2015, April 2015, Archives, The MFA Years

Ready for Summer: Wrapping Up Year One

Goodness, it’s been a long time since I posted! All the way back in February, surrounded by snowstorms, high electric bills, and chocolate hangovers from buying Valentine’s Day candy on sale. (Oh, that was just me? Whoops.) Now it’s the end of April and the end of my first year as an MFA student. As soon as the figurative bell rings tomorrow to let me out of sociology, I’ll be halfway through the program. How strange–I’m still surprised sometimes to see Lexington, KY on my Facebook profile, like “when did that happen?”

At the same time, so much has changed over the past two months. I’ve been workshopped three times since my January post, when I last talked about my workshop with Manuel Gonzales, and he is a brilliant workshop leader. (More on that later.) I’ve shoveled lots and lots of snow. I’ve traveled around southeastern Kentucky with my Sociology of Appalachia class as part of participatory research, doing oral histories and hearing some truly wonderful stories in truly beautiful places. I hung out with and attended the readings of a few visiting writers, like Nic Brown and Jim Gavin. In the giant creative writing lecture that I TA for, I got to teach a week on my own–one session on voice and point of view, one session on conflict and why we need it in stories.

So, it’s been busy. But to be honest, the reason I didn’t post in March was because March was not the greatest month. I was a grump. I gave up my spring break for an oral history training class, which ended up being surprisingly fun and useful and in retrospect I’m glad I did it–but yeah, I was pretty much a grump leading up to it, because I really just wanted to play with my cat and sleep and write. My attitude didn’t help anything.

It was also a tough month because I began facing up to some realities about being part of a new program. I think I’ve mentioned before that there are expected hiccups–you know, little speed bumps–but I’m finally admitting to myself that sometimes the “speed bumps” have been more like potholes. You can still drive on the road just fine if you know to dodge them, but pretending they aren’t there will hurt you and your car.

Here it is, then. There have been a couple of potholes. I think the reason I didn’t want to see them is because when I came to UK, I believed a few things–fairly or unfairly–about what it would be like, and I eventually had to let that go in order to work with what I actually have. I don’t want to be negative, but for a moment I do have to get 100% honest, because I want anyone considering an MFA–especially at a non-fully-funded or new program–to have as much information as possible.

I believed that it would be easy to form mentor relationships, and it hasn’t been all that easy. I reached out a couple of times this year to faculty members about working together outside of class, and didn’t get the kind of response I hoped for. Don’t get me wrong, everyone has been really nice and good-humored and they all know what they’re talking about. That’s not the problem. And I want to add caveats here and take some responsibility–when I reached out, maybe it wasn’t the best timing, maybe I wasn’t always as clear as I could have been about the support I hoped to get. Since this is the first year of my program, most of the faculty are still teaching all undergraduate classes and don’t have as much time as they normally might for MFA students. I also may have unfair expectations. In undergrad, I had several very supportive mentors who would go above and beyond, but it also took a few years to form those relationships–and in a two-year program, it’s harder to find that kind of time to get to know someone and their work.

But what I’m missing is the sense that someone genuinely cares about my development as a writer. I don’t want that to sound “me, me, me”–it’s the kind of support I would want for every person in every MFA program. I don’t need constant cheerleading, either. But I would love to have someone take an interest in what I’m doing outside of workshop and in what I plan to do after the program is over. I want someone to take me to task if I’m being complacent. I want someone to understand what I’m trying to do, big-picture-view, and be excited about what could happen if I work towards it.

I’m not saying I will never form that kind of mentor relationship in my program. Over the past month, since I hit rock bottom in my thinking about this and started questioning why I’m here, things have already improved. I’ve had good conversations with faculty members and our director, and I have ideas about how to try and change things going forward. But it’s been harder than I thought. If you’re applying to MFA programs, or even still choosing between programs, just remember that having someone who wants to work with you, while kind of an intangible thing, could be incredibly valuable.

Now for the other, smaller potholes, before moving to happier things. (I like happy things.) I wish my cohort, as the first class, had a little more input on the direction of the program. We tend to hear about changes after they’ve already happened and aren’t as much a part of the discussion as I hoped we would be. And that’s fine–I understand it, in a way–but it took me a while to accept that things are different in reality than they were in my head. I also wish we had full and equal funding. This one isn’t the program’s fault, because I knew coming in that we wouldn’t all be fully funded, but I was so excited that I got funding that I didn’t consider how it would feel to sit in class with other writers, who have said that they want to be TAs, and not know what to say since I am a TA. Our program shares funding sources with older, more established English graduate programs, so that means setting up more funding for the MFAers will probably take some time.

With all of that said, it really has been a good year overall–especially this workshop with Manuel. One thing I’ve learned from him is that stories take on a life of their own if I let them. If I have fun, if I hold on to the thrill of discovery while I’m writing, that aliveness passes on to the reader. If I’m forcing something because it’s what I want to happen, or what I think should happen, it doesn’t come alive in the same way and it never turns out as well. As simple as this might sound, it’s been near-revolutionary for my writing process. I’m really, really excited to take that lesson and a ton of quiet time this summer and see what I can do with it.

The big thing is, I do believe I am a better writer now than I was when I submitted my application. I’m proud of the body of work I’ve produced during this first year. I hope that at this time next year, I’ll be able to say that I’m a better writer than I was in 2015–and so on, long after the program itself is over and I have another degree to hang on my wall. That’s why I feel that this year has been a success, even through occasional speed bumps and potholes. I’ve found a great community of writers and readers, and I’m writing better stories. The experience has given me a strange mix of greater confidence–I’m a writer, and I don’t need anyone else to validate that for it to be true–and greater humility. Every time I read a really, really good book, or one of my peers’ stories that blows mine out of the water, it’s energizing. I have so much work left to do, so much to learn. Luckily, it’s work I love.

Image: Martin LaBar

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