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An Imperfect Guide to Balancing Work and the MFA

Image: Farid Iqbal Ibrahim

My decision to pursue my MFA in creative writing was an easy one. I was working full-time and making use of my bachelor’s degree, but it felt like some key aspect of my life was missing. My creative writing skills had stagnated and I hadn’t written anything new in months. The low residency model was an obvious choice, since it would allow me to continue to work full-time while earning my MFA. I’m still glad that I made this decision, but I must admit that I wasn’t fully prepared for what was to come. I did learn that working and going to grad school online is doable, though, and I’d like to share my experience.

When I started my first class of the low residency MFA program at Mississippi University for Women back in June, I was starry eyed. I worked my full-time job by day and contributed to my one online class by night and on weekends. I got an A in the class, solidifying my belief that this MFA program would be a breeze. Then things took a turn.

In August, I got laid off from my full-time writing job, and in September, I started fall semester with three online classes.

For awhile, I was job hunting while handling school. I was stressed, but getting straight As.Then I started working a low stress part-time job and I was still doing okay. Then I started another part-time job, since I desperately needed the money. Then I started freelancing.

At this point, my grades were slipping and my quality of work was suffering. I had no clue how to get organized because it seemed like no matter what I was working on, it was the wrong thing. I was getting lots of things done, but nothing was done well–at least, not to my standards. Nonetheless, I was and am certain that I can pull this off. Here’s how.

Ranking Tasks

One of the most useful tools I’ve gained from this experience is learning to rank my tasks. When it finally sank in that my method of dealing with an influx of projects wasn’t working (the method in question being: feeling so overwhelmed that I procrastinate everything until the very last second and either turn in projects late or just in time), I started ranking my tasks by deadlines. Then I started ranking them by importance. For instance, I get my freelance projects done before my school projects if they’re due on the same day. Above all, the bills need to get paid. But thanks to this method, I now know which tasks to start on first, which means more things are getting turned in on time, since I’m not trying to do everything at once.

Recognizing Merit in the Phrase “Better Late Than Never”

I get terrible anxiety over deadlines. I fret for weeks ahead of time and feel guilty whenever I’m not working on the project that will be due.  I feel guilty even if I’m busy and I’ve been putting off the task for fully valid reasons. Oftentimes, if I missed a deadline, I’d give up on the project altogether, assuming the professor or client wouldn’t accept it even if I did turn it in. I was wrong. Of course, in many cases, people won’t accept late work, but it’s important to verify this before giving up. It seems obvious, yet realizing this helped calm me and stop missing assignments.

Saying No

I’m the first to admit that I have a hard time saying no to things, be they new projects or simply hanging out with people. I’m constantly taking on new responsiblities and convincing myself I can juggle it all. With that in mind, one of the most important things I learned to do since starting this MFA program is learning to say no. If I have a full schedule, I no longer try to shuffle things around and go out of my way to accommodate new requests. Once my schedule is set for the week, that’s it. I refuse to modify, barring dire circumstances. I am not a superhuman and only have so many hours in the day that I can do work and do work well, which brings me to my next point.

Getting Enough Sleep

Again, this seems obvious. Initially, I took on so many tasks that I barely got sleep. I kept getting sick and my work quality suffered. After that, I started accidentally sleeping through alarms because of pure exhaustion. My anxiety levels suffered as well. Everything felt like a crisis. I was certain that I was failing all my classes and on the verge of getting fired even though that was far from the truth. I started straightening out my schedule and allowing myself more time to not only sleep, but just relax. This made work feel less tedious and helped sharpen my mind, improving my work.

Forgiving Myself

This was the hardest lesson these past few months have taught me. Honestly, I haven’t fully internalized it yet. After a couple missed assignments, poor grades, and absences from work, it’s been hard to stop feeling guilty for it all. I still blame myself for not being perfect at balancing all of this right away. Admittedly, some of it was undeniably my fault, but most of it was circumstantial. I was still getting into the grad school groove and dealing with a much lower income than I used to have. Forgiving myself has been a big undertaking for me, but it’s paying off. It’s helping me move forward and learn from my mistakes instead of dwelling on them.

Conquering my tendency to panic over deadlines, as well as my struggle to stay organized, in tandem with pursuing my MFA in creative writing is a work in progress, but I do believe I’m progressing. I’m thankful for that, and I’m hopeful for the future.

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A. A. Malina is pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing from Mississippi University for Women. She received her B.A. in Creative Writing from DePaul University last fall. In addition to writing her own short stories, she recently co-founded and currently co-edits a literary magazine for creative fiction, called Cat on a Leash Review. When she’s not doing homework, writing, editing, or working, she’s relaxing in her studio apartment in Chicago with her dog-like cat, Nomar.

If you’re interested in contributing a guest post to The MFA Years, visit our submissions page.

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