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On the Cusp of a Creative Life

Image: Molly Montgomery

Two weeks ago, I wrapped up my M.A. program in Creative Writing at UC Davis. I had already turned in and defended my thesis— a collection of ten short stories about California, my family history, fairies, wildfires, and ghosts, among other things— and all I had left was to finish up papers for a pedagogy class and a workshop on poet’s prose. I’m not ready to say goodbye to days of indulging in long bursts of writing and reading, and at least for the summer I can still pretend I’m working on writing for my program. But I’m at a crucial turning point in which I need to figure out how to carry my writing practices from grad school into the dreaded “real world.” Luckily, I feel like my MA program prepared me for this moment because if I learned anything in grad school, it was how to be self-sufficient as a writer.

Now that I am reflecting on how my program has shaped my writing and allowed me to grow, I see that if I had wanted to, I probably could have accomplished some of the things I learned on my own. A lot of what I learned in my program was self-directed, from reading widely, interrogating my own craft, and digging deep into revisions again and again. Of course, I got valuable feedback from my workshops and professors, and of course, having the time to devote particularly to writing was extremely liberating. However, for those of you who are considering a creative writing graduate degree, you should know that almost nothing you gain from it is only available in such a program.

If you’re really determined, the benefits of an MA or MFA such as a writing community, mentors, and time to write, can be found outside of the university system. But if you’re like me, and you get into a program that will fund you to improve your craft, I think it’s worth it because you’ll have a unified experience of the possibilities of the writing world, for better or for worse. And you’ll come out of your program better able to envision your place in such a world. Looking back on what I have experienced in the past two years, here are some takeaways from my experience:

  1. Write before your applying so you’ll know you can write after your degree. Before I entered my MA program, I was working full-time, but I always fit in writing whenever I could. I think it’s key for you to be able to carve out time for writing before you even apply to grad programs so you know you’re capable of doing it outside of a program. Now that I’m heading back into the working world, I know I’ll be able to keep up writing somehow.

 

  1. Be open to changing your techniques, but hold tight to your voice. There’s a myth that when you go into an MFA program, your professors and workshop classmates will try to get your to write in a particular style. For fiction, people always say that programs are trying to get you to write like The New Yorker. To be honest, when people told me that, I didn’t worry too much. Some of my favorite writers are regularly featured in The New Yorker, and my fiction is what some people might call “conventional” in a disdainful tone. But I recognize that not everyone should have to adhere to a particular style to get published. Luckily, I had the exact opposite experience of what everyone told me was going to happen in my MA. In my grad program, I was exposed to more diverse voices and styles than ever, partially because I pursued recommendations for books by writers of color, women writers, and queer writers, but also because my professors regularly made sure that their syllabi included marginalized voices. I feel really lucky, because I don’t think this would have been the case at many grad programs. I also was surrounded by really talented writers in my program who were each doing their own thing. I saw possibilities for writing in my peers’ work that I never knew existed before. I took workshops in genres that I had never tried out before— nonfiction and prose poetry— and now I want to keep the new techniques I’ve experimented with in my writer’s toolbox. Yet the core of my writing— my deep interest in characters, in depicting the complexity of classism, racism, friendship and love— none of that has changed. I just now have the vocabulary and self-awareness about my writing to know how to classify it better than before.

 

  1. Accept that this degree is not about professional success but about personal growth. So in theory, I knew this all along, but it didn’t really start to hit home until the past six months. This may sound harsh, but don’t expect the MA/ MFA route to do anything for you professionally unless you carve out your own plan to incorporate internships, extra work experience, etc. into your program. For this reason alone, you should not go into debt for a creative writing degree. Period. Maybe other programs have more of a professionalization aspect to them than mine did. I don’t want to malign my program, since I knew from Day One that it wasn’t going to have a professional focus. At our orientation, the director told us that this degree wouldn’t necessarily land us a better job than we could get with a bachelor’s degree, but that wasn’t what it’s about. It’s hard to accept this because of our societal expectations about higher education, the assumptions we have that a master’s degree should give you a leg up in the job market. But creative writing grad school isn’t one of those master’s degrees.

