2015, Archives, May 2015, The MFA Years

April, May, and Beyond

Forgive me for the extreme tardiness in posting this, my last entry as a first-year blogger for The MFA Years. The end of the semester proved daunting as I put the wraps on probably the toughest semester of my program. I honestly needed a week to recover after classes let out — a pattern I am learning is my norm. And then, before I knew it, I was off on a two-week vacation, first to Minneapolis for a wedding, then to the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania for some time with dear friends.

A month ago, I spotted my first robin redbreast of the season. The deciduous trees were budding, and the dandelions were in bloom. A year ago, I didn’t know that any of these things existed in Fairbanks, Alaska. In my head was firmly planted a vision of a desolate tundra, but time and experience would prove this vision wrong.

It’s a metaphor for my entire experience at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. There was so much I could not know until I got into the program. I didn’t know that I would find myself with such talented colleagues. I didn’t know I would get along so well with my professors. I couldn’t anticipate what would be the ups and downs of teaching. I had no idea how much my writing would improve.

And I didn’t know that, at many schools, there is a lot of red tape involved in maintaining program web pages — one of the most vexing issues for applicants. So I’ll pass on to you some things that aren’t obvious from the UAF creative-writing webpage:

  • We don’t have a set aesthetic. Some of us are more traditional and others far more experimental. As far as our instructors are concerned, they just want us to develop into the best writers we can be.
  • As a result, we have some interesting things going on. One candidate is committed to the blurring of fiction and nonfiction, to the point that she doesn’t believe such a division really exists. She has found her fit here, without being pigeonholed. Though we are required to have a primary and secondary genre, many stretch beyond this requirement. We call one of my friends the “triple threat” because she excels at fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Also, many students pick up Screenwriting, for all intents giving a lot of us a third genre in our studies.
  • We are genre-friendly. One of the theses this year was a collection of fairy tales. A cohortmate is looking to have a young-adult novel published. This is working very well for me, as I’m starting to pick up an interest in horror.
  • Don’t just look at our creative-writing faculty page. As you take four lit classes, and are required to have a lit person on your thesis committee, you will be working with the rest of the English faculty quite a bit. They are great folks.

So I’ve taken a different approach to The MFA Years than most of my colleagues, in that I’ve focused a bit more on my program itself than on my day-to-day experience. There was a method to this madness. I get the impression that some applicants are passing over a program well-respected within writing circles just because of its location. Others might apply on a lark, the location being oh so quirky, but are not serious about attending.

And, on a certain level, I get it. A novelty or two may have slipped into my own application process. But my experience at Alaska-Fairbanks has proven far more joyful and robust than I could have predicted. At its heart, the program is a community of talented writers dedicated to encouraging each other to become the best they can be. And this sense of community has proven to be the most important factor in my graduate education.

Not to say that life in Fairbanks is not without challenges. There’s a reason I’m on a two-week vacation — you don’t simply leave Fairbanks for a day trip to get away from it all, as the city is simply too remote. But some things that I thought would be challenges proved to be part of the adventure.

In some ways, Alaska is like being in another country without needing a passport. The impact of the Alaska Native community (notice: it’s not “Native American”) is pronounced — Alaska is the only state where the second-most common language is indigenous. The culture doesn’t exactly fit the paradigms of the Lower 48, such as East Coast/West Coast or red state/blue state. Alaska is its own place.

And in some ways, Alaska is like being on another planet. Five months ago, the sun traced a tiny arc in the southern sky for two hours, bookended by long and glorious dawns and dusks. Now, there are no stars, as dawn and dusk merge into a single entity in the northern sky. In winter, the trees are covered in hoarfrost for weeks on end, and you’re left feeling like you live inside a Christmas card. In summer, the woods are abuzz with all manner of life — in fact, a month ago, I was coming back from a party a month ago, and a moose was just strolling casually alongside the road.

So that’s enough of my pitch. I hope you’ll give our program a good, hard look. I sincerely believe I ended up in the best program possible for me.

This summer, I will be working and writing and reading. In other words, my summer will look somewhat like my school year. But those last two bits are more focused. I’ve started work on my thesis, and my summer reading plans are to get through a good chunk of the list for my comprehensive exams next February. I will also be putting together my fall course. This September, I will be teaching a sophomore-level course in writing in the social sciences, with the topic of intersectionality. And I will also be hanging out with my fellow MFA folks periodically through the summer, because that’s the kind of community we’ve built.

Until next time, good luck to you in your writing adventure.

Photo credit: JLS Photography – Alaska

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