2015, Archives, February 2015, The MFA Years

Snow and Fire

Recently I shoveled a foot of snow off my car with my cat’s litter dustpan. Well, mostly–I’m 5’3″, so when I was finished, my Kia still had a fin in the middle of its roof that I couldn’t reach. What’s funny, sort of, is that my mother had said the day before Snowmageddon hit Kentucky that I might want to pick up a snow shovel, and I said “oh, I’m sure it will melt before I need to go anywhere.” Right.

So there I was 48 hours later, excavating my car with a dustpan and trying not to scratch the white car underneath the white snow. My jeans were tucked into my tennis shoes to keep the snow off my bare skin for the hours it took to get my car cleared. For that whole week, from Sunday evening to Friday afternoon, I made sure my faucets were dripping, gave Mom permission to say “I told you so,” and wrote.

Though I was in serious need of human interaction by Friday, it was an invaluable week. With everything else put on hold, I had every reason to write and no excuses. It reminded me of the reason I started studying creative writing: when it clicks, when the pieces fall into place, ten hours can pass in the space of ten minutes. The snow week adventure refocused my attitude. I get to write during the MFA. It is a luxury. Sure, I have other things to do–make dinner, write papers, grade, answer emails–but I have time and plenty of it, if I use it well.

In March, I’m participating in a round-table discussion here at UK called “The Artist and the Academy.” Basically, a few of the inaugural MFAers are going to have a public chat about the relationship between creative writing and academia. Of course, this has me thinking about what I’ll say. Why am I here instead of working and writing on the side? Can I really learn how to be a better writer in this environment, or is good writing self-taught?

A big chunk of the argument for an MFA, I think, is time. As I said above, I have much more control over my schedule and productivity now than I did in a full-time job. But what about the weeks when I’m really busy, when school and TA-ing take up 90% of my free time and I wonder if it’s worth it? (It’s not frequent, but it happens). Ultimately, it’s still worth it to me. Maybe I don’t produce as much as I want to one week because I have two papers due, three hundred pages to read, and a hundred assignments to grade. Even during those (rare) weeks, I am still surrounded by other writers who are in the same place as me.

That’s not just saying we’re all in Lexington in the same classroom (and, later, bar) on Monday nights; for the most part, my peers are 100% serious writers who care about reading, telling, and publishing great stories, but we’re still learning. That’s a kind of community that is hard to find while you’re working 40 hours a week. Because writing is this self-contained endeavor between my heart and my head and my typing hands, I sometimes feel isolated, and I think that’s a pretty common thing. Being part of a creative community contributes energy to the feedback loop between my heart-head-hands when I’m feeling low on fuel.

In terms of concerns over MFA programs, I also hear, though I have no personal experience with this yet, that some people graduate with MFAs and never write again. Maybe that’s the MFA’s fault. I don’t know. But maybe the MFA makes us confront our reasons for writing on a more honest level than we have before. Am I doing this because I’m good at it, and I don’t know what else I’m good at? Do I like it, but not love it? Do I want to be published more than I want to write? Can I handle the constant rejection and self-doubt–the fact that someone, somewhere, is always going to think I’m not good enough?

This is pure speculation, since I don’t know any MFA alumni (yet) who stopped writing. But at some point over the last year and a half, ever since I applied to programs and the rejections came rollin’ in, I asked myself each of these questions. Each time, the answer was that I do want to write more than anything else, and that it’s worth the risk of failure.

I could see, then, how some writers might go into programs with the best intentions and realize that this isn’t for them after all. I feel like a contestant on The Bachelor saying “I’m here for the right reasons” over and over, but the key point is that no, maybe an MFA is not for everyone. Maybe it’s not even for some people who will go on to be successful writers.  One of the difficult parts is opening up my work-in-progress for criticism, putting myself under the microscope on repeat. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great feedback–especially this semester so far–and I think I’m getting better because of it. I want to hear what my peers and faculty have to say. But I imagine it’s possible that for some writers, exposing pieces to others to be picked apart before they have fully accomplished their own goals for it would hurt their work. And lots and lots of wonderful writers in the past and present don’t have MFAs in their bios, right?

A couple of weeks ago in workshop, Manuel Gonzales told us that the best possible outcome from an MFA would be an increased ability to revise your own work, to see its flaws and know how to fix them once we graduate from this community. I’m paraphrasing, but that’s what I got from his talk. And it clicked with  me. An MFA is not the end by any means. It’s the beginning. Hopefully, it gives us a little more insight into and agency over our own work. For the rest of our lives as writers. That’s a big deal.

The MFA is an accelerant. It can’t start a fire where there isn’t one, or keep it going if there’s no fuel left to burn. But it can make the fire burn brighter and faster. And okay, this metaphor starts to break down because arson is bad 🙂 but hopefully you get what I mean. The MFA gives artists time, community, and self-awareness. For me, those things are worth it.

Image: Martinak15

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