Writers: Should I Be Submitting While I’m in My MFA?

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I belong to a secret feminist group on Facebook. Who am I kidding? I belong to, like, 15 of them. But the other day, I popped in just to check the news and gossip of a particular group and caught a thread from a young writer getting her MFA in creative writing. The thread contained a generous offer to share a grad-school reading list with those who would like to write but can’t get an MFA. I’m all for democratized learning, so I appreciated it, or, rather, I “liked” it. There’s no “appreciate” button.

So I read through the ensuing thread, which was fine and good conversation about writing, but then I saw the original poster say, “I can’t wait to finish my MFA, so I can start submitting to journals!”

There was a record screech in my brain. What? Why would you have to wait until you were finished with your MFA to start submitting to journals? In fact, good MFA programs teach you how to write your cover letters and format your submissions, then introduce you to journal editors, so you can submit your stories immediately, get feedback from editors, and establish relationships with your future allies.

Of course, someone asked—politely, obviously, as we are epic tone-policers—why she should have to wait.

“I don’t have time!” she said. “Editing everyone else’s work!” My assumption is she means “the workshop” and the commenting on her peers’ stories. And while the conversation stopped there, I wanted to ask, “Why the hell are you spending so much time on someone else’s work?”

It’s not that I don’t believe you shouldn’t devote yourself to your classmates’ stories when they come up for review every week. But if you’re finding you don’t have enough time to polish and submit your own work, then why in the hell are you getting an MFA at all? The goal of an MFA, in my mind, is to allow you sustained time to develop your own craft in the hopes of a professional writing career. It’s not to toil over the sentences of your peers, who will most likely ignore all of your kindly suggestions by tossing your marked-up copy into the recycling bin the second they get home. That’s not the point of a workshop.

Instead, the point of a workshop is to get you excited about your own work while reading the work of others, to build a critical eye so you can better self-edit when you’re out of the MFA. And success, whether in the MFA or out, relies heavily upon how you self-edit and how often you submit. Statistically, getting published is a kind of numbers game. It’s methodical. It requires diligence and some luck. But the whole point of any of this—of writing of reading books on craft of the MFA—is to get published. You will never get another opportunity to submit like you will with an MFA, and if you see your work and your time as too precious in graduate school, you will likely always be waiting for that “perfect moment,” when the stars align and Mercury isn’t retrograde and the dishes are done for eternity, so you can finally submit.

That day will never come. If it’s important to you, you will make the time. That is what virtually every successful writer in the history of writers has done: manufactured time.

My suggestion to all new writers is to submit and submit often. Follow Submittable on Twitter to find out about upcoming submissions deadlines. Sign up for Duotrope and research your dream publications. Keep a list of your “top 10,” read their current issues, and write a story just for them. It’s a Glengarry Glen Ross thing. Just imagine Alec Baldwin spitting in your face with his slicked-back hair, screaming, “A-Always, B-Be, S-Submitting.” However you find your motivation, find it. Otherwise, what’s the point of getting an MFA at all?

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