in other genres is like stretching out before intense exercise; you will bring those skills (flexibility?) back to your work.

9)    Take the Sanders’ Writer in Residence workshop every spring semester. These workshops are invaluable opportunities to work with writers you might not otherwise have ever even met.

10)    Work with Coastlines. Consider submitting to literary journals. Read as many literary journals as you can to see what is published where. This will help you find a journal to send your own work  once it’s ready.

11)    Join AWP and read the Writer’s Chronicle. Poets & Writers is another good source. Stay up to date with current events in the Creative Writing realm (a beauteous place to be, isn’t it?). “Like” the MFA page on Facebook.

12)    When you’re overwhelmed, exasperated, frustrated, and otherwise feeling uncomfortable, remember that this is your time to write; you might not have another opportunity to dedicate three years to bettering your work. Use this time up. Squeeze out every drop. Devote yourself to creative work. Although you are taking literature classes and maybe even GTA-ing, your writing needs to come first; nourish it.

Mary Sheffield is an instructor and the English Graduate Advisor at FAU. Contact her at Her work has been published or is forthcoming in the Florida Review, Blip Magazine, Fiction Southeast, Spring Gun, and other publications. She received her MFA in fiction from FAU. And her cat keeps a blog.