2014, Archives, September 2014, The MFA Years

Routines and Broken Things

Things fall apart

If bad luck comes in threes, I’ll be glad to see the end of September. Between Car Scare Tuesday (what is this mystery light that’s suddenly blinking on my dash, and why will no one let me over so I can stop the car?), Internet Fail Friday (what do you mean, there are no appointments for two weeks?), and Laptop Crash Monday (why why why did I not use an external hard drive, please have mercy on all my non-backed-up drafts and pictures of getting lost in Romania), it has been an interesting week and a half. Particularly for my grad-student-sized savings account.

Still, everything that does not involve me touching machinery and technology feels like it’s clicking into place. All the different compartments of life in Lexington: writing, homeworking, socializing, grading, church-ing, cooking for myself for the first time.

My uncle John, who drove all the way from South Carolina to help me move into my third-floor apartment, gave me some great advice during an impromptu trip to Lowe’s to get curtain rods and lightbulbs. He said that when you’re in a new place, you have to make connections; you have to put time and energy into forming new relationships with people. I think this can be hard for everyone, but especially for writers–as much as I like people, I also treasure my own space and peace. But that advice has been key to a good new start in Lexington. There have been a couple of times that even though I didn’t 100% feel like going out to socialize (the call of pajamas and Netflix can be strong, my friends), I went anyway, and I have never regretted spending that time with the people who will fill my life for the next two years.

In terms of school-related things, I think getting used to grading has probably been the hardest part of my new routine. Luckily I get to grade for an introductory creative writing class, so it’s pretty fun to read the students’ assignments! I’m responsible for about 100 students, which felt pretty overwhelming in the beginning. The first time I sat down to grade an assignment, I stared at the text for fifteen minutes, wondering what on earth qualifies me to grade someone’s writing. Now I just roll through those writing prompts and reading responses, and if I keep on track with grading during the week, it’s surprisingly easy to take Friday through Monday for my own homework and writing.

It’s also really neat in a way to review the principles of creative writing. As I’m reading students’ responses and listening to the primary instructor’s lectures, I think to myself, how am I building my characters? Am I taking full advantage of my dialogue, my character’s actions, my images? These are all lessons I’ve learned before, but helping teach them to students is pretty great.

The writing is going well. After workshop, a small group always goes out for a drink and to pick each other’s brains. This is the first time I’ve worked seriously on a novel, and I had a great conversation about process with a member of my cohort who is already two-thirds of the way through his novel. My cohort has a nice atmosphere where it seems we can learn from each other’s strengths and make suggestions to boost each other up. As cheesy as it might sound, I wanted a program where writers are only competing to be the best version of themselves–not to “beat” everyone else–and so far, that’s how it feels here.

I had my first workshop on Tuesday. Our inaugural workshop has been a work-in-progress itself, since we have multiple genres within the same class this semester (fiction and poetry), and we have all been designing the class together with the professor, Gurney Norman. Gurney is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met, and reading through creative writing with him, you can tell he just loves stories. His enthusiasm is infectious.

The downside to being in the inaugural class of Kentucky’s MFA program is that there are still things to work out. Sometimes I’ve found myself wanting a little more direction, a little more of a push. But the positive side of the open workshop environment is that we are all free to work on what interests us. This week we workshopped a collection of prose poems, a novel chapter that will ultimately be part of a composite novel, and a novel chapter (mine) that includes elements of genre fiction (a dystopian setting). I hadn’t thought I’d be able to workshop novel chapters and get a serious start on my thesis until later in the program, so it’s exciting to start this early.

Oh, yeah, and my chapter happened to be the first piece of fiction ever workshopped in my program. Pretty cool feeling.

One thing I’ve struggled with is being the youngest member of my cohort (I came straight out of undergrad)–not in terms of preparedness, because after a lot of thought about my personality and goals, I’m certain this is the best time for me to pursue an MFA. Yet when I first met my colleagues, who have almost universally lived much more life than I have and have honed their craft for a decade or two, I felt a little like an imposter. That anxiety is slowly fading. As soon as I let go of the idea that I had something to prove, I stopped feeling a paralyzing pressure to write well and simply enjoyed the chance to put writing first.

This month had its challenges, both emotionally and financially, but I can say with all honesty that I believe I’m in the right place to grow as a writer and as a person. And, in case anyone was wondering, those not-backed-up drafts and lost-in-Romania pictures were heroically saved by the Geek Squad. I solemnly swear I will never again ignore the warnings to back up my files–well, at least for a month or two.

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