Writing After College

By Anu Altankhuyag

The idea of fully committing to my dream of becoming an author was frightening, but I decided to go through with it and study Creative Writing for my Bachelor’s degree. However, once I was getting to the end of my senior year, I realized I hadn’t the faintest idea of what I wanted to do next. Before I could stop procrastinating and strategize a concrete plan that would set myself up on the path to success, the graduation caps were already flying in the air.

I knew I wanted to continue writing as more than a hobby. I wanted to one day be able to walk through a bookstore and see my name on the shelf. Every writer does. The challenging part is knowing what you can do to get there. To gather the information I needed, I interviewed a few writers and educators who could shed some light on my questions.

ABDUL ALI was most recently program director of the Maryland State Council’s County Arts and A&E Districts programs. And before that, he was the program coordinator at the Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC) of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant. Ali has held teaching appointments at Johns Hopkins University, Howard
University, and Goucher College. He is the recipient of The Robert Deutsch Foundation’s 2019 Ruby Grant. His debut collection of poems, Trouble Sleeping, won the 2014 New Issues Poetry Book Prize. He is also a volunteer leader at THREAD, which serves academically challenged young people in Baltimore City Public Schools. In 2021, he co-founded and is Co-Chief Executive Officer at Thrive Arts, a service organization that seeks to provide capacity building to communities of color. You can find him at abdulali.net.

GABRIELLE LUCILLE FUENTES is the author of the short story collection Are We Ever Our Own, winner of BOA Editions Short Fiction Prize, and the novel The Sleeping World. She has received fellowships from Yaddo, Hedgebrook, Willapa Bay, Millay Colony, Anderson Center, and Blue Mountain Center. Her work has appeared in One Story, The New England Review, The Common, Slice, Pank, Western Humanities Review, and elsewhere. She holds a BA from Brown University, an MFA from the University of Colorado, Boulder, and a PhD from the University of Georgia. She is an Assistant Professor at the University of Maryland where she teaches creative writing and Latinx literature.

ART TAYLOR is the author of two collections—The Adventure of the Castle Thief and Other Expeditions and Indiscretions (forthcoming 2023) and The Boy Detective & The Summer of ’74 and Other Tales of Suspense—and of the novel in stories On the Road with Del & Louise, winner of the Agatha Award for Best First Novel. He won the 2019 Edgar Award for Best Short Story for “English 398: Fiction Workshop,” originally published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and he has won three additional Agatha Awards, an Anthony Award, four Macavity Awards, and four Derringer Awards for his short fiction. His work has also appeared in Best American Mystery Stories. He is the assistant director of the Creative Writing Program at George Mason University and an associate professor, teaching creative writing and literature. Find out more at arttaylorwriter.com.

GREGG WILHELM started as an acquisitions assistant at Johns Hopkins University Press, quite randomly because he simply needed a job, and fell in love with the process of how a manuscript becomes a book. After working for and launching other imprints, he founded CityLit Project, a nonprofit literary arts organization in Baltimore. They presented events, readings, and workshops—for adults, teens, and kids—and eventually launched an imprint called
CityLit Press. Meanwhile, he started adjuncting at several universities, earned an MFA from a low-residency program, and worked as a marketer and administrator for an art college. His current role is director of the BFA and MFA in Creative Writing programs at George Mason University. Learn more about the Creative Writing program at creativewriting.gmu.edu.

Anu: What do you think is the most important thing MFA programs do to help students get started in their writing careers?

Art: I’m a graduate of Mason’s MFA program in addition to working now on the faculty and administrative side, and I hope what I experienced as a student might still hold true for new students today! One of the things that was most useful to me was being part of a community of people who identified as writers—and who were taking time to make their writing a priority. It’s a luxury in many ways to devote two or three years to focusing on your craft and to have people offering encouragement and feedback and conversation about writing. That enthusiasm, that seriousness. Ideally, the MFA years should provide writers a chance to hone their craft but also to find out what works best for
them as writers—both in terms of what they want to write and how they want to write (establishing a routine)—and to continue enjoying that sense of community beyond graduation as well.

What are some things in MFA programs that you feel students should be aware of that they’re not taking full advantage of?

Gregg: Mentorship, and that means different things to different mentees and is provided in different ways by different mentors. However, mentorship is built on relationship building, and that’s always been hard for introverted bookish types in general and exacerbated by the pandemic with ongoing trends toward social isolation (even remote learning!). Being proactive is key, students have to ask, because what an MFA program can provide isn’t always codified in its handbook.

