2014, Archives, July 2014, The MFA Years

Something Beautiful: Mental Health and the MFA

What do we talk about when we talk about depression and writing? It’s hard to begin, not least because the pairing of these topics can feel almost overly familiar. They’re a classic combo, really—a sort of burger and fries, peanut butter and jelly, Lennon and McCartney of the literary world. From The Bell Jar to Darkness Visible, writers writing about depression has become practically a trope. It’s archetypal: the tortured writer loopy at his desk, popping pills and chugging whiskey. But ultimately, my story isn’t about an archetype. It’s about me, and as my struggle with mental illness collides with my MFA experience, there is no well-trod trajectory for what will happen next.

I’m just weeks away from starting my graduate program at Temple University, and I’m doing so while grappling with severe depressive symptoms. Think hopelessness, suicidal thoughts, excessive fatigue, and spontaneous tears. These are pieces of who I am right now, and, like it or not, they’re probably coming with me when I hit the North Philadelphia pavement next month. I’ll be teaching freshman composition and taking my own courses on fiction and editing; meanwhile, I’ll be hitting up my psychologist, my psychiatrist, my nutritionist, my anorexia support group, and my doctor.

Part of the problem is simply logistical: how can I possibly fit it all in? The more important part, however, is emotional, psychological: how can I possibly stay on top of my work or in control of a classroom when I can barely stay in control of myself?

It’s moments like these when I have to go back to the drawing board—or writing board, rather—and start from the beginning. I have to think about what I’m doing here in the first place. I didn’t land at Temple by accident. I didn’t apply for a fiction MFA as a default or as a last resort or as a resume builder. I applied because I love writing, plain and simple. I may feel that I spend most of my life going through the motions, but when I sit down in front of an empty Word document, the motions are sincere. The exhilaration that comes from my writing isn’t a chore but a coping skill—a healthy, productive coping skill that will renew and renourish me even as the institution drains me.

I write fiction, but I don’t, in a sense. Everything that takes place on the blank page is true, at least for me, even if the only truth it’s expressing is the inexplicability of my own feelings. When I struggle to capture this reality, I’m always drawn to a halt by Philip Larkin’s 1955 poem “Going.”

“What is it under my hands / That I cannot feel?” Larkin asks, rhetorically but also desperately. “What loads my hands down?”

What loads my hands down? The responsibilities, both current and ensuing, of grad school; of leading a student Bible study; of organizing programs at the local Writers House. But also the intangible “that” which Larkin cannot feel, that which I can’t either. I have, quite frankly, no idea what will come out of my two-year MFA program, but it’s okay not to know. The beauty, I think, is in the search—the wide-eyed, open-palmed search for the melancholies and maladies that we can never quite touch.

It’s hard, very probably impossible to say that I’m grateful for the mental illness I’ve endured. But maybe writerly angst is a cliché for a reason. Recovering from an eating disorder, and engaged in a daily struggle with depression, I feel that I’ve been to parts of the world and parts of myself that I might otherwise never have known. If my writing is to be honest, it is to grasp onto these experiences and not let go. Whether abstractly, tangentially, or literally, the stories I tell will always reflect that personal journey to the depths of my own self-doubt.

For me, the MFA is not a degree; it’s two long years of self-reflection and expression, a little cringe-inducing haven inside a world that doesn’t stop moving or start caring. When people ask me why I chose an MFA program, one with few obvious job prospects and no standardized trajectories, I can only tell them this: I’ve chosen an MFA because I’ve chosen to stop running. Despite the weight on my hands and the unanswered questions, I’ve chosen to turn my depression into something eloquent, something maybe even beautiful.


Hannah White is a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and an incoming M.F.A. student at Temple University. She works at the University of Pennsylvania Bookstore and continues to be closely involved with projects at the Kelly Writers House. Her work has appeared in Word Riot, The Sensible Nonsense Project, Cleaver Magazine, Gadfly Online, Penn Review, Rainy Day, Thickjam, Apiary Online, and Synchronized Chaos.

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