Back when I was an MFA student at FAU, people outside of my school circles would often express concern and confusion about what I was actually doing in grad school.
“You’re going to school to be a writer?” They’d ask, “So, why do you need a degree for that? Can’t you just, like, write?”
I’d explain to them that yeah, I could just write, but that writing was an art, a serious discipline, and that I planned on having an actual career doing it and that my time in grad school was preparing me for that. So many people questioned my choice, however, that I’d sometimes have second thoughts too. I never doubted the fact that grad school was teaching me to be a better writer, but I did sometimes wonder if it truly was preparing me to enter the scary and intimidating world of professional authors. You know, the part of being a writer that’s more than just writing really cool stories.
Five years out of the MFA program, I can now say that I finally have a definitive answer, and it’s positive. Yes, my MFA really did prepare me for a career as a professional writer, and it did so in a lot of unexpected ways.
Most importantly, the MFA program instilled in me a sense that writing is a discipline. You have to sit your butt down and write and write a lot and you can’t continually start projects and leave them unfinished, which was a big problem I’d had before college. When you have an assignment due Tuesday night in class you can’t sit around and wait for the muse to magically inspire you. You have to bang it out and come up with an ending or at least an ending place, regardless of your feelings about it. Same goes for writing as a career. Professional writers have assignments due too and editors aren’t interested in your level of divine inspiration. They want you to produce quality writing on time. The MFA program taught me not to be a flake, and now when I have a job to do, I know I can get it done no matter what because I’m relying on skill, experience, structure and honestly, you could even call it willpower.
Professional writers work with other people constantly: editors, agents, publishers, marketing departments and freelance clients. Most traditionally published writing is the result of a collaborative effort between many other people besides simply the writer, and writers need to be able to listen to someone else’s ideas (and yes, critiques) of their work. Guess what prepared me for this aspect of my writing career? Workshops! Group Projects! I used to get really nervous before workshop because I never knew what my classmates and professors were going to say about my stories and poems, but after three years of workshopping I grew a thicker hide and learned that criticism of my writing wasn’t a criticism of me. This has helped me enormously in my real-world writing career. I don’t fall apart when an editor wants changes or if something I submitted gets rejected repeatedly. I’ve learned to listen to other people’s visions for my writing and to be open to new ideas.
I recently began working with a literary agent, which was an exciting but also kind of scary new prospect. Suddenly, much more was required of me. I was working on timelines, submission packages, proposals, synopses. I was taking notes, researching new topics. I was even asked to discuss (in detail) the work of other authors. I have new assignments almost every night, and at one point I casually remarked that it was like being in grad school all over again (which I totally meant as a good thing because my MFA years were the best time of my life, for real). Then I realized, wow, it was exactly like being in school again because I wasn’t being asked to do a single thing I hadn’t already done at FAU many times before. This was a pretty big revelation for me. My MFA really had prepared me for the life of a professional writer and because of that I’m confident and secure and ready to kick butt in the publishing world with the best of them.
Victoria Fedden graduated from the MFA program in 2009. She is a stay at home mom living in Fort Lauderdale and is the author of the memoirs Amateur Night at the Bubblegum Kittikat and Sun Shower: Magic, Forgiveness and How I Learned to Bloom Where I Was Planted. Her work has appeared in the Huffington Post, the Sun Sentinel, Real Simple, Chicken Soup for the Soul and the recent anthology My Other Ex: Women's True Stories of Leaving and Losing Friends.