After the M.F.A. Panel Discussion at Fall for the Book

The following is more or less of a transcript (sans my hyper/awkward sidebars) of my talk given September 23, 2013 at the Fall for the Book literary festival. Titled After the M.F.A. I hosted and brought together George Mason University alums to speak on their post graduation experiences and to share dialogue on how to feel fulfilled as a working human being after school obligations have been completed. Talk was accompanied by PowerPoint.

Hello ladies and gentlemen and welcome to After the M.F.A. Panel Discussion at the 13th annual Fall for the Book literary festival. This year’s festival features over 100 authors appearing at events throughout Northern Virginia, DC, and Maryland.  We appreciate your attendance today and encourage you to attend some of today’s other events, such as Activist and Author Ralph Nader in Harris Theatre or Poets Karen An-hwei Lee and G.C. Waldrep in this same room both beginning at 7:30. The festival runs through September 27th,, and we have many other exciting events occurring throughout the week.

I encourage you to pick up a program yourself and check out the rest of the week’s scheduled events if you haven’t done so already. For all the most up-to-date information on the festival, including a calendar, please visit


Downloadable PowerPoint as PDF

My name is Sheila McMullin, I run a feminist and artist resource blog named Moon Spit. I am an after-school creative writing programs instructor, blog and contributing poetry editor for ROAR Magazine, Membership team volunteer for VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts, and help with promotions for Kirkridge Writers’ Retreat.

What I’d like to do first is share a bit of context for the gathering of this panel. After the M.F.A. has two meanings for us. 1 facet addresses the literal, what? and the abstract how? What do alums do after they turn in their thesis and throw their graduation caps into the air? And within, how have alums continued to pursue artistic endeavors outside of a tight-knit university writing community with a relative formulaic/strategic 3 year pathway? The second facet, and perhaps the more personally fulfilling, is how to maintain and nurture the artistic spirit, honor the thesis work you’ve outlined or completed, and continue to love writing outside of that 3-year-deadline to become a proactive and individual artist with self manufactured goals and timelines. Today, we’ll each address these issues in the ways they have pertained to us and hopefully share insights into how post-graduation adventures come with no prescribed formulas. We trust that the process is terrifying and when careful attention is paid to that terror, one can be self-reflective and truly rewarded.  From our short talks, we hope you find the encouragement and empowerment to trust your instincts and move forward in the best ways suits for you. To avoid following a common trajectory because hords have before you have done so.

It was important for me to bring together colleagues with different artist goals and backgrounds, today. Each of us are in varying stages of our artistic careers and distance from graduation. Lauren who graduated this past May, as I did, was my constant partner in crime. During our years together, here, Lauren often sewed as an artistic endeavor as well as wrote, and I became enraptured by her as a poet when she decided to combine the two. Having recently graduated we are both still very much in the figuring out process and I want to thank Lauren for her willingness to be blatant and honest with us today about her transforming journey. Alison, graduated May of 2011, is an incredible creator of writing, visual art, and jewelry, and an important feminist ally. Defying the myth that the computer realm is for boys, she’s incredible in the way she intersects HTML5, the written word, and traditional forms of art to create a hyper experience. And then Ben, who graduated in 2011 with a nonfiction thesis. I’ve admired his work since my first semester at GMU when we both took Eric Pankey’s prose poem class. Ben has been a constant reminder to me that we are never just 1-type of artist.  The thread you’ll see between these artists is of collaboration and cross genre/interdisciplinary work.  I believe to be an impactful artist on society, today, one must be willing to work outside of his/her prescribed genre and own a willingness to work with others on a shared and dynamic vision. We must broaden the scope of what we consider our community and trust that inspiration can come from multiple art forms and non-humanities disciplines. In these past months of no school I have begun to understand the importance of consenting to be stretched uncomfortably at times to learn and expand my audience. An audience which isn’t guaranteed anymore through workshop. I’ve been reminded to practice keeping an inquisitive nature and work diligently to become a part of collaborative projects.

In these past months, I have been smacked repeatedly with the knowledge that the MFA was a huge privilege which let me focus solely on my love for poetry for three whole years. Of course, there was other stuff I was doing, and sometimes things were frustrating, but holy shit–3 years of just art, art communities, and the relevance of postmodernism in Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons before there was postmodernism. I mean, who else besides us really wants to talk about that? And it has hit me, that in life after the MFA we can’t just walk around as someone toting a Master’s degree. We were honored, and the outside world is far too sad and violent for us to solely be individuals of art for art’s sake. Post-graduation is the time for us to be the Thought Leaders we were trained to be, to give and share what we make because it helps our neighborhoods and greater communities think alternatively and act more inclusively.

Know that in your post-graduation time the thesis you had been working on may completely transform and that is okay. It’s good. It means you are open. And you have options. And options are what we all really need to be striving for constantly– The hopeful thing here for me, is that I believe in a world where there are endless options and opportunities no matter how slight or dim they may seem. We move forward and continue on together.

