Guest contributor: Kerry Headley

Five Months after the MFA: Getting Friendly with Reality

categories: Cocktail Hour



Five months ago, I was elated and exhausted. I’d just completed three years in a creative writing MFA program I loved. I’d accomplished that which I had intended: to become a better reader and writer. As I waited for my diploma to arrive in the mail, I allowed myself to read for pleasure, watch trashy television shows online, and sleep—a lot. I enjoyed a few celebratory meals with friends who bought me crème brulee in shot glasses and hibiscus margaritas. They toasted to my success: Girl, you’re fabulous!

It was a heady few weeks.

I wasn’t naïve. I’d watched friends who graduated before me take clerical positions at the universities that wouldn’t hire them to teach. Others who were hired to teach—as adjuncts— were living at the poverty level. A former classmate received an honorable mention for his submission to one of the emerging writer fellowship opportunities. Most of us considered this a stupendous success. By the time I zipped myself into my graduation gown, I’d already received the first rejections from both fellowship and hiring committees.

I was friendly with reality is the point.

I left my alma mater and North Carolina right before women lost the right to vote (or something) and drove to Portland, Oregon where I assumed I’d be able to find a full-time job and an apartment. Instead, I’ve found neither, thanks to a tighter than ever rental market and a shaky economy. I’m writing this from my sister’s house in a room used to store craft supplies, books, and old shoes. It’s the space I’m sharing with my two cats as we temporarily bunk with my sister and her partner, their two-year old son, their three-month old son, and their two dogs.

I have a part-time job that pays maybe a quarter of my bills. My first student loan payment is due in less than two months.

This is not the writing life I had hoped to create.

It’s been difficult to figure out how to unpack myself as a writer. Not having my own space means I’m rarely alone for long. Spending hours each day looking for ways to pay for my basic needs takes away time I could use for revising or playing with new ideas. And a full-time job, when I get one, will cut into that time, too. I’ve unsuccessfully balanced work and writing long enough to know that.

I could lie and tell you that I didn’t indulge in a pity party that may have involved binge-watching episodes of What Not to Wear and a bottle of Malbec. But that would make me an unreliable narrator. Because it does suck that it’s so difficult to create a writing life that includes heat, food, and (maybe) healthcare. Might as well admit it, which is what I did.

But I realized something. And here’s where my time at an MFA program became worth every penny of those student loans I may never be able to repay: I know what I’m capable of when I devote the time to writing.

And that’s how I found it—my post-MFA writing life, carved out sometimes in short bursts before work and sometimes in five-hour chunks after everyone else has gone to bed. My work habits now reflect the fluidity of my life. I don’t plan ahead like I did when I had a workshop schedule and a teaching job. Instead, I consider each day while I drink coffee in the morning, looking for the places where I might put revision. I’m learning to appreciate the power of fifteen minutes because sometimes that’s all I have. Oddly, it seems as if these limitations have distilled my sensibilities. I’m more efficient, and I’m more engaged with the process than ever. Maybe that’s just what happens to MFA students after they start believing their theses are actually books in progress.

I’m positive that in the near future I won’t share a closet with a cat litter box. I’m choosing to believe in the muscle behind my stubbornness.

Some writers are given the time to write, but most of us have to take it. I’m becoming an excellent thief.

UPDATE: Two days after I wrote this, an apartment for which I had joined the wait-list became available. The following day, I received another job offer—from the high school where I already love working. I can’t afford much more than the rent, but it will keep me from moving in with the lady with the pregnant cat—and five additional cats.  I’ll take it—all of it, including the writing life I have.


Kerry Headley is a butterfly in crysalis after a long flight west.  She’ll be emerging before long.  Stay tuned.  See her earlier Bill and Dave’s post about graduation from her MFA program here.


  1. Nina writes:

    Beautiful and profound.