Life After the MFA — 4 Years Later, Taking Stock

It’s been roughly seven months since I last posted on After the MFA. That fact in itself isn’t a big deal for me. I always told myself that I would only write here if I had something to say. I can honestly say, I didn’t have much to report over these long months. A grueling east coast winter, a job change and, with it, a significant change in work-life balance all left this writer a bit tongue tied. Great — I’m thankful for having not contributed to the overbearing noise on the Internet.

But something about tonight… sitting in my backyard, puffing on a fine cigar, watching the planes descend towards JFK over my head, listening to trucks grinding their gears down Bedford Avenue. It’s all making me think about my life after the MFA now that it’s nearing the four-year mark. I officially departed the halls of academia in August 2005, when I handed in my creative project and bid farewell to workshops, creative responses, constructive feedback and the inevitable after-class beer sessions.

Since that landmark date, I’ve done the following:

  • Left my home stat of California and moved from San Francisco to New York City with my wife and two small kids
  • Left my job of 8 years, started a new one, and a few months later started a newer one
  • Written a draft of a television pilot script
  • Revised three of the nine stories I wrote for my final masters project
  • Started three drafts of three different novels
  • Written a total of one new story (!)
  • Submitted stories to about a dozen publications
  • Started this humble website and posted to it continuously for roughly two years
  • Contributed a submission to “Not Quite What I Was Planning,” the six-word memoir project
  • Joined a writing group, still trying to get us to meet on a regular basis
  • Attempted to do the old get-up-early-in-the-morning-to-write routine a total of two different times… gave it up twice
  • Pondered the idea of entering a Phd program, only to come to realize it is a big gamble of time, effort, and expense with small chance of realized gains

What I haven’t done is a shorter, but probably more significant list (to me). I have not:

  • Published in a personally significant journal or publication
  • Started teaching
  • Felt satisfied in any meaningful way with my post MFA writing life

Don’t get me wrong, this is not a self-pitying post meant to stir up the comments in support of my wayward ways. I’m taking stock. I needed to see myself state for the record how I view my post-MFA life. And the answer is … not so wonderfully. 

I entered into my MFA program with two major goals in mind: to instill a greater sense of discipline in me for the craft and process of writing and to gain the qualifications to teach writing. Four years down the road I can see that I achieved neither of those goals.

I did meet some great people, write some half-way decent stories, and read a lot of stimulating literature I might not have otherwise exposed myself to. Those two years I spent were not a complete waste. Not even close. In fact, I think my life would have been significantly worse had I not earned my MFA. But, in 20/20 hindsight, I’m pretty confident I would have done a few things differently.  What those changes would have been, I’ll have to address another time. My cigar just went out, it’s late, and I think it’s time to go to bed.

If you’re listening/reading, I welcome your comments.


Comments 13

  1. Heather wrote:

    I’ll be waiting for the “what I should have done differently” post.

    Posted 13 May 2009 at 3:14 pm
  2. Emilie wrote:

    Taking stock is important – I’m two years out this month and have been continually frustrated that I’m *still* not done with that book, the one I wanted to write AFTER my thesis draft was finished. So, realizing I’m closer to finishing it than I’m willing to admit most days (because there’s something terrifying about finally being finished), I’ve committed to finishing it this month. Whew!

    Thanks for showing us your lists. I’m struck by how much longer your “have done” list is than your “haven’t done,” though that last one is a doozy. Good luck attacking that last “haven’t done.” I’ve been inspired by your posts, so I know you can do it.


    Posted 14 May 2009 at 3:22 pm
  3. Kim Fyler wrote:

    I’m curious about teaching writing. You said you haven’t reached that goal. Is it because you changed your mind about teaching writing or is it because it’s difficult to find jobs teaching writing?

    I’m curious because I’m working on my bachelor degree and am considering getting my MFA in Creative Writing and my plan would be to try to get a job teaching creative writing as my “bread and butter” while I write novels and attempt to get published.

    Kim Fyler

    Posted 19 May 2009 at 5:54 am
  4. Armand wrote:

    Add this to your list of accomplishments- running a rocking blog for two years.

    Posted 05 Jun 2009 at 3:49 pm
  5. Tara wrote:

    I can’t get a good writing schedule, either. I’m a horrible morning person. I’d rather write at night. But I’ve got to work during the day. Since you posted this, have you come to an alternate solution? If and when you do, let me know! :)

    I don’t have an MFA but I’m thinking about getting one. My goals are the same as yours. I just found this blog/website today and it’s very informative for me. I don’t know if I’d be better on my own or not. I’ve already got 3 degrees and am in a debt craphole as we speak. I look forward to hearing your comments on what you might have done differently in your life. I, perhaps, think about that too often with regards to my own life…

    Posted 06 Jun 2009 at 12:53 pm
  6. Brian wrote:

    I just finished my MFA in creative nonfiction, and I haven’t had any luck yet, either. To PhD or not to PhD? In the meantime, how to make money in a reliable way to raise a young family and still leave a space to continue chasing the dream…

    I think I’m going to try serializing some of my essays, and maybe even try to do some YouTube entries related to them. That way at least I know there’s a potential audience out there.

