Monday, May 22, 2017

Etiquette for MFA Grads

This is a rerun from last year, but since we're back at graduation season, I think it's worth another run:

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 their own.

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 (unless invited, which I'm pretty sure won't happen).

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 or Treman 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.


EDITED to add these suggestions thanks to some helpful people on Facebook:

DON'T write your former professors to ask questions you can google, and definitely DON'T ask vast questions that cannot be easily and quickly answered (i.e. "how does self-publishing work and should I do it?").

DO offer this advice to your buddies who are still in the program...I'm guessing that this information will be even momre helpful earlier in the program, so you can plan your exit strategy.


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 and proudly buy it!


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.