The “post-MFA blues” could rightly be called a rite of passage for early career writers. After spending two or three years focusing on craft, with the seriousness of literary work affirmed by teachers and peers, writers reenter a world that doesn’t seem to care whether they finish their novel or collection – or, really, if they ever write again.
The transition can feel jarring. But habits developed and connections made during the MFA can make it easier, as can the steps writers take upon graduation. We reached out to recent graduate Chelsea Leigh Horne to learn how she is navigating the transition.
“For three years at AU, I was surrounded by peers and professors who encouraged, supported, and helped me hone my craft. It’s a truly wonderful environment and one that offers a rich atmosphere in which writers can really blossom,” Chelsea said. “On the other hand, because the MFA program does such a great job at creating this sense of community, it’s very easy to lose urgency – that is to say, to write for workshop rather than for a living.”
Chelsea sees the transition as an opportunity to shift to a long-game focus on the writing career. Below are four tips for transitioning to post-MFA life, informed by Chelsea’s insights.
- Don’t “Take a break” from writing after graduation: Keep writing, publishing and networking.
Chelsea graduated from AU’s MFA in Creative Writing in May 2016 with a number of literary accomplishments behind her. She describes her three years in the program as “intense and productive.” She received AU’s Outstanding Scholarship at the Graduate Level Award, and she read from her fiction thesis at Politics & Prose alongside her MFA classmates.
“It’s so wonderful that AU’s program creates this opportunity for their students, as a bridge to becoming part of the professional literary community,” Chelsea said. After the intensity of the MFA experience, some writers feel tempted to take a break from their work – but not Chelsea. She walked across that bridge and got to work.
“I’ve been submitting, submitting, submitting, and I keep on writing, so there is always something I’m working on creatively,” she said.
The efforts have already started paying off. Last summer, Chelsea’s essays were published in The Atlantic and The Rumpus, and her work also appears in the Paterson Literary Review and The Washington Independent Review of Books. She’s an editor at Ragazine, the global online magazine of arts, entertainment, and information. She was awarded a 2017 DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities Artist Fellowship for her fiction work.
“I’ve continued doing readings in DC, sharing my work at The Inner Loop Reading Series and Art All Night DC,” Chelsea said. “Also, I teach literature and writing at AU and I lead a winter session study abroad course in London each January.”
Chelsea has harnessed the momentum she developed while in the MFA to propel the early stages of her career.
- Lean on peer connections and mentorship from your creative writing professors.
Chelsea continues to exchange work with MFA classmates and to value the connections she made with her teachers.
“In my experience, when you take a workshop class, your instructor becomes your mentor, providing individualized and focused feedback on your work,” Chelsea said. “For example, Richard McCann is a master at asking tough questions of us as writers and of our stories, seeking to enhance the internal, emotional lives of our characters. His voice is something that has stayed with me and helps guide me today. And Stephanie Grant’s incredible awareness of story organization as well as cause and effect in plot was very enlightening for me.”
“And the list goes on,” Chelsea said, naming John Hyman, David Keplinger, Dolen Perkins-Valdez, and Rachel Louise Snyder as other influential teachers.
But mentorship can also happen outside the classroom, Chelsea points out. “In my case, that happened with Kyle Dargan,” she said. “He has been exceptionally and unwaveringly supportive of all my projects, publications, readings, and awards. And that support is there for all of us. As Kyle mentioned during our MFA graduation reading, the support doesn’t end when we graduate.”
- Write across multiple genres.
Writing across genres gives Chelsea a measure of creative freedom, allowing her to match the discourses of her work with the forms that best suit them.
“In today’s writing world, I believe it’s important to be able to competently cross genres,” Chelsea said. “It helps that when I get an idea, the piece lets me know what it wants to be: flash, short story, novel, poem, or an essay,” Chelsea said. “When moving between projects, the key is to always accomplish your goal with a piece, to either finish a first draft or to reach a clear stopping point.”
Right now, Chelsea is completing research for a coming-of-age post-apocalyptic novel about the environment, climate change, and freerunning.
“It takes a lot of balancing and discipline to manage this project with the rest of my life and writings. The good news is that I love what I do,” Chelsea said.
- Use your time in the MFA to develop your style, attend events, and plan your future projects.
“Enjoy your time during your MFA,” Chelsea said. “Try new styles, experiment with your voice, take risks in your writing. And feel free to fail – this is how to discover yourself as a writer.”
She also highlighted the vast opportunities offered by the program and by DC life – from MFA readings to community literary events. “The simple act of hearing other authors read their work and respond to audience questions gave me a first-hand look into the ways these professional writers worked, thought, and answered questions about their writing. I found these events both inspiring and educational,” Chelsea said.
Chelsea argues that it’s important to develop some sense of a plan for how you want to use your time in the program. “AU’s MFA is a great and nurturing community that wants to help you thrive in your writing life,” Chelsea said. “You get as much out of it as you put in; cliché perhaps, but very true. To paraphrase Toni Morrison (and a mantra I repeat to myself often), as a writer make sure that everything you do helps to advance yourself, your work, and your career.”
Experience how AU can help launch your writing career. Check out the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing.