Tonight’s a kind of wedding, I suppose, with all the thesis prep the final Herculean labor leading up to a ceremonial rite of passage. But of course, just as it’s the marriage itself that matters far more than whether Aunt Betty drank too much at the reception, the important thing here is what you do in the days and months that follow your MFA anointment. How you schedule your working life, how you handle both acceptance and rejection, and most importantly, how you finish work that isn’t to be critiqued by a professor.
You have to build a web of readers. To crit you honestly, and without regard for your hurt feelings or their own artistic sensibilities. Of course, you want an agent and an editor whose opinions you trust, but most of us also build reader posses as process-oriented protection. You want readers who understand you, and those who don’t. Readers with better grammar skills, and those who think about structure or character in ways you don’t. Readers who write, and readers who simply love to read. All that feedback, in order to take your work from 95% done to the finish line: Thank you, Sven Birkerts, for telling me years ago that the last 5% of any writing project was 50% of the work. I may have your percentages wrong, but I’ve never forgotten the point. If the final re-write isn’t the hardest part of a project, I’m pretty sure it isn’t done.
I share my work in a variety of ways. With family members and old friends, some of whom read voraciously but don’t write. With a therapist friend who is extraordinarily astute about character; now that she’s writing her own novel, I have the pleasure of reading her evolving work in return. One Bennington friend and I exchange work every four weeks, no matter its state: the schedule keeps us industrious, and we’ve grown accustomed to coping with each other’s unpolished intentions. Other readers I tap are former teachers, former classmates, other writing friends. Some are particular to a project, because of an area of knowledge or a sensibility. I depend on this web of early readers, and I know that they depend on me.
So read for one another. Read meticulously. Read quickly. Show respect by being honest and clear. A decade from now, I bet you’ll say that your network of readers was the most important gift your MFA gave you.