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  • Mary Jane Nirdlinger

Six tips for Post-MFA life


Congratulations, July graduates!


You just finished up two years of intense work and personal growth. Six months ago I walked across a stage to receive my MFA. Six months and one pandemic ago. You had a virtual graduation that embodied the spirit of community and dedication that the MFA experience brings.


So much has changed in the world, but we still have the common goal of writing our way into a better place. A friend who is still in the middle of her MFA asked how post-graduation was going, sharing her concern that without the structure of externally-imposed deadlines and an advisor, she’d lose momentum.


I had that fear too. (Had I known we were graduating into a plague, I might have had slightly different fears...) 


I don’t have deep words of wisdom, but here are my six suggestions for a successful transition from cap and gown to whatever comes next for you.


1. Get yourself an accountability partner. A classmate and I committed to holding each other accountable once a month. Before we left campus, we wrote down our plans for our first post-grad month. Each month, we exchange emails to reflect on what went well, what didn’t, and what our intentions are for the upcoming month. We share about writing, agent queries, projects, home, and balance. I expected our partnership would help me stay focused. What I didn’t realize until a few months had passed was that our emails are also a record of our process. The slump that felt like an ending actually only lasted a couple of weeks. The unexpected inspiration, how we responded to the pandemic, it’s all in those monthly emails. It’s great to have a reality check on what I’ve accomplished and it keeps me honest about my progress, much like deadlines did while I was in the middle of a semester.


2. Take a breather. You will need it. No matter how well organized you were, there’s something you neglected to do while you were busy adulting and schooling (and if that’s not the case, I’d rather stay in my bubble, thank you very much!) Don’t let your break go on too long, though. Several former graduates told me that they let a short break turn into a month, a year etc. So put a breather in your monthly plans, but pick something simple to get yourself back in the mindset before too long.


3. Pick a project. I can’t tell you what that should be, but it’s good to have a focus. I cleaned out all my bookshelves, gave away the books I knew I wouldn’t read again, and organized my notes and handouts. Organizing the flotsam of two years let me feel like I was starting the next phase of my writer’s life with a clear deck. Choose something to work on. Maybe revise a project you didn’t get to finish to your satisfaction because of deadlines and theses and reading lists? Or try something new. I would caution you not to set a first goal of “write the next great blockbuster novel or else.” 


Pick something you’re excited about, something that gives you a zing. After so many months (years!) of grinding on projects, I needed a chance for my brain to rest, organize, and play. I had a month of mostly reading and journaling that felt like wasting time (but there was also a pandemic) and I was worried that I didn’t know what to write….but then an idea began to take shape. Zing!


4. Keep your eyes on your own work. It’s so tempting to rush into the next phase gathering anxious comparisons. My friend just signed with an awesome agent! A classmate got an offer! Her book went to auction! This is not good. What’s good is funneling all your attention and energy into your own work. 


Keep your eyes on your own paper. Do your work. Put yourself in the chair just like you did when you had a packet deadline and were running on empty but you needed to get it done. That’s what you control. 


5. Focus on proof-of-effort. Maybe you’re ready to finish a project. Great - typing “the end” is proof-of-effort. In fact, every chapter closer to “the end” is proof. Maybe you’re ready to query agents? Week one’s proof-of-effort might be making a list of agents. Week two might be sending out two queries. The magic of proof-of-effort is that you actually control it! Once you’ve made the effort, you have the proof. Success!  Getting an agent is not proof-of-effort, it’s a great result, but you don’t control it. Focus on taking the steps you control, the rest will fall into place.


6. Stay connected. Have I mentioned how lucky I feel to have so many wonderful writers in my life? We have a virtual Saturday meet-up, there are virtual writing sessions twice a week, critique groups, manuscript exchanges, and sharing of news. Over two years, we built a web of support for each other and it continues to hold us all together.



No matter what happens next, you have your network, you have learned so much, and you will continue to gaze in wonder at the beauty that sprouts from the garden you’ve tended for the past two years.


Congratulations.

Enjoy the moment.


Know that it keeps getting better.







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