• Post-MFA, There is Another Way: Your Wants and Needs

    Posted Posted by Guest Writer in WBN News & Events     Comments 24 comments

    This is the first in a series of three about what to do with post-MFA life.

    If you’re getting your MFA in Fiction Writing, you’ve likely been told you’ve got two options for your career: get a teaching position or get an easy desk job.

    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.wordpress.com. She is in the midst of launching Just Start Applications, a business, college and graduate school consultancy, located in Texas and Virginia and operating mostly online.

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    Jessica Wilson

    Very sage advice, Leah. I’m also very impressed you are writing 5 days a week. Thank you for sharing.

    Leah Kaminsky

    Thanks, Jessi. In the next two parts of this series, I talk about how being an entrepreneur can feed your writing, which I think you might like, Mrs. MBA! I hope all is well in France.


    And then there are a damn lucky few who find mindless jobs which allow them to write while getting paid. I’ve got one buddy who works the afternoon shift at a motel. He doesn’t get paid much, but neither does he do much. Out of an average eight-hour shift, he spends two hours working and six hours reading/writing. Another friend works the reception desk at a church (for a religion she doesn’t even follow, haha). She answers the phones, which ring a handful of times a day, and greets visitors, of which there is no more than a smattering. Same… Read more »

    Leah Kaminsky

    Yes, those are definitely good options! Wouldn’t work for me personally as I’ve realized I need *both* time for my writing *and* a day job that has me interacting with people and ideas that exist outside of my head (I weirdly have both a highly introverted and a highly extroverted brain), but I know many writers who love your option too.

    Many ways to go!

    David Duhr

    My first post-MFA job was at a temp agency. Hellish in some ways, of course, but in other ways it was good for my writing. New venues every week (creatively, I thrive on variety), plenty of time to read/write while waiting for phones to ring (like Mitch’s friends), and … and …

    Well, it could’ve been worse.

    Leah Kaminsky

    Variety certainly is key. I felt the same way when I worked as a barista (yep, like all artists) and when I was really exploring many different paths at once. But I also found there was an inevitable wall if what I was doing wasn’t related to writing. I had to determine when my fascination with something new *really* meant I was interested in doing that thing, and when it meant I just wanted something new to write and think about. Quick – before I set off down a terrible career path!

    Justine Tal Goldberg

    I’m amazed by those writers who can sit their butts down and write for four or five hours straight. I am not one of those writers. Like you, Leah, I need to write in short, intense spurts. If I’m motivated to do more in any one sitting, great, but I don’t impose that expectation on myself. I’ve learned that that’s a surefire way to generate contempt for the writing process. Re: “Fiction writing for me is like breathing or eating; it’s not optional.” Several years ago at AWP, I attended a reading in which the author compared her urge to… Read more »

    David Duhr

    “I attended a reading in which the author compared her urge to write to furniture stored in an attic: You can stash it away but you always know it’s there, waiting to be dusted off and used.” Ick. Maybe she should spend more time writing and less time trying to come up with cutesy, quotable piffle. Way too precious for my taste. I used to be a marathon writer. I’d sit down at 10:00 p.m. or so and write until the sun came up. Sometimes the results were solid. Most of the time I lost any/all good ideas in a… Read more »

    Leah Kaminsky

    “I’m amazed by those writers who can sit their butts down and write for four or five hours straight.” For me it depends on the project and my mood. While the hour a day five days a week does help keep the ball rolling, I’ll admit there are times where I feel like I’m going to crazy like a dinosaur in Jurassic Park if I can’t just get a day to be alone with my work. Bizarrely I can go much longer hour-wise when I’m writing short-shorts, because they feel lower consequence and like I’m just tinkering around, whereas I… Read more »

    Justine Tal Goldberg

    Hey, me too! Maybe it’s because short shorts feel so much more manageable and, since there’s less prose to work with, revision yields nearly instant gratification … which I like.

    Leah Kaminsky

    Glad to hear I’m not the only one! Short-shorts are really what helped me find joy in writing again after my MFA.

    Also, thanks to my internet sleuth boyfriend who can find anything that was ever published from scant info, here is that piece I was talking about:


    Cheryl Chavarria

    Really enjoyed this post, Leah! I can certainly relate to the irritability that comes over me when I’ve got ideas brewing in my mind and I cannot release them through my writing. But once I finally get to write, I feel light on my feet and happy as can be. Seriously, it makes the world of difference for me when I can let it all out onto the page, whatever it may be, and without worry about what may come of it. I don’t think I would mind one of those mind-numbing desk jobs at a church or hotel…that’s easy… Read more »

    Leah Kaminsky

    Thanks, Cheryl! I’m glad you could relate. It’s amazing: you could be writing the silliest thing in the world, but as long as you get to do it, you feel better.

    Speaking of Mothers Who Think, you might like the Lydia Davis link I posted above (if it ever showed up). She wrote this for a Salon Series back in 1997 called, you guessed it, mothers who think.


    There’s a lot of fascinating material about writing in snatches.

    Robyn Ross

    I second (or third, or whatever) the need for a stimulating, interactive, social day job as well as writing time. My best anecdote about this is that early in my career as a college admission officer, I met someone who was probably 15 years older than me and getting close to leaving the profession. I was asking him “why did you get into college admission?” and he answered me that he considered himself a pretty good writer and wanted to do more writing, but that when he’d entered the workforce his life experience had been pretty limited. He consciously decided… Read more »

    Leah Kaminsky

    Thanks all! My direct replies to each comment aren’t going through, so I wanted to let you all know you should read this interview with Lydia Davis about writing in snatches: http://web.archive.org/web/20081204120334/http://www.salonmagazine.com/june97/mothers/davis970620.html I think you’ll especially like it, Cheryl, as this was part of a series called, “Mothers Who Think.” @Justine Duhr: I feel ya! The professor who got me into short shorts asked me to think of them like a musician tinkering around on a piano. You try this note here, see how this note sounds here, keep building from there, and gradually you have a work of art.… Read more »

    Leah Kaminsky

    Okay, now that Dave got my comments un-spammed, I think one thing is clear: you all really need to read that Lydia Davis article. :)

    […] “Post-MFA, There is Another Way,” the new series on the WBN blog about what to do with life after obtaining that MFA in writing. […]

    […] Note: In February we ran a three-part series from Leah Kaminsky on what to do with Post-MFA life. For the next three Wednesdays, we’ll be offering here a quasi-response from WBN […]

    […] “Post-MFA, There is Another Way,” the new series on the WBN blog about what to do with life after obtaining that MFA in writing. […]

    […] [More from this author: "Post MFA: Yours Wants and Needs"] […]


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