How do you believe the writing industry has changed since you first started compared to how it is now?

Gregg: When I first started, there were the “Big Seven” New York-based publishing houses, a writer wanting to break into that world almost had to be in New York because that was where the agents were, Borders and Barnes & Noble dominated the retail space, this thing called Amazon.com was new and only sold books, and getting on Oprah was the moonshot. By the end of this year, it will likely be the “Big Three” publishers in New York, excellent agents and editors live and work everywhere nowadays, Borders is gone and B&N has shrunk, independent booksellers have resurged against Amazon, and Tik Tok might be the best place for book promotion. However, the best literary art starts on the sentence level for prose writers, on the line level for poets. If writers don’t excel at their craft, what changes around us actually matters very little.

What advice would you give for managing a day job while writing?

Art: Working a full-time job, being in a relationship or raising a family, dealing with many other demands—finding time to write in the midst of all that can surely be a challenge. I have friends who try to write x number of words each day or set aside x amount of time (minutes? hours?) for their writing, and those goals can work; even now I take part in online writing sprints with two groups: a Tuesday/Thursday lunchtime zoom and another on Friday morning. But ultimately, I find what helps most is checking in regularly—no matter how many words or how long a stretch of time. Drafting a scene, revising a paragraph, even making a note keeps you engaged in the project at hand; some days you’ll accomplish more than others, but maintaining some momentum is key.

Gabrielle: I pursued a career (teaching at the college level) that intertwines my writing and my job. Publishing and being a part of the literary community is a major part of my job, which has benefits and drawbacks. Even though I have to write to keep my job (itself a strange pressure), I still have to purposefully carve out time for my writing. I balance this better at some times and worse at others. I would suggest trying different methods: maybe writing in the morning works for you, or maybe picking a day out of your week to write. Make a choice and try to stick to it for a few months. Rely on habits and remove temptations (for example, I don’t allow my laptop or phone near my writing desk, I have rules about internet use), rather than trying to trust your willpower, which waxes and wanes. But also be gentle with yourself. The important thing, I think, is to schedule writing into your life, and prioritize it as an important aspect of your life. Building a writing community really helps with this!

Are you part of a writing community?

Art: A couple of ways to answer this. First, I do belong to several writing organizations: Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime particularly, which are useful both for their official programming (seminars and meetings) and for the camaraderie with other writers within my genre. But I’m also a member of two writing groups, one of which has met monthly for more than 10 years now; in each of those, we share drafts, give feedback on one another’s work, and lean on one another for perspectives on the business of writing, too. Lots to value in all those communities!

What is your advice about keeping an ongoing healthy and engaged writing group?

Abdul: Keep it organic. Sometimes some things need to die a quiet death and bring forth something new and more exciting. That’s just the rhythm of life. […] Just being attuned with the folks you are in community with. […] We all want community, we all want to be seen and heard. So I think that is something important when building community.
Make it an inviting space. Not a competitive one. […] I don’t care if you have started writing poetry today or if you have been writing for thirty years. Every voice matters. Everyone counts. It’s our responsibility to make sure that they have a pleasant experience, you know? A joyful experience engaging in this artform. Because it is quite lonely. We write alone. And then we come out and we share it. […] Make the community diverse. It can’t all be people who look like you, love like you, or write like you. It should be different. So it keeps it exciting.

What are some recurring literary events that you recommend college students and recent graduates participate in to begin networking and making connections?

Art: Many writing organizations offer discounted memberships to younger writers, and I think it can be good to officially join such groups for whatever resources they offer and also for informal connections and networking. Writing can seem a lonely business, but we’re not alone in it, and I’ve often learned about anthology calls or made useful contacts from just chatting with people. I’d also encourage writers to attend readings at bookstores or at PEN/Faulkner in DC or—yay!—at The Writer’s Center! Being a good literary citizen is important, respecting and appreciating what others are doing, celebrating all of us—and hopefully, someday, being appreciated and celebrated yourself too, of course!

Gabrielle: I really enjoy The Inner Loop, In your ear, and Little Salon reading series. The University of Maryland hosts Writers Here & Now, with readings from stellar writers every semester.

Abdul: On the community level, going to a local poetry slam, going to a poetry reading, going to the library. Being a part of the literary community, maybe there is a lecture at a local college that a poet is doing. Even if you don’t go to that college, usually these things are free and open to all. Be connected. Don’t just say “I’m a writer” and you don’t read writers, you know? Have discussions about the work and figure out how the work speaks to your life and your spirit.

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