I was recently asked to speak about this topic at the reunion of nonfiction MFAs at Goucher College in Baltimore and thought this information would be great to share here at The Writer's Edge, as well.
Once you recover from graduating from a MFA program and discover that you need to make your peace with the void it leaves, and that you are now your own keeper/disciplinarian, the big question hits you: What do I do now?
My philosophy on this has TWO POINTS:
1) Try everything you can handle in terms of your time and energy. Just give it a go, even if you're not sure it's for you (as long as it's not a big financial commitment like an expensive class or conference. You should really want to participate in those before plunking down the credit card). You'll stir things up. You'll meet people. You'll discover important strengths, weaknesses, passions. Other things will start to show up for you.
2) Based on what shows up - do what's in front of you. Opportunities will come to you through all this activity and connection. You might be offered a class to teach or asked to give a talk on a conference you went to, or write an article for your local paper. I see these as bread crumbs that you follow to the next thing and the next and the next. You'll be amazed where you end up. Each opportunity trains you for the next one. Follow them. Don't push. If something you want to do isn't working that's because you aren't ready.
HERE'S THE LIST:
1) If the void is too much for you, take a class. It doesn't have to be a writing class. Explore a subject that might bring new life to your work: art – like ceramics or painting - history, science, film, religion. You can find these in continuing ed programs everywhere, and many arts organizations that sell pieces also offer classes in various disciplines.
2) Join a critique group. Here in Maryland we have the Maryland Writer’s Association and it lists critique groups in many forms on its website. Or start a critique group. Your fellow MFA students are a good start. People you meet at literary arts events or at a meeting like the your state's writing association meetings are good candidates. But if you don’t admire and even envy the writing of at least 3 people in the group – get out.
To read my previous posts on finding and being part of a successful critique group, click here.
3) Get a writing coach/mentor. We're around. Do some internet research. You can be just as successful working with someone by email and/or phone as you can in person. A coach/mentor will keep you motivated and help you set and meet your goals in ways a critique group might not.
4) Find literary arts organizations in your area: small presses, literary magazines (usually online magazines), libraries that present readings. Also orgs like The Writer's Center, The Loft, Grub Street, CityLit Project - these are organizations that present programming for writers and readers in their cities. Find the ones in your area and get on their email lists. Go to their events/readings. Offer to read. Stick around to talk to people afterwards. If it's not something you're comfortable with - have a compliment or question ready, say your piece and then run away if you must.
5) Apply to contests and send your work out to literary magazines. Yes it's a huge pain in the ass and can be expensive and disappointing. Do it anyway. It's good practice and your work will be accepted somewhere. It has to. It's the law of averages. Choose one or two magazines with whom to build a relationship. You never know who will see your work and respond (maybe one of the judges or someone who reads your honorable mention poem in the magazine). Years ago I won an award and received a fan letter for my poems from Ted Kooser (who later became US Poet Laureate). If it's an overwhelming prospect - make folders for every month of the year and every time you find a contest or submission deadline for a lit mag, print it out and put it in the folder. Each month look through your options in the folder for the next month and decide where to send your work.
6) Apply for a grant. Your city and/or state arts council probably has an individual artist award. Maryland has poetry, fiction, and playwriting. You can win about $1,000 usually and can meet the other winners in your category at the ceremony. I formed a critique group that's been going two years now with a writer I met this way. The award also looks good on your CV.
7) Go to conferences. There are books everywhere that list them. You can apply to the heavy hitters like Sewanee and BreadLoaf or start smaller. Retreats for writers are listed as well. State Parks often have places for writers to stay and some offer a stipend. I've met wonderful, committed, talented writers at every conference I've attended and still keep in touch with 1-3 of them from each. You can critique each other's work and share resources long after the conference is over.
8) If you have a graduate degree, apply for a post-graduate fellowship like the Stegner Fellowship at Stanford. Princeton, Emory, and University of Wisconsin all have them. You write, you teach a couple of classes, you may go to a class with your fellow fellows, and you get a stipend. Amy Holman has a great book that pulls info on residencies, conference, etc. together.
8) Teach. Offer a class at a library, church, senior or rec center. These are low key places to get your feet wet. Once you gain more confidence, go to your local college's continuing ed or undergraduate program and propose a class. Or go into your child’s school and offer to help them write poems or stories. Talk to their teacher. If you have teaching experience, check in with your local arts council, your state arts council or organizations like Young Audiences, Arts for Learning. These all maintain rosters of teaching artists which you can apply to be on and then be available to do writing residencies in schools and be paid for it.
9) Go to area book festivals and talk to the writers in the authors tent. Volunteer for the festival itself, or to help out in the tent of one of the literary arts organizations.
10) Facebook. Find the literary arts groups. Join them. Friend writers you find there. Twitter too, if you can stand it. (I can't, but it's your time!)
11) Read blogs for writers and comment. If you build a relationship, you can offer, or might be offered, a chance to guest blog.
12) Keep a writer's journal of observations, overhead conversations, images, etc.
13) Read the journals of writers. Maybe start a group with other writers to talk about process and share resources and inspiration. Or make every fourth critique group session this type of meeting.
14) Host a Writers Dinner. Invite people you know and ask them to bring another writer. Do this in your home or meet at a restaurant. Just hang out and talk. Don't read your work or make it a brainstorming session about anything really serious. Just be in the company of your peers.
There’s no magic formula. You’re in charge. No one is going to force you to do anything. You have to decide how much you want to be involved and how much on your own. Whatever you can or want to do is right for you. Pay attention to your rhythms - seasonal, monthly, daily. If you have a very rigid practice and it's been a struggle for awhile, or you're no longer inspired by the groups you're in, it's time to make a change/adjustment.
It's also okay to take a break and do nothing (including not write). Allow that space. Embrace it.
Chris Stewart is a writer/mentor in Baltimore where she founded the Write Here, Write Now workshops, and the program director for arts in education and literary arts with the Maryland State Arts Council. Her website is www.therealwriter.com.