2015, Archives, September 2015, The MFA Years

8 Lessons from 8 Weeks at The Elephant Machine.

It’s the last September Sunday night in Albuquerque and you can still sit outside barefoot in shorts and watch the super-blood lunar-eclipse, which last came around in ’82, without even a hint of autumn. I am 8 weeks into The Elephant Machine. Or is in 9? 10? Yeah, we started early. I knew graduate school would be busy, but busy is an understatement.

I have learned more than a few things so far, but I’ll keep it to 8:

  • My upper-class men and women are more than a resource. From finding furniture, to taking me camping, to telling which classes to take and avoid, they have not steered me wrong. I share an office with two second-year poets, and although our office hours are not the most productive, the information I have gleamed is priceless. Where to download software? How to mark freshman comp papers in record time? Sample travel grants? Here you go and this is how you do it. I need an apartment. Hey, I’m leaving mine, take the lease. On the first day of class at 7am, I get a text: Coffee’s ready. Perhaps it’s the pace of Albuquerque, perhaps because the program is small, maybe in a bigger city there is less time to help, but I cannot stress how helpful and friendly and supportive and informative and well… these guys are superlatives. Thank-you.
  • The Professors actually care. After my first fiction workshop, I wasn’t feeling bruised more “meh”. After all the work of getting here, I was expecting something earth shattering. I wanted enlightenment and got a few insightful comments, some solid suggestions, and a pat of the back. I am pretty sure my face didn’t show anything, but I left class down and began to question everything, especially my choice to do an MFA. I was ready to start looking for flights back to Rio, back to my real world. Then I got an email invite from the fiction head inviting me for coffee. We met on a Friday afternoon off-campus and talked for three hours about my stories, the program, his stories, Albuquerque, and laughed a lot. He didn’t have to do that. He didn’t have to make me feel special, but he did.
  • 1000 Words a day. No less. In our first week we were assigned Carolyn See’s Making a Literary Life, no revolution as far as craft books go, but there are a few gems to be mined. The gem I pocketed was to write 1000 words a day no matter what and the rest is gravy. 73 116 words in, I feel much richer. Or as one of our non-fiction teachers says, “How much do you think Yo-Yo Ma practices? I mean come on, 18 hours a week is nothing!” If you want his complete philosophy on productivity, try his treadmill journal.
  • EXERCISE EXERCISE EXERCISE. Yeah you’ve heard it all before and Murakami said it better but sitting at a computer all day is no good for anyone. Even a walk will do. I’m not talking to the car, through the supermarket and back to the car. The idea is to clear the head, get the heart up, at least 25 minutes a day. When the mind is free, the writing will follow.
  • DON’T LET TECHNOLOGY RULE YOU. Okay I’m a Luddite. If I could go back to a typewriter I would, but I can’t, so I have a few rules. Rather than deflect emails all day, I try to answer yes or no. If a student emails to ask what they missed in class, I don’t even respond, we have an online learning platform. They have classmates. When folks start hitting that “Reply All” button, good-bye. I have cut my Facebook down to 10 minutes a day and I feel much much much better. I can catch up at Christmas. Or just close it down all together, but that’s another debate.
  • READING SAVES MONEY. Can you live on your stipend? I have no idea. I got my head stuck in a book. Even when cooking or shopping or grading, there is a text on the side burner. Friday night? 300 pages are much cheaper than 6 beers, even cheapo New Mexican beers (which are actually excellent, this is a brewer’s state). My point being, the stipend arrives once a month, I check that it arrived, write the rent check and forget about it, don’t ask me, I’m reading. I’ll make a plan in May.
  • TEACHING IS A JOB. A damned tough one too. But clock in clock out. You’ll get better. Faster. That grading getting you down? Don’t whine. Open a bottle. Put on some Nina Simone. Two albums in, your comments we read like William Carlos Williams, short and direct.
  • MAKE FRIENDS AND KEEP THEM. That quiet angry poet in the corner just might tell you where to put the period to save your story. That non-fiction writer that sends epistles from other planets just might have the key to your character. Listen and open your heart daily. You all want the same thing. You are all on the same path. Workshop is not an arm-wrestle.

Is my tone urgent? Damned right it is, I got Jericho Brown’s New Testament calling my name. I got some Blue Mesa Review submissions to accept. I got to get that travel grant up to par so I can meet you in LA at AWP, and of course, 1000 words a day, no less.


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