Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Writer’s Life: It’s All About Moving Forward - by Wendy Nelson Tokunaga

When I applied for MFA programs in the Fall of 2005 it was more than two decades since I’d gotten my BA (in Psychology) but I was still fresh from being rejected hundreds of times for my now five novel manuscripts. There’d been many ups and downs and some positive developments along the way, but nothing had panned out in my goals of getting an agent and having a novel published. I didn’t expect that getting an MFA would get me either of these, but this was a time in my life when I could finally afford to go to graduate school without getting into debt. So I decided to seize the moment and make the best out of it.

I used the first chapter of my latest rejected ms as my application writing sample and I was pleased to be accepted by my first choice program at University of San Francisco. USF’s MFA program appealed to me because it fostered a community of writers and everyone in the class would be expected to complete the course in two years (including two summer semesters), unlike a program that would let you take up to seven years to get your degree.

I still continued to send out my latest ms to agents as I anticipated starting graduate school. I got some close calls, but nothing came to fruition. I was disappointed, but used to it. Instead I focused on how lucky I was to have the privilege of being able to dedicate myself to the study of writing and literature for two years and complete a new book-length manuscript by the end.

But then a funny thing happened on the way to MFA-land. When I was about six weeks into the program I found myself with an agent and then a two-book deal with St. Martin’s Press. My debut novel, “Midori by Moonlight” (the fifth novel I’d written) would be out in September 2007, right when I’d be starting my second year of graduate school.

“Wow! You’re getting published!” some of my fellow students said to me. “So aren’t you going to quit school?”

Their question surprised me. Quit? Heck no. Did they think there was nothing more for me to learn? This was only the beginning. And what a great experience it was to both to get published and receive my MFA.

It’s not whether you get an MFA or not. It’s all about moving forward in your writer’s life, despite rejection, and persevering. By going on to that next step I ended up achieving my original dream when I least expected it. And getting that MFA has enriched my life far more than I ever thought possible.

~ ~ ~

Wendy Nelson Tokunaga is the author of the novels “Midori by Moonlight” and “Love in Translation,” both published by St. Martin’s Press. She is also the author of the non-fiction e-book, “Marriage in Translation: Foreign Wife, Japanese Husband.” Forthcoming for her in Spring 2012 is an essay in the anthology “Madonna and Me” published by Soft Skull Press, and a short story in the Young Adult “Tomo” anthology of Japan-related fiction to be published by Stone Bridge Press. She teaches writing at Stanford University’s Online Writer’s Studio and University of San Francisco, and also has her own manuscript consulting service. Visit her at:


  1. I really agree with moving forward! I often find that when I'm just open to new writing experiences--school, conferences, trips, etc.--new things open up elsewhere.

    Thanks for this post!!

  2. PS That's me, above: Sandy Novack. :) Posted under my blogger name.

  3. "Their question surprised me. Quit? Heck no. Did they think there was nothing more for me to learn? This was only the beginning."

    It terrifies me that some people actually believe the journey ends with publication. Knowing there is so much more to learn can be both frustrating and energizing, but without that possibility, where else would we go?

  4. Wendy, that's a wonderful story! I'm curious about how the folks in the MFA program reacted to the contract? And in a nutshell, how did the MFA change your writing? (I know that's not fair...)

  5. Thanks, everyone!

    Lucy, it was definitely interesting to get a contract while just starting the program. Most people were supportive and excited but I think others felt somewhat intimidated. And some thought I'd just use my work that was going to be published in workshop (so not the case!). I did end up workshopping some of the novel-in-progress for the second book on my contract, but I wrote a different work for my thesis based roughly on an old manuscript that had been rejected years ago.

    The MFA definitely made me a better, more well-rounded writer and exposed me to books and writers I never would have read on my own.

  6. Yes, fabulous post, Wendy! And kudos for moving forward - it could have been tempting to stop with the agent/2 book deal. One of the things I heard that stuck with me is that becoming an accomplished writer is like earning a doctorate and can easily take 10 years and as many manuscripts before you publish. And yet we expect the first one to sell. :)

  7. Wendy, you continue to be an inspiration! Good for you for continuing to query even after you started your MFA program. I would imagine there was some jealousy amongst your classmates when you landed that contract. I can see the writing community, especially in major metropolitan areas, as both close-knit and competitive.

  8. I do envy you MFA folks. I don't think it will ever be in the cards for me! And I do applaud your effort! It's a great accomplishment!

  9. Wendy, I REALLY identified with this post. I think we could have long talks about this. I went in an MFA program just last year, after having five books published and it was all very illuminating not to mention humbling. But I don't regret it for a second.

  10. Yeah, Karin. Would love to meet you face-to-face and talk over a mint julep sometime!

  11. Someone emailed me recently asking if she should get an MFA. I pointed her toward one of these posts. This time I find myself wondering for the 5,000,000th time if I should consider an MFA. More food for thought, especially after reading Karin's comment.

  12. Even the better grounds have been initiated herein and hopefully these would either blend towards evident piece prospects to be followed.