Reflections on an MFA
By Tara Campbell
I had a specific goal when entering the MFA program at American University—to get help on my historical fiction novel-in-progress. Coming in as a writer of speculative fiction, I needed additional support tackling this new genre, as well as its sensitive subject matter: an “ethnographic exhibition” of West Africans traveling to Europe in the late 19th century.
Prior to the program, I’d done as much as I could to cobble the DC area’s literary resources together into my own private MFA program. I felt I’d plateaued as a writer, however, so I welcomed the structure and faculty’s expertise as a way to jumpstart my practice, regardless of genre.
Additionally, I knew I’d benefit from being part of a new literary network; and, I thought, even if this novel never sees the light of day, it will have led to something concrete: a degree featuring three helpful little letters—MFA.
There’s a hint of fall in the air this week, but for the first time in years, that crisp little breeze doesn’t mean I’ll be going back to class soon. Now that I’ve finished the MFA, it’s time to reflect on what it’s meant for me—and perhaps by extension, what it might mean for those of you who are still in the midst of it:
Things I’m glad I did:
1) Apply for AU’s array of research scholarships:
There’s money in them thar hills, folks, and we writers can get some too.
In 2018 I was fortunate enough to get a Graduate Leadership Council Travel Grant toward participation in an international conference. Read more here about the kind of projects that have been supported in the past.
This year I was awarded a CAS Graduate Student Travel Grant to help fund my attendance of AWP 2019 in Portland, Oregon. Being a panelist and moderator for AWP was a huge honor, and a resume boost, and was made more attainable by this financial assistance from the Grad School.
You can’t have everything in life though—I didn’t get the CAS Graduate Student Research Support grant. The application online is from 2017, but current applications are distributed via e-mail each year, so help AU help YOU by reading your e-mails!
Which brings me to my next point:
2) Read the Lit Department newsletter:
Thanks to a job post in one of the newsletters my first year, I’m now teaching with the National Gallery’s Writing Salon program, along with recent alum Karen Keating. Another e-mail this year offered an opportunity to apply for an internship at the National Endowment for the Arts, where alum Mo Sheriff works. These are only two of many amazing connections our program has, and alums use various departmental channels to preserve these connections. Don’t let these resources go to waste!
3) Take classes across genres:
This is an advantage of our program that not all MFA students enjoy. Even though I came in as a fiction writer, I leapt at the chance to get in a non-fiction class with the inimitable Richard McCann before his retirement, and to focus more deeply on language and rhythm in poetry class, and dabble in (and marvel at) in the amount of labor that goes into longform nonfiction stories in the Literary Journalism class, and—unexpectedly—write a one-act play in Translation. None of this was directly related to my thesis, and yet all of it informed my development as a writer in ways that will reverberate throughout my writing life.
4) Gut a manuscript:
I get it, when a prof advises you to try rewriting something in a different POV, or literally cut a manuscript into pieces, it may feel like you’re going backward. But I’m glad I took opportunities over the summer and during my last year to do exactly that—take one step back so I could make a huge stride forward. Sure, my blood pressure went up during my first thesis meeting, listening to suggestions on restructuring, blending/eliminating characters, and so on. But it led to a stronger thesis in the end, and gave me a firmer foundation for more work in the future. I might actually finish this thing.
5) Jump on opportunities to present:
Whether presenting at the Robyn Raffety Mathias Student Research Conference (which, I’ll admit, I didn’t), or geeking out about “Westworld” and “Ex Machina” on a panel at Escape Velocity (which, I’ll admit, I did—thank you Prof. Kakoudaki!), take every chance you get to tell the world about what you’ve been up to!
Things I probably should have done more of:
1) Hang out in the Lit Lounge:
Sure, we’re all introverts, but the few times I poked my head in, I felt welcome.
Plus, fairy lights.
2) Take profs up on offers to talk:
My initial thesis meeting, although a source of some anxiety (see “Gut a Manuscript” above), was also an opportunity to go beyond the mechanics of a piece and talk about the larger scope of concerns such as historical fact vs. historical fiction, stretching time in fiction, navigating cultural appropriation, and more. It was a mind-opening and inspiring meeting, giving me a bittersweet glimpse of the kinds of conversations I could have been having more of all along. Post-workshop meetings are on the workshop syllabi for a reason, and they don’t have to be just about that week’s individual piece. While we don’t want to overwhelm our profs, who need time to do their own work, if they offer to meet with you again, do take them up on it. And if you have a question, don’t be afraid to ask for a meeting—the worst they can say is “can it wait until after my book tour/submission deadline/award ceremony” or other amazing feat they’ve accomplished.
What does all this mean for YOU?
To those of you still going through the program: yes, sometimes you will feel inadequate or overwhelmed. Just try to think of that feeling as a reflection of the vast array of opportunities for growth before you; and, after you give yourself a moment to breathe, jump right in!
Tara Campbell (www.taracampbell.com) is a writer, teacher, Kimbilio Fellow, and fiction editor at Barrelhouse. Prior publication credits include SmokeLong Quarterly, Masters Review, Jellyfish Review, Booth, and Strange Horizons. She’s the author of a novel, TreeVolution, a hybrid fiction/poetry collection, Circe’s Bicycle, and a short story collection, Midnight at the Organporium. She received her MFA from American University in May 2019.