Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Waiting Is the Hardest Part

When I started going to school for my MFA, one of the major things I expected that people got from these programs was important contacts that might lead to agents and publishers in the future. I had heard countless stories – all about the most prestigious programs in the country, I’m sure – where at the end of a young writer’s MFA studies, a faculty writer refers the young writer to his or her agent and just like that, the writer is set.

I quickly found out that this is not as common as we might have been led to believe by the success stories we’ve all heard. Yes, the chances are good that many of the faculty writers in an MFA program have agents. But the chances are not good at all that they will refer you to their agents. My guess is that even at those top tier programs, it’s not a common practice.

But in my experience most agents will tell you that the number one way to get them interested in you is to be referred by one of their current clients. So what’s a young writer just starting out in the publication world to do? The answer, I think, is keep honing your craft, keep writing, and keep submitting to journals, and be patient. It may not be likely that you’ll be referred to an agent while you’re in an MFA program, but that doesn’t mean that the contacts you make there won’t help you down the road.

Part of what I sometimes forget is that if you’re at the MFA level, you’re probably not at the professional level, not yet. That’s not to say that most people don’t start getting published in journals while they’re in an MFA program, or at least shortly thereafter, but I bet if you asked most seasoned writers, editors, and agents how many MFA students and recent MFA graduates are actually ready for agents, book deals, deadlines, and everything else that goes along with being a professional writer, the answer would be not many.

The two people that make up the fiction faculty at UAF are both successful writers: one has won some prestigious awards for his short story collections, and the other had her most recent novel accepted by an imprint of a major publishing house. Both graduated with their MFAs from UAF, and both had to wait several years after earning their MFAs before they got their first books published. I think it’s fairly common for ten, even fifteen years to pass between graduating from an MFA program and getting that first book deal.

But you do meet a lot of other writers in a program, and while none of you probably have agents or useful contacts yet, many of you will eventually. Maybe ten years after graduating, your good friend Joe Writer lands an agent and is more than willing to refer you, his old grad school pal, his writer friend who he’s kept in touch with and shared work with these past ten years. Or maybe you’ll be the lucky one who gets to refer your grad school friends. Who knows?

I think the main contacts you make in grad school are not actually the faculty or visiting writers, although you do gain a lot by learning from these successful writers. But really, you and all your fellow MFAers are networking with each other. It might not seem like your workshop buddy is a useful contact yet – after all, he’s at the same stage as you in his career – but as you move forward, so will he, and so will most of the other people in your program. Together, you will all be part of the next generation of writers, and you’ll all be able to say you knew each other back when. You’ll all be able to help each other out.


Justus said...

Another lovely post with some good things to remember. As much as we'd like to think of ourselves as amazing, we need to accept that throughout the MFA and for the next few years we're really still in the apprentice stage. We're aren't the masters yet, even once we have the degree declaring us masters.

PancakePhilosopher said...

I'm glad I found these blogs as an undergrad...good insights that I probably wouldn't have gotten so soon otherwise. I must say I keep reading stuff about Alaska and am really excited to put in my application there. I just hope the writing I send is good enough *crosses fingers*

Even after reading stuff about dry cabin living, I still want to go there. Actually I want to go there more. Many people think I'm somewhat insane for this.

I guess the waiting game doesn't bother me as much yet...maybe because I'm still in undergrad and not so much is riding on hearing back from journals at this point. In fact I don't think any of my peers here are even submitting anything.

My profs encourage me to keep submitting despite the rejections, because at least my work is getting out there and is being read, which is better than no one reading it ever.

Whether I end up in Alaska or somewhere else, I can't wait to get into an MFA program (if I do) and this post just makes me even more anxious for it. Yay community!

Ashley Cowger said...

I think you're going to love being in an MFA program. It's one of the most amazing, worthwhile experiences a writer can have.