MFA! Now What?


Major Tom to ground control...

Major Tom to ground control…

A little over two weeks ago I graduated from Vermont College of Fine Arts (cue the confetti, balloons and back slaps). It’s a huge accomplishment, and a life goal ticked off the old bucket list. I should feel great. I should feel, I don’t know, complete? Instead, I feel a little like Sandra Bullock in Gravity. And like Sandra, I’ve had a chorus of Clooney’s whispering instructions in my ears, trying to guide me through this emotional apocalypse we call achievement (spoiler alert: I’m going to make it).

“Take some time off.”
“Keep writing every day.”
“Let your batteries recharge.”
“Form an accountability group.”
“Dance naked in the rain like nobody’s watching.”

Okay, I admit nobody told me to do that last one. Still, I feel a bit like the puck in a hotly contested game of air hockey. Now, I trust and love all the Clooneys in my life, but it would be great if they could get their messaging straight. In an attempt to find my own sense of equilibrium, I decided to reach out to the people who are going through what I am right now, my classmates (Holla, MAGIC IFs!). Here’s what they said.

“Learn to balance writing, work, and family in a way that hasn’t been possible for the last two years.”

Wow, balance? Wait, I have a family? Will they recognize me? This is an excellent point, and one I know my support system of family and friends has been waiting for. Unfortunately, this also raises the problem of protecting my writing time. Everyone understood when it was for grad school. Are they going to feel the same when it’s just for me?

“I need to keep the momentum going! It sucks to not have a brilliant and accomplished advisor to look so closely at my work, but in a lot of ways I feel prepared to be out there on my own.”

Wait, no higher authority is going to praise or reprimand my every word? (Hold me, I’m cold.) On second thought, I’m on board with this one. The work of the past two years transformed how I think about writing, reading and producing. My inner-critic’s B.S. detector has been honed to a fine edge. Even better, that inner-critic (sometimes) knows when to shut up and see how things turn out (thank you Mary, Tom, Rita and Garret). Momentum, here I come! After I finish this latte. And binge watching Battle Star Galactica (damn you, Cory!).

“I’ve heard horror stories about people not writing for months after graduation, and I didn’t want that to be me.”

Boston 2003

Which way to the elephant?

Okay, to be totally honest with you, dear reader, this is my biggest fear. I know me. I know I could easily slip into complacency and wake up in August with nothing new on the page. This is the horror. At the same time, I’m prepared to face this fear, name it, and turn it into a cautionary tale, not a bleak reality. How? The same way you eat an elephant, or train for a marathon. One bite at a time (carbo loading is the best).

VCFA alumna Jill Santopolo talks about her ability to hit deadlines while working full time as an editor, training for a triathlon and teaching on The Narrative Breakdown, and it’s the same secret I heard from Rita Williams-Garcia: two pages a day. I won’t let the idea of finishing a novel intimidate me. Sure, that’s the goal, but I’ll get there two pages at a time. I can do that. So can you.

“I will miss advisors’ feedback and on campus workshops but I’m also feeling that it is time to be alone with my work.”

I love that phrase, “be alone with my work.” Isn’t that great? I may have something between me and my Calvins, but nothing comes between me and my novel (I’m writing commando). It was the whole point of chasing the MFA. I wanted (needed) to gain confidence to just write. I started writing with a purpose late-ish in life, after years of wanting without doing (can I get an amen?). I started getting good feedback on my work before VCFA, but I wanted something more. Something that would allow me to do what I now think I really was born to do. Write.

“Through the toll booth” is a phrase that represents transition. I’m living that transition, I’ve taken a giant step through the portal. I’ve found Narnia, Oz and Hogwarts.

Not even Netflix can stop me now.

Here’s your chance to weigh in with your experience. How have you lived your portal fantasy?

Help me, George Clooney, you’re my only hope.

Thanks to Kathie Quimby, Bonnie Pipkin, Callie Miller and Shelley Saposnik for the MAGIC IF advice. YAM!

8 thoughts on “MFA! Now What?”

  1. Cynthia Surrisi says:

    Thanks for summing it all up very well, Jim. And as for keeping the furnace stoked and the sparks flying, this post demonstrates you are tending to it in exactly the right way for you. Cheers Jim Hill!

    1. Jim Hill says:

      Thanks, Cynthia. I didn’t even touch on all of the other projects and deadlines I set up to avoid a giant emotional flat tire. Maybe a follow-up post is in order.

  2. Kathy Quimby says:

    I’ve thought about this entry off and on all day. One of the things that occurred to me is that for all the challenges we face post-MFA, one of the things a low-residency program does well is prepare us for fitting writing into our lives. We’ve been doing that all along.

    1. Jim Hill says:

      That’s the point Jill Santopolo makes in the Narrative Breakdown podcast that gave me an “Aha!” moment.

  3. Catherine Linka says:

    The day after I returned from graduation, as I prepared to sit down for a day of writing, I got a call. Mom was in the hospital. I don’t remember much of the next eight months, but I know I finished a novel and my mother’s dying inspired a new one. Writing was my lifeboat. If it’s your lifeboat, you’ll find time.

    1. Jim Hill says:

      Catherine, that is both beautiful and tragic. I’m sorry for you and your family. Glad you had your lifeboat. That’s a wonderful perspective.

  4. Ellar Cooper says:

    My two [not groundbreaking] cents:

    1. Graduating is freaking weird and surreal and hard.
    2. Finding the balance on this side gets easier. Promise.

    1. Jim Hill says:

      I’m going to hold you to that promise.

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