MFA Myth #1: You’ll finish graduate school with a publishable novel

As Dwight Schrute would say, “FALSE.”

Sorry. I realize that this is kind of a mean post to begin this series, but I wish I had known this when I started my MFA program. The odds of coming out of your MFA program with a manuscript in perfect, publishable condition are small.

Yes, I’m aware that there are exceptions to this. Junot Díaz wrote the first version of Drown in his MFA program at NYU. Elizabeth Hickey wrote The Painted Kiss at Columbia (speaking of Elizabeth Hickey, where has she been lately?). Lisa Carey, author of the great novel Love in the Asylum, wrote The Mermaids Singing as her graduate thesis at Vermont College. So it’s certainly possible. But it’s not likely.

This doesn’t mean that these people are (necessarily) better writers that you are, or even that they are more disciplined. What you are able to accomplish in graduate school and as a writer is a very personal experience that depends on your circumstances as much as your temperament, and the fact is that all writers are not playing on a level playing field.

Here’s what the thought process might look like for those intending to go to graduate school with the purpose of writing a novel: This is perfect. I majored in English, but I don’t want to teach high school or read Beowulf ever again. I want to be a writer and it’s going to be too hard to do that with a full time job. This MFA program will give me two years to write and perfect my novel. That’s easy. I’m a fast writer and the first draft will be done in six months. That gives me a year and a half to edit and find an agent.

I’m not going to lie, this is exactly what I was thinking when I applied to MFA programs. But I was missing a very crucial piece of information. Yes, it’s entirely possible to write a publishable novel in two years. But is it possible to do this when, in that same time period, you must:

  • be a full-time student
  • be a research assistant
  • possibly take PhD classes in literature, which each culminate in a 20-25 page term paper
  • teach 1-2 classes of your own every semester, which might involve grading 20 freshmen papers of 4-8 pages each 3-4 times a semester? (That’s at least 240 pages and countless comma splices)
  • read and comment on your classmates’ writing
  • prepare for a 6 hour comprehensive exam for which you must be familiar with several centuries worth of literature
  • eat and sleep. And maybe see family and friends and take a shower from time to time.

I’m not saying this to complain or to scare people. When you love to read and write, this can be a wonderful way to spend your days. Literature classes can be stimulating and exciting, and there’s something truly moving about giving undergraduate students confidence in their writing. It’s also true that all MFA programs differ, and you might look at ones that are lighter in their literature requirements (but don’t forget the fact that these classes prepare you very well for teaching). My point is that all of these things take time. Time that many MFA students imagined would be spent on their own writing.

Then there’s also the possibility that you discover that the manuscript to which you have committed yourself, the one you think about when you wake up after having fallen asleep on top of a Victorian literature textbook that is now stuck to your face… that manuscript, that novel? Maybe it turns out that you don’t like this novel as much as you thought. Maybe that novel is like the really sexy person you obsess over as a young adult, the one who has circles under their eyes and smells like cigarettes and reads you poetry about, I don’t know,  bears, and makes it sound profound. People tell you that there are problems here, but you think, They just don’t get it. They’ll see someday. And maybe that’s true. But maybe one day you wake up and all you want is to take a shower to get rid of that cigarette smell, and maybe you want to throw that novel out the window, because it’s not what you thought it was.

And you know what? That’s okay. Even if you end up not publishing your MFA manuscript, you should never regret writing it because it was a learning process. Maybe you’ll publish it someday; maybe it will end up in a box in your basement next to the yellowing love notes and matchboxes and photo booth strips that remind you of your former life. But no matter what happens to your manuscript, you are better for having written it. And it will make a really good story, that stack of 200 pages, when you do publish the best novel you are capable of writing.