About an hour ago, I had coffee with one of our MFA students here at the University of Memphis, a wildly talented poet who has been publishing up a storm and gobbling up prestigious awards right and left–let’s call her Maria. Maria is all of 26 with her whole life and career shimmering before her, and yet what she wants to know is, What now? What are the options, the possibilities, the hazards of the world beyond the MFA? Well, how does one answer such youthful curiosity and mild anxiety without hauling up his own experience as an example either to follow or avoid? All those years ago when I found myself in her shoes, the world was different in one specific way: at that time, one could conceivably parlay his MFA into an actual assistant professorship at a university, and indeed I interviewed for one such position in a crowded hotel room at MLA–a position I did not, thank God, get. The entire process of applying and interviewing for a job teaching 3-4 sections of freshman composition per semester–essentially doubling the load I’d had as a grad student–had given me a deep and chronic case of run-for-the-hills. So, instead of teaching, I fled to Japan for six months to stay with a friend and write my novel, and after that I returned to Iowa and somehow became a carpenter–and I made my living as a carpenter, in about a hundred different states, for the next 20 years…writing, and sometimes publishing, all the while.
I suppose I was trying to make at least two points for Maria: the first, that the academic landscape has changed, and her opportunities to teach creative writing at this stage in her career, especially when so many candidates have the PhD in creative writing, would likely be limited, x-tra low-paying, and x-tra hard-working. The second point was that I had learned at least one thing about myself in the uncertain aftermath of graduate school, and that was that I would not return to teaching until I could teach what I loved and what I understood, which was fiction. This meant, I knew, that I would not return to teaching until I had built up the kind of c.v. that would make me a viable candidate for teaching in MFA programs--which meant, of course, publishing. It took me twenty-some years to reach that level (I was hired for a tenure-track position at UMemph last fall), but, judging by her trajectory so far, it will not take Maria nearly so long, and so my advice, finally, was simply to live, to go where she likes, apply for fellowships, keep an eye on the academic job market, sure, but mainly just to keep writing those poems, getting them placed, and building the books which will make her a strong candidate for positions which will allow her to teach what she loves and knows best, which is poetry. It wasn't much, but it was the best I could do. Then I thought of this site and I wondered, what advice might others give her? How have all you graduates of all those MFA programs made your ways in the real world? I think this young poet--and all of my graduate students--would really love to know!