Okay, I’m not really the official Miss Manners of the writing
world. But for graduation season, I’d like to offer a few thoughts directed to
new MFA grads who will now be navigating the mysterious world of Writing Biz on
First, do not expect your teachers to keep in touch with
you. They may adore you and your work, but their own writing (and life) is
always going to be their priority. This does not mean that they aren’t
interested in what you’re doing…just that, for the most part, you will need to be the one to keep in
touch. (The teacher-student relationship is, of course, also structured around
a certain power dynamic and it is plain wrong for a teacher to pursue a student
after graduation [unless that student wins a Pulitzer, haha].) So think about
which teachers were especially meaningful to you and your writing life, and
think about how to stay connected with them.
Social media is a nice way to keep a casual relationship going
with your professors, but if they (or you) don’t use social media, an
occasional email/text is, it seems to me, welcomed by most professors. A few
dos and don’ts on that occasional email/text:
DO reread what I said and take to heart that word:
occasional. Don’t overdo it.
DO follow what your beloved professor is up to and
acknowledge his/her publishing successes.
DON’T (ever) attach work you’d like to be critiqued.
DON’T write only when you want/need something.
DON’T take it personally if your professor is too busy to
respond to you immediately, or perhaps ever.
DON’T write only when you want/need something. (Oh, did I
say this already? Hmmm…must be important.)
DO ask for letters of recommendation/blurbs if you need them
and you have maintained a good relationship with your teacher…but DON’T imagine
you can make this request for the rest of all eternity. DO understand that your
beloved professor will be beloved by many students who will come along after
you. DO imagine that perhaps you’ve got a couple of shots at this sort of
favor. DON’T (ever) ask for any letters that are due in less than two weeks.
DO understand that favors go both ways. You are now an MFA
graduate, a member of the writing community, and that means you are allowed
(encouraged!) to use whatever power you may have to help the people who helped
you…can you invite your teacher to read at your reading series? Is your journal
looking for a contest judge whom you will pay? Did you write a glowing review of
your teacher’s book on Amazon? Can you interview your teacher for a writing
blog? DO send an email offering
something to your teacher!
DO follow up with your professor with a thank you after
he/she has helped you in some way, whether it’s a letter written or advice offered
or a question answered or whatever. At this point, your professor is not
required to help you and is doing so only from the goodness of his/her heart.
Saying thank you is FREE!
DON’T forget that your professor is first and foremost a writer whose job was to teach you. Note the distinction. Once you have graduated
from the program, your professor takes no responsibility for you (unless you
win a Pulitzer). Sad but true: your professor may not want to stay in touch
with you. This might feel like a rejection. But please be gracious. A good
teacher will have given you the tools to you need to forge ahead on your own
and find your place in the community.
I’ll also offer a suggestion that revolves around that word “gracious.”
Maybe it turned out you didn’t like your program so much. I’m sorry. I really
am. (I wish you would have joined us at the Converse
low-res MFA!) But now that you’re “free” of all those “%$#$-ing” teachers
who think they’re such “hot $#@$” it might be tempting to let loose on them,
either in your writing or on social media or in scathing, tell-all articles.
I’m only offering my own views here, but it’s been my
experience that our lovely writing community is a small-small-small-small
world, not only in size (I promise I could play six degrees of separation with
about any MFA grad and get to a mutual acquaintance) but it is also small in
terms of pettiness, which means that people WILL remember that you were the one
who trashed the program or your teacher on The Rumpus or in The New Yorker or wherever. (Also, no
one will be fooled by your pseudonyms and the tricks you use to disguise
people/places…remember what I said about six degrees of separation?)
And think about it: why would you trash the crazy-imperfect-infuriating-inspiring
program you graduated from? Now that you’re out, you should feel invested in
the success of the program: you want your fellow grads to win awards and bring prestige
to your school because that will help you and your degree. When your book is
published, you should want to return in triumph to your program, invited back for
a reading or a class visit. You should want your name proudly listed on the
website as a “famous alum.” The fact is, you are connected in some way to your
MFA program for the rest of your writing life.
Bitch and gossip privately, to your friends or at the AWP
bar after you scope the scene to ensure your teachers are out of spitting
distance. But always think twice and then twice again before going public about
all the crap you endured while at your MFA program. (Unless we’re talking about
something illegal or an abuse of power.)
In short, don’t burn bridges…until you win your Pulitzer.
You may not want to keep in touch with all or any of your
former professors, and that’s fine. While many segments of the writing world
run on blurbs and letters of recommendation and such, your former teachers are
not (and should not be) the only source for acquiring those documents. You will
move forth and build your own network of support, and memories of that horrible
MFA workshop will fade in time, and maybe soon you will be the teacher opening
emails from former students. But one last tip:
DO thank your teachers in the acknowledgements of your first
book, and DO spell their names correctly. And if you’re one of my former
students, DON’T send me a free copy: I will happily, happily buy it!