Ruminations of a Red Dirt Hussy

July 19, 2013

Surviving the MFA

Filed under: General — Vadasmaker @ 10:08 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

I know this is a repeat, but I had to remove a hyperlink and couldn’t figure out how not to publish it again after having done so.

I used Grammarly to check this post because time spent checking my grammar could be used to prepare for the zombie apocalypse. I have it on good authority that the event is imminent.

I’m not an expert on much of anything, but having finally completed an MFA in creative writing while retaining what little sanity I had to begin with, I can probably give you some pointers.


Quit your job, tell your family you’ll see them in a couple of years, buy 500 reams of paper, plenty of printer ink/toner, and lock yourself in a small room with only paper, computer, printer, books, and more paper. And wine. A few cases. Or maybe just a fifty-gallon drum suspended from the ceiling and equipped with a spigot.


Prepare to die.

Or to feel like you’re going to. Why do I say that? Because I know you didn’t take my advice for preparing for the semester. Because you’re going to read 20-25 books, half of which you won’t want to read and the other half you won’t like. Then you’re going to write 15-18 annotations, which is a fancy word for short craft papers. Then you’re going to crank out a hundred or so pages of your creative work. Then you’re going to send all that to your advisor and top it off with a process letter that tells him or her how badly you want to be put out of your misery.


Pray fervently for death, because you are going to do everything you did in the first semester plus write a short critical essay. And by short I mean 10 pages, 7 pages past the length that makes my students gag and pass out.


Pray harder, because it’s more of the same, plus you write what’s referred to as an extended annotation, and, again, it’s a fancy way of saying you’re going to write an essay of 20-25 pages about two or three books. By the time you’re through you will want to gouge out your eyes with sharp sticks.


The fourth semester should be easier. You don’t have to read all those books and write all those papers. All you have to do is revise your extended annotation and work on whatever your creative project is. I called mine THE BOOK. Sometimes I prefaced that with a lot of four letter words. Sometimes a lot of four letter words came afterward, too. You can call yours whatever you want with however many four letter words you feel necessary.

As I said, the fourth semester should be easier, but SURPRISE. It won’t be. It’ll be more like the opposite of easy. You will probably want to take a sledgehammer to your computer. Of course, some of my grief was because in semester 3, my two advisors and I thought maybe THE BOOK would work better in a kind of retrospective first person. Indeed it does. But I think I broke my brain. And I’m sure I drained that fifty-gallon drum of wine about halfway through making the changes. You can’t just use the Find and Replace function to turn all the shes, hers, and theirs to I, me, mine, and ours. Believe me. I tried.

That extended annotation and 140 or so pages of creative work make up the thesis. You’d think that, having revised all that until you could scream, that at least the rest of that semester would be easy-peasy. But no. Not even.

Formatting will be a living hell. How that could be, I don’t know, because you’ll have the most specific instructions ever written, practically a thesis in themselves. But you’ll think you’re in hell. Trust me. You’ve got your university formatting guidelines, your program formatting guidelines, and your Modern Language Association guidelines.  I pity those you if you haven’t spent the last 15 years teaching MLA formatting to freshmen.

I guess hardly any of the above was all that instructive. More like a debriefing. So for people who want nuts and bolts and not a dissertation on how an engine is built, here you go.

  1. Everybody knows first drafts are shitty–thank you, Anne Lamott–but that doesn’t mean you turn that shit in. If you turn in the best work you can do whenever possible, and later you screw up, your advisor might be more understanding. Or he/she might jerk a half-hitch in your ass, but turning in good stuff as often as possible can’t hurt.
  2. Don’t become a sycophant at the expense of your classmates. Two years is a long time, and it’s even longer when you’ve got no one to suffer with.
  3. By the same token, don’t sit around waiting to have your feelings hurt. If you do, it’s going to happen. Before you jump to conclusions, like that people are disrespecting you, or excluding you, or that they think your work sucks, or that they hate you because you’re you, think about it. We’re really all too self-involved to be concerned with insulting other people.
  4. Don’t bite the hand that reads your thesis. This ought to be a no-brainer, but it happens all the time. You may dislike that person’s pedagogy or comments on your work or, I don’t know, his or her taste in reality shows. Whatever. Deal with it. Don’t try to appeal to a higher power, like the program director. If the advisors are doing their jobs, shut up and suffer.
  5. Be grateful. If you’re in an MFA program, you’re doing it by choice. It’s what you want to do. If not, you might ought to go do something else. Seriously. If those of us who are fulfilling a long-held dream often feel like somebody is sticking needles in our eyes, you must be dying by degrees. Just stop it.
  6. Finally, always wear your Sunday boots. And clean underwear. Just in case.

That’s all the wisdom (and I use the term loosely) I have right now. Maybe in ten years, when I’ve finally paid off my fortune in student loans, I’ll come back and tell you how to do that, too. If I survive it.



  1. Congratulations Carol!!! Lots of hard work there….and you did it!!!
    I am sure it was good also to have such support from Jim.


    Comment by Lily — July 20, 2013 @ 7:16 am | Reply

  2. I’ll guess I’ll cut you some slack then — for our two-hour visit that was all you could spare last November. SOME slack. Just a little.


    Comment by Michael Lee Smith — July 20, 2013 @ 6:55 pm | Reply

  3. Now that you are among the living, call me! I am so proud of you! It reminds me of the N-A-V-Y! Never Again Volunteer Yourself! I managed to get through boot camp once upon a time and gave birth – TWICE. I can do anything! You can, too. You’ve got the t-shirt ! Congrats!


    Comment by pony-tail girl — July 21, 2013 @ 8:44 am | Reply

  4. My hero.


    Comment by Becky — July 23, 2013 @ 9:17 am | Reply

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