My Writing Bucket List includes having an advice column, à la Dear Prudence or Dear Sugar, so I indulged myself for this post, in honor of the Wilkes Creative Writing MA/MFA ten year anniversary. Five bonus points if you can tell me how I got my pen name…
Dear ChaCha Tuscadero,
I am applying to creative writing MA/MFA programs. What’s your advice?
#tbt 2007 with my mentor and future publisher, the amazing David Poyer (www.poyer.com).
First, I hope that this isn’t your get-rich scheme or retirement plan. Second of all, good for you. As a graduate of the Wilkes University’s Creative Writing MA/MFA Program, here are my tips for your surviving and thriving in your program:
#5 DON’T allow yourself to be paralyzed by intimidation. You are going to be interacting with talented, successful writers who are living your dream. This can be intimidating. Just remember they teach in your program because they want to connect with and support new writers, because the love teaching, and for many other reasons. I was paralyzed by fear when I started my program. It had nothing to do with the faculty, it was all in my head. One I realized I belonged there, I exhaled and opened up. What a difference.
#4 DO STHU and listen. Yes, LISTEN. Shut your piehole. I don’t care if you have literally been given the title of Coolest, Most Interesting Person In The World, you have more to learn than to offer at this point.
#3 DO ask people questions when it’s time to talk. You have a captive audience of professional writers who want to work with you. They have a body of knowledge and experience that is enviable. They are there to mentor you. And, like many writers, they love to talk about it all. So go for it. Ask them about their backgrounds, their hurdles, their successes, their advice, their opinions. Your day to talk and talk and talk about your success will come, if you work hard enough.
Do the same with your classmates – ask them questions, find out about them. They have skills and insight, too.
#2 DO find your allies. Your program will have all types of writers and students: shy, outgoing, egomaniacs, introverted, extroverted, eccentric, modest, intense, low-key…you get the picture. Get to know as many people as possible and create a tribe who shares your vibe. Don’t smoosh yourself into a category because you want to be “cool.” Find the instructors and the classmates who will push you new directions, who will make you think, who will support you. This leads me to my most important piece of advice:
#1 DO write what YOU love. The story knocking around my brain during grad school was a thriller about an event planner from Northeastern Pennsylvania. I wasn’t going to fight it. Sure, I was surrounded by many poets, playwrights, screenwriters, novelists and memoirists who were very literary. This was intimidating. But once I owned my funny, smart adventure narrative, once I decided this was my thesis, everything locked into place.
The best part about the Wilkes program is that it nurtures all kinds of writers: literary fiction, confessional poetry, horror, middle grades and more. My manuscript would find a home and it did. My formal mentor, the steady and wise David Poyer, did intimidate me at first, but I didn’t let that hold me back. He made me think differently, he made me work differently and most importantly, he believed in my talent, which gave me all of the confidence I needed to press on. I also had other mentors, too, who believed in what I was writing. Did I connect personally with all of the faculty members? No and that’s OK. I wasn’t writing for them exactly. Again, your tribe is your vibe. Write what makes your heart sing and you will find your people.
So, to Juana and all of the other people out there considering a creative writing program, good luck, find one that honors what you write and work hard. To paraphrase Kid President, give the world a reason to read.
Graduation Day, May 2008, Cohort 2 aka Cockeye Book Club. That’s me on the right on the end.