The MFA, Writing Habits, & Community

by Alex Quintanilla

Choosing to pursue an MFA in Creative Writing is an honorable and ambitious endeavor. It means that you are making a commitment to becoming a better storyteller. However, the path to bettering oneself is not without resistance. Rigorous writing workshops and literature courses will push your mental fortitude further than you expected and may make you question if you are up to the challenge. Class assignments can seem indomitable and may cause your enthusiasm to lag. That’s okay. The important thing is not to quit.

Instead, I suggest investing in good writing habits that pay dividends over time. Good writing habits can be small actions that don’t appear to be significant, but they make a difference over time. An MFA student needs to commit to small acts—actions—throughout your graduate experience to see real progress. And these good habits can make even the most daunting assignments manageable.

Every MFA student at Chapman University will compose a variety of written work. The first good writing habit to adopt is to write every day. Seriously, every day, if you can possibly manage it. It’s okay to start small with five minutes a day. The point is to engage in the practice of daily writing so you can break down larger projects (such as that novel you want to write) into small parts, daily parts. Distinguished writer and Nobel Prize winner John Steinbeck is an advocate of this philosophy, noting in a piece printed in the Paris Review that one should, “Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps.” Instead of focusing on the insurmountability of the task at hand, I write down that first paragraph, then that first page. Soon enough, the pages are accumulating. Learning to tackle that first page—and the first page of the next project—is less intimidating when you’ve already made it a habit of starting, as if anew, every single day.

Daily writing means having a place to write every day, even if that’s not the same place every day. Many writers are keen to write from the comfort of their own home, but there are distractions aplenty there. Instead, many of us in Chapman University’s MFA program find our places where we can write without interference, and write there regularly. Leatherby Libraries is the most convenient place. For those who prefer a posh setting, coffee shops and eateries abound in Old Towne Orange. Maybe you start by going to that writing place once a week or for a couple of hours before class. The goal is to find a sanctuary where you can write unimpeded and on a regular basis. In the long run, you will be able to establish a mindset for writing during long periods, and that’s sure to help when writing something laborious—like the thesis we each write.

Meeting up with other writers to write together can help a lot, and sharing our writing outside of class helps some of us write more regularly. Knowing that you have to present something new before a get together is a great way to be held accountable. One of the benefits of a graduate program is that you are in the company of other talented writers with their perspectives and areas of expertise. The knowledge a writer can gain from being in a room—or a coffee shop—of writers from different walks of life is invaluable. Finding shelter from outside distractions with others who value writing and reading will help to hone your focus, overcome resistance, and make the writing itself less intimidating and more important.