Isla McKetta: Things I Wish I’d Known When I Graduated from Goddard

class of summer 2010It seems like ages ago that I graduated from Goddard’s MFA program in creative writing at Port Townsend. It was only the summer of 2010, but I still remember the rush of holding that diploma in my hand. My classmates and I were ready to take on the literary world.
Or so we thought.
It’s been a great few years and I’ve never been sorry that I committed to the degree or to Goddard, but here are a few things I wish I’d known when (or maybe even before) I graduated.

You Might Feel Sad—for a While

The residency and MFA experience are pretty intense. For me it was the first time I was surrounded by so many people who cared about all the things I do, and it was always a little hard to go home at the end of each residency. But I wasn’t ready for the experiment to end or what that really meant. I’ve talked to a lot of graduates and the post-graduation blues are real.
I was lucky because I graduated with a close group of friends (Ann Hedreen, Liz Howard Rado, Priya Keefe, and Natasha Oliver) who all lived in the Seattle area and we could commiserate about the almost post-partum feeling of having graduated.
The feeling will pass as you get involved in new adventures and sink back into your work; I just want you to know that if it happens to you, you aren’t alone.

Your Book isn’t Done

If you’re a G3 or G4, you’ve heard this more than once (and likely from more than one person) by now. You might not be ready to hear it. That’s okay, but unless you’re a screenwriter (those blessed individuals who really can complete a project in under a month), your thesis isn’t (yet) ready for publication. It needs revision. It needs perspective. It needs air.
You might feel like you’re done with the project (I mean completely over it) and it’s very okay (even advisable) to put the book in a drawer for a few months while you reacclimate to the real world. Then, when you’re ready, pull out that book (or a new project) and get back to work.
Find your (new MFA-toting) self in it. You’ll feel differently about the work once you aren’t in that crazy time crunch anymore, and the writing will be better for the space you’ve given it.

Not Being Ready for Feedback is Different than Disagreeing with it

As you tackle that new revision, you might even find that some of the things people told you along the way sound different now. Aimee Liu told me the final chapter of Polska, 1994 was the ending to a different book. I completely and totally disagreed—until three years later when I was finalizing the book for publication and saw how very right she’d been.
In the early stages of being a writer, we’re in a swirl of trying to figure out who we are, learning to put that self on the page, and then defending it like mad. It is always okay to disagree with feedback, but don’t dismiss it until you understand if you hate it because it’s wrong or you hate it because it’s right.

Writing Groups are Not Optional

Unless you are extremely unusual, you need a second pair of eyes on your work at some point. A writing group will help you with that. A writing group will also help you with building a post-MFA community of likeminded people who will commiserate with you when you get your first rejections, help you find new opportunities, and celebrate with you when you get published. Why would you miss out on that?

Being Published is Only One Goal

Right now being published might seem like the only goal. I get it. Really. And it’s fine to treat it that way until you get the gold star you’re seeking. But keep in the back of your mind somewhere a second (or even third goal), because publication will happen sooner than you think and (unless you are incredibly lucky) it won’t be a perfect experience. Jan Vallone, Ann Hedreen, and I have all faced various levels of disappointment (or even depression) after publishing our first books, because the only goal we could think of was getting that publisher on board.
Other goals you might consider:

  • A list of lit journals where your goal is to see your work in each of them
  • A set number of reading dates per year where you’ll share your work with the world
  • Sending out a certain number of queries or submittals per month
  • Finding a residency or training that will help you be a more professional artist
  • Building your literary community through volunteer work
  • Writing (at least something) every day

I believe you will get published, but I also want you to remember that if publication is your only goal you’re going to run into problems. Beyond the quality of work you produce and the number of queries you send out, you have no control over when you get published. And once they’ve said yes, I want you to have something else to look forward to and to reward yourself for.

Your MFA has Value in the Real World (Even if You Don’t Teach)

If you dream of teaching and you find a position, I’m delighted for you, you’re joining the ranks of some fantastic Goddard grads who make it their business to help others write better. From my class alone you’ve got Ann Hedreen, Peter McMinn, Cody Luff, Phil Paddock, and Sidney Williams.
But not everyone wants to teach, and it’s important to remember that the MFA you’ve spent so much time, energy, and money earning has real world value in all of the following ways (and more):

  • Set up an editing practice (Peter McMinn and Natasha Oliver did)
  • Organize a literary festival (like Liza Wolff Francis)
  • Set up writing retreats (Regina Tingle, Dulcie Witman, and Chelsea Werner-Jatzke all do this)
  • Become a copywriter or news writer (this is how Nikki Kallio and I support our writing “habits”)
  • Focus on your craft (Gwendolyn Jerris and Liz Howard Rado do)

The challenge you face is that not everyone out there knows what an MFA is. But they do know what a Master’s Degree is and it’s still an impressive thing you’ve earned. Be prepared to explain how all that work you put in translates to the job at hand and you might be paying back your student loans faster than you ever hoped.

It’s Important to Say Yes (to Everything You Reasonably Can)

One of the ways you’ll discover the value of your degree is to say, “Yes!” when people ask you for your time. It’s fine (and important) to set aside time for self care, but saying yes shows people you’re interested and allows you to try out all kinds of opportunities.
By saying, “Yes!” when my friend wanted to co-author a book on creative writing, I received my first publishing contract and later published Clear Out the Static in Your Attic: A Writer’s Guide for Transforming Artifacts into Art. By saying, “Me!” when another friend asked if I knew anyone who wanted to serve on the board at Hugo House, I earned a new perspective on the literary community and made a ton of connections. And by saying, “Check out my site!” when my cousin asked if I’d be interested in writing for the LA Review of Books, I broadened my resume and impressed myself. And because I said, “I’d love to” when Reiko asked, I have the opportunity to share my thoughts with you here.
In return I’ve asked people to collaborate on a panel for AWP, to freelance for an agency I was working for, and to contribute to my blog when it was still new.
I’m so happy that Reiko and Aimee and the faculty of Goddard have pulled together this site. It’s a great opportunity to keep our community alive and to share in the opportunities and successes that can help us all grow and thrive.

It’s Up to You Now (But You Aren’t Alone)

When you graduate, whether it’s this semester or two years from now, you are stepping out into the wild blue. But that’s a good thing and I’m excited for you. I can’t wait to see what you make of your degree and what new paths you forge.
While that’s a lot of responsibility, you are never alone as long as you stay connected to the Goddard community. Although most of my classmates have moved away, I still exchange letters with Gwendolyn Jerris, Nikki Kallio, and Liza Wolf Francis. I share my writing successes and failures with a much wider group of Goddard friends on Twitter and Facebook. I read the alumni magazine and will be watching this site. Sometimes I even make it out to a Lit.Mustest salon or a graduation.
This weekend, I’m reconnecting with Goddard by heading back out to Fort Worden for a stomp (or two) across the parade ground. Sometimes just being in that place where we all first met—the place where we named ourselves writers—makes me feel whole.
Happy writing and please keep in touch.

Isla McKetta is the author of Polska, 1994 and co-author of Clear Out the Static in Your Attic: A Writer’s Guide for Turning Artifacts into Art. She earned a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Goddard College and worked in various capacities for the literary magazines Pitkin Review and Farfelu. Isla lived in Poland and Chile and speaks several languages. She makes her home in Seattle. You can find Isla tweeting at @islaisreading and reviewing books at A Geography of Reading.

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