This is the first in a series of three about what to do with post-MFA life.
Teaching is supposed to be your dream job. You get to talk with students about a subject you love, and you get time off in the summer just to write.
A desk job is also a good option, as long as it’s not too mentally taxing. You can leave work at five and spend the rest of the evening writing the book that will eventually land you a teaching job.
There you go, my MFA chickadees. Your dream careers.
Let’s just ignore the fact that, with more MFA and PhD programs producing more competition every year, the likelihood of landing a tenure-track position within five years is pretty much zilch unless you really are the next Hemingway and you weren’t just pretending to be him in college. Let’s ignore that this means years of slaving away in an adjunct position at minimum wage with no benefits, no money for vacation, and very little job stability.
Let’s ignore the fact that some of us (namely, me) slip into depression when we’re not stimulated at our day job, that we can’t just skip on home from a day of mind-numbingly boring work to create the next masterpiece.
You might feel differently than me about these paths. You might be like any number of my good MFA friends who have decided for the next five years to take decent paying desk or service jobs just because they pay the bills, who find this work pleasant enough, not particularly energizing but not draining either, and who have managed in their off-hours to write short stories and books, to put on plays, performance art and fashion shows.
You might be like my friends who have gone the adjunct route and are slowly but steadily climbing the ladder, who continually astound me with their unabated enthusiasm and passion for the field–one that feeds their creative work.
I love these friends; I am inspired by these friends; I am awed by these friends.
I am not these friends.
Obviously, that affects how I view and talk about taking these paths. What’s important for me, for my friends, and for you is to consider all the factors that go into your daily work life: to be willing to look past these two directions to a host of other options that must be searched for, but do exist; to view our careers not through the lens of job title but through who we are, what gives us energy, and what we need.
Here is my thesis: Your day job doesn’t have to inhibit your creative life. It can feed it, whether or not it’s at the very center of what you’re doing. You’re not a failure if you decide to go a non-traditional route. Like anyone else, you have to explore to eliminate.
This is how I do it.
What do you need on a daily basis?
Your relationship with your writing is like any other: it can change. I went from suppressing my love of writing because it didn’t feel like a practical career choice to embracing it fully to seeing it as an essential part of my day, but not as my money-making endeavor.
If you’re truly a writer, you’ve already got one career. One day it might make you money, but even if it never does, it’s an essential part of who you are.
Professionalizing yourself with an MFA puts your fiction writing at the center of your money-generating career, but it may just be a part of it. What’s more important is knowing how much you need to engage with your writing on a daily basis.
I, for instance, have learned the hard way that if I don’t work on fiction at least an hour a day five days a week, I become a very angry, frustrated, bitter person. I lash out at people when I shouldn’t, and see problems where there aren’t any. I may not always like what I write, but when I set aside that time for myself I am at least able to drive down the road and not hate everyone who passes me.
Fiction writing for me is like breathing or eating; it’s not optional.
But I am also an extrovert and would go nuts in a cabin in the woods with only my pen and my imagination. I work best with a balance–with time for contemplation in the morning and a workday that has me operating hand-in-hand with people I care about.
How can your areas of expertise and the things you like complement each other?
If you’re a competent human being, you’re not just good at one thing. If you’re a compelling human being, you’re not just interested in one thing either.
Writing is currently your main area of expertise. It may even be an integral part of your identity (it sure is for me). But you can combine your writing and editing skills with other non-writing skills to develop a satisfying career.
Look into your personal life to the things you do intrinsically without any thought of getting paid. When I was in my early twenties, I was an email fiend. I loved exchanging thoughtful tomes with my close friends, analyzing all sorts of relationships from multiple perspectives. I loved helping people to feel heard, to validate emotions and develop game plans, to provide a place where creativity could be fostered. In school, I also loved writing analytical English and science papers, which I thought were preparing me only to be some kind of professor.
Not so. I’ve since drawn on these skills countless times as a tutor, and was surprised more recently to see how useful they were as a website production project manager for an organization I love.
Those emails felt like procrastination at the time because they got in the way of writing or schoolwork. They weren’t; they were data. When you are drawn to do one task before another, that’s telling you something about your skillset and what you like to do.
All right, sometimes it’s just procrastination. But even that is worth noting
Leah Kaminsky is a short story and freelance writer originally from Ithaca, NY. She received her MFA in Fiction Writing from the University of Washington in 2009. She has placed three times in Glimmer Train top 25 lists and was nominated for inclusion in Best New American Voices, 2008. Her work has appeared on the Rumpus, Pindeldyboz, The Yellow Ham and her mother’s fridge right next to that picture of bath time circa 1987. She is a big fan and producer of short-shorts and comics, which she posts semi-regularly on her website, leahkaminsky.