 

I have loved teaching an introductory fiction writing course for the past three quarters. In fact, I’d have to say it’s been my favorite job so far. But I have no illusions that I will be able to make a living by teaching creative writing. It’s not impossible, but I would have to “make it” as a writer by publishing a book before I would be considered for such a position. Plus, as an MA graduate, I would still have to get a terminal degree— an MFA or a PhD— before I would be eligible to teach at most 4 year colleges. Even if I did pursue that path, there would be no guarantee of a job, especially not a tenure-track job, at the end of it. But I’ve made peace with that reality. Some of my friends work as adjunct professors, and I know it’s possible to eke out a living teaching community college or working as a lecturer at a 4-year college. For now, I’ve decided not to pursue that path, but I know I could come back to it in the future.

 

However, teaching college courses has made me realize just how passionate I am for teaching in general. So I’ve decided to pursue a teaching credential to become a high school English teacher. This wasn’t a straightforward process for me. In order to apply to a credential program while I’ve been in my MA program, I had to find an internship at a high school, take standardized tests, and fulfill some pre-requisite courses at the same time as taking the rest of my coursework and teaching. Luckily, I have a lot of initiative, so I completed all the necessary steps and was accepted into the teaching credential at the same university where I completed my MA, UC Davis. This fall, I’ll be a student at the UC Davis School of Education.

 

Meanwhile, I’ll still be writing, and I hope to have more of my writing published. This is another area that in which creative writing grad school may or may not be useful. Since starting my MA program, my writing has improved significantly, and I started writing more creative nonfiction, a genre I had never tried out before. This in itself helped me get published twice in Entropy, a really cool online magazine devoted to literature and culture. I’ve become more engaged in the online literary world, and since my second year of grad school, I’ve been submitting to a lot more places (but mostly receiving rejections). I’m hopeful that eventually, I’ll be published in more journals. However, this whole process of cultivating an online literary presence has been completely self-directed. Which literary journals to read, how to refine your work for submission, how to get published, none of these topics were ever addressed by my professors in grad school. I’ve had to figure it out on my own. But this has been a positive process for me because I’ve found journals and websites that reflect my interests, not just ones that are prestigious or well-known. Still, it can be very discouraging to get praised for your work in workshop only to see it receive rejection after rejection from publications. Unfortunately, it’s all part of the package deal of being a writer, these days.

 

  1. Embrace community instead of competition. Three years ago, I joined the MFA Draft on Facebook and discovered a whole community of people involved in the creative writing world who, like me, were applying to MFAs. These people were my competition— fellow applicants to programs that accept a tiny fraction of aspiring writers each year— but they were some of the nicest people I’ve encountered on the internet. From that group, I also discovered this blog, The MFA Years, and learned so much about the process of applying and pursuing a creative writing graduate degree. What has delighted me again and again while participating in these online communities is the genuine goodwill of writers to share advice and help each other out. I was fortunate to join a program in which camaraderie prevailed. My cohort was always drama-free and extremely supportive, and I made lifelong friends through my program. I am so grateful that creative writing grad school has allowed me to connect with so many wonderful writers who care deeply about words and about making the world a better, more just place. My communities give me hope, which I really need in the current dark, depressing atmosphere of the US.

 

Thank you for reading my posts for the past two years, and if you have enjoyed my musings, I hope you follow me on twitter @mollywritesalot and read my other blog, www.litbloom.com, where I will be sharing my thoughts on online works of literature from lit mags, online journals, and literary websites.

P.S. If my program experience has sounded interesting to you, the MA in Creative Writing at UC Davis is turning into an MFA in 2019.

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1 Comment

  1. Thank you Molly. I find, inherently, that your education made you a better writer. It led you to writing this piece. I agree with you. Sadly, it seems these journeys do not end in wealth and happiness. I would recommend as a friend suggested, that we save our money and buy the house we live in, or a house. That way, we cushion ourselves from the inevitability of higher rents, which rise to a point that they are more than a mortgage we might have paid.

    Like

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