    I’m convinced that finishing projects is the real answer. Like you, I did a false start on a novel earlier this year, and I’m ready now for attempt No. 2. I think that if I can just finish it, I’ll have a chance. Until then, I’m just like every other wannabe writer who gets discouraged at the teaching job market. In the end, it seems, it’s all about publishing a good book or two. Is that hard? Yes. Is it impossible? I’d like to think that most writers with an MFAs have it in them.

    Posted 08 Jun 2009 at 11:10 pm
  7. 52 Faces wrote:

    I NEED you to finish your story! I want to know what you would have done differently as if my life depended on it…

    Because it does. I’m going through a horrific case of Saturn Returns/Why Didn’t I Apply For an MFA Instead of Journalism School conflict of heart and I need to hear the stories of those who’ve been through it!

    Thank you thank you thank you…

    Posted 10 Jun 2009 at 4:41 am
  8. jazzy wrote:

    i love your blog and the links and the discussion in the comments. please keep blogging!

    Posted 12 Jun 2009 at 10:39 pm
  9. scp wrote:

    stumbled across this when I was wondering what the hell i’m doing in an MA program. i’m from oz and don’t have MFA…and where to next. Whether I am completely deluded or whether there’s a point to all of this.

    Posted 08 Feb 2010 at 4:29 am
  10. William wrote:

    Stop the whining! I have failed at business many times in my life and considered it a lesson learned. I have fallen in love with the prestige of professions but not the daily grind. If you truly love writing or anything else in life you will spend many hours there and love the challenge. If you work twelve hours a day you will make time for the family and your passions. Do your love is teaching? Volunteer! How do you know? Many times we choose the romance of being someone or something but it’s how we picture ourselves not something we can enjoy sixty hours a week.
    I don’t have an English degree but wanted to learn to write well so I have come to your blog and learned quite a bit. History has shown you don’t even need a degree but I am sure it will teach me the much needed fundamentals of writing. Is it failure writing excellent Ad copy or a How to book? I don’t think so. If you are writing and paying your bills you are a SUCCESS! Most people will never get there.I have a friend that wrote a book of poems and never took a class. That book pays his rent every month. The writing business is like sales or marketing you will spend at least 80% of your time in rejection and failure. I think if you truly want to be a writer you must write and write and write and write. Five, Ten or Twenty years from now it will pay off and you will have found your place in life with the rare privilege of doing something you love….

    Posted 21 Feb 2010 at 6:09 pm
  11. One Mean MFA wrote:

    I just finished my MFA in creative writing and am walking in August. I’ve applied for what feels like a million jobs and hope to hear back from schools soon because, like you, I want to teach. I get nervous though that this may not happen. It does scare me a little to see that you finished four years ago–when the economy wasn’t as bad as it is now–and still haven’t found a teaching job. Did you apply at colleges and universities? Did you get interviews? If so, do you have any advice for some fresh MFA meat?

    Posted 07 Jul 2010 at 1:32 pm
  12. Gordon wrote:


    Congratulations on your MFA. It’s a good feeling finishing something you started, isn’t it?

    Re: your questions — I applied for a few teaching jobs over the years, but ale ays felt hampered by my lack of “significant publishing record” and the fact I didn’t get a chance to get much teaching training while in school. In short, my biggest hindrance was myself. I just didn’t think I was a competitive candidate.

    I was lucky enough to have a decent oaring job when I finished school (keep in mind I was 35 when I completed so had been spending a few years building my career as a web editor already). Doing the teaching thing was a dream in the side and I pretty much let it go for other pursuits.

    I can’t give you advice to your specific situation, but if you want to teach and you believe in your ability to do it… Well, I think you know where I’m going. Frankly, in just didn’t believe in myself. I think that’s lesson enough for all of us.

    Thanks for commenting.


    Posted 07 Jul 2010 at 10:25 pm
  13. Eric wrote:

    Like many here, I stumbled upon your website while literally Googling “After the MFA degree…” and lo and behold, I’m hooked.

    I sit here today, age 46, a son who is a rising junior in high school, a wife who has worked for the same media company as a reporter since 1982 and I am Mr. I-Can’t-Seem-to-Keep-A-Job or Mr. What-the-Flock-Will-I-Be-If-I-Grow-Up to some. The inner story I tell myself is that I have many talents I have shared with others through the years. Losing both my parents over the past three years also adds another sliver of angst into the mix.

    Like my wife, I have primarily been a reporter, but have taken “detours” in other sectors, moves that proved to help me grow up and expand my mind and learn more about business and nonprofits.

    On this very day, I sit here after having turned in my second packet of writing for my second semester of my MFA in Writing Program and I look to the end. Why? Why can’t I just take in the moment of now and be? Losing my job May 20 was not fun, but the handwriting had been on the office wall since December 2009 when the bookkeeper scowled at me and said, “We’re considering closing the whole place down.”

    I think what I am trying to say is that I need to find short-term solutions for my life’s financial requirements. If I can do that, the writing will and the other goals I have related to writing–teaching, getting published–will fall into place.

    Maybe this rant will inspire others. Screw the economy. Let the passion reign.

    Posted 28 Jul 2010 at 8:11 am

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