So a quick bit about what I’ve been up to after graduation. I traveled.  I encourage all of you to take a few moments after you’ve finished to celebrate yourself by traveling–whether its international or renting a hotel room down the street. Because 1-You deserve the time to decompress, and 2-Traveling can be an incredible reorienting experience. A time to reflect on the process and outcomes of the dedicated journey you went through during the MFA. It can provide insight into how you might move forward in the newly granted freedom of time.

In the last months leading up to graduation, I was so freaked out about getting a job immediately, I almost didn’t travel. I have learned since that my anxieties were misplaced. Because… I haven’t quite figured the best way to articulate it yet, but its fine. I’m fine; you will be fine; you’ll find a income source; you’ll have your Master’s, you will find something and in the long run, 1, 2, 3, weeks of traveling does not break you or your chances at having a good career.  Chances are it’ll actually open up more doors. Case and point, I met  individuals who work for Kirkridge Writer’s Retreat on a LitPub tour in Scotland and after a very rewarding conversation then they brought me on to help, also giving me an opportunity to work on my social media/promotions skills. .

So I traveled to the UK.

Part graduation celebration/part academic I went with my mother, who is a cultural, medical anthropologist, to the Graphic Medicine Conference this past July held in Brighton.  Graphic Medicine’s goal is to explore the diverse and very current resurgence of the graphic novel and the comic book to “high art” or at least thought-provoking works of literature, in relation to the medical field, medicine, and health. A form of storytelling, many focus on health disparities and inequalities in our current political climate, health care system, and individual biases.

In 2012, I wrote a poem based off of an interview my mother conducted with a woman, pseudonym Ruth, about her experience as a Latina with cervical cancer. (Fair warning, there is explicit language and nudity in the work I am about to share with you). “Ruth’s Book” was the impetus for my thesis–like it all started here/this is poem zero– and I think it does a good job of showing what kind of work I want to be producing. By nature this piece is collaborative, needs a willingness for a body to fit into multiple varying perspectives at once. It is performative and visual and when lucky I have multiple women reading alongside me. For my mother and myself it felt necessary to hand the text over to yet another person to interpret. This is when my mother found Kata and this is what she created: Terrifying and stunningly beautiful. I went to the graphic medicine conference to see how I could break into the graphic arts community– graphic being both visual and written. Not necessarily to break into drawing and writing comics (I leave that territory to Ben) but to learn how to intersect visual art and text politically.  While at the conference I met mostly doctors, nurses, comics writers/drawers, some biologists, some battling terminal diseases and others with family and friends with terminal illnesses. The coming together and discussions were beautiful. Being there felt like a true social effort to engage the written and visual word to produce serious cultural change. My community expanded there because I learned that medical fields have a desire for creative writing and writers. Medical professionals desire art and the artists desire relationships with real, struggling, dynamic humans. I met publishers backed by hospitals and university hospitals that want another way to interact with the life, sometimes failing, sometimes renewing, they come into contact with constantly. And patients desire a way to rethink and reflect on their own health through dialogue, not by being stigmatized and left out of the conversation. The conference was a reminder that powerful words have the potential to heal, and even though the act of writing might be individual, the process is truly communal.

Our goal now with “Ruth’s Book” is to reach out to more women, write and draw with them their stories, and learn how to build community that way. And when the time comes, we’ll do what we need to do to share the work. For us, publication comes later, right now is about the individual connections and gleaning stories that have been silenced or thought to not really happen to people.  I have no doubt that this will be significantly emotional work, and I am now, post-graduation, ready to embrace that challenge. Thank you.

After we hear from our panelists, I hope tonight to become a space for open dialogue. We’ve planned it so we’ll have time for questions and answers at the end. (Note post panel: This applies to cyber conversations! And some more food for thought from the Atlantic, although the follow-up isn’t that interesting, and great interview with Victoria Chang over at The Rumpus.)

Accompanying Panelists:

Ben Wilkins graduated from George Mason University with an MFA in Creative Nonfiction in 2011.  He first started making comics when he was about seven, by tracing superheroes out of context and giving them new dialogue.  After a short  20 year hiatus, he started making comics again, by tracing pictures of himself out of context and giving himself new dialogue.  He lives in Herndon, VA with his wife and daughter.

Lauren Stahl, poet and textile artist, graduated from Mason in 2013.  Her work as a poet melds with her work as a textile artist by examining traditional handicrafts practiced by generations of women.  Like quilting, her poems stitch together the fabric of family narrative through the lens of women’s experiences.  She graduated from Kent State with her B.A. in Spanish, and currently resides in Pittsburgh, PA where she can be seen zipping through traffic on her moped.

Alison Strub received her M.F.A. from George Mason University in 2011 and was the Heritage Fellow. Her poetic works have appeared in Denver Quarterly, Shampoo, Alice Blue Review, Rhino, and other journals. She lives in Arlington, Virginia, and works in internet marketing.

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