2015, Archives, October 2015, The MFA Years

The Sh…um…Syllabus Just Got Real

I am now well into the second year of my MFA at Stony Brook University and the question that seems to be most prevalent in my mind is “Why am I doing this?”

For the most part, the answer wraps back to very positive notions such as “to become a better writer,” or “to acquire the basic skills required to teach writing,” or, perhaps the most important, “to integrate into a community of writers and like-minded artists.” All of these are good answers.

And I will say that aside from the quiet and beauty of taking all of my classes out in Southampton this semester, the last answer is one of the truest because getting to know the other students who attend on that campus is an absolute joy. I feel so lucky to be able to study with them and get to know them beyond Facebook and the occasional Skype sessions required for all students. Our cohort includes many amazing minds working on some spectacular writing; I anticipate a long future ahead of congratulating one another on literary successes.

The less positive answers to that question, however, are more along the lines of “I’m too old for this,” or “this commute each week is going to turn all of my hair grey,” or the worst offender, “I’m not as smart as these young minds, I should just leave the writing and teaching to them.” And while there may be some truth in that, I realize that I am also suffering from what I call “monkey brain” which is a self-diagnosed condition referring to the constant chatter of nonsense going on in my head. 9.99 times out of 10, the culprit is a lack of sleep.

And that is where life comes into this scenario. This is absolutely the toughest semester yet and I suspect I would be feeling tired and wondering “Why am I doing this?” and feeling overwhelmed regardless, because every brain cell is being stretched and pulled in directions I didn’t even know they could twist, but I’ll get to that in a moment. The real challenge this semester is everything outside of school.


Life is that bully that trips you and then looks back to laugh as you try to brush yourself off and regain composure. Life is needing to go home every weekend because things are going on that must be dealt with, so the long weekends of writing away from the noise of inner city life just aren’t happening. Life is the three-and-a-half hour commute, each way, twice a week on Tuesday mornings and Thursday nights. Life is that little spot that you think the dermatologist should see that does indeed turn out to be skin cancer, only basal cell, not melanoma, but it still needs to be removed. Your doctor forewarns you that it is unfortunately in a location that rarely heals quickly because to remove it he has to cut nerves. He is not wrong and what might take weeks is taking months to heal and it looks like you’ve been poked with a car lighter, little concentric circles of flaming red. Life is thinking things are slowing down and your middle-aged body throwing you a few curve balls just to remind you that the prize of menopause is not yet yours to be won. Life is your partner losing a sibling, unexpectedly, and grief forming a dark cloud over your family. Life is becoming primary caregivers for a couple of weeks for your 7-month old grandson, whom you adore, but whom you’re not entirely equipped to have so you become a human crib and he sleeps for a few hours at a time while you try to make sure he doesn’t flip off the edge of the bed. Life is the renovation your neighbors had planned for the summer but which was delayed finally getting started above your heads. Life is jack hammers and saws and workmen in heavy boots up and down the stairs all day. Life is life. It doesn’t care what semester you’re in or how many short stories you have to annotate or syllabi you’re required to draft. Life is a bully that gives you monkey brain.

And so I’m battling my bully, trying not to engage him fully but keep him at bay as best I can and maintain my composure. Meanwhile, the mountain of homework is constant and I find myself struggling each week to get everything done. So far, I’ve managed, but only just. But I am learning.

In my short story class I feel like I am in writing boot camp, or perhaps it is really reading boot camp. We continue to diagram sentences each week and are reminding ourselves of structure on the most basic level, that of the sentence. Somehow I missed sentence diagramming in my education so this is a new thing and I’m definitely low on that learning curve.

And, of course, we discuss craft regularly as we try to apply what we’re learning and master the art of the short story.

But mostly it feels like boot camp because we are reading 8-10 short stories a week and annotating them and reverse outlining and breaking them down and putting them back together. I have never had the luxury of looking at writing this way and each week provides a new collection of “Ah-ha” moments where I begin to understand how the established writers achieve their success.

And in my own fiction, I am so happy to start to see how I can shift from the gift of a wild imagination to applying tools of the craft to make my writing stronger and make my stories pop. I am learning.

In my Advanced Writing Workshop, our reading is primarily that of the other students. Although our teacher gives us occasional handouts, those are secondary to the 6-8 student pieces where we really focus our attention each week.

This class is not so much difficult as it is important. The difference from this course to any other is that it is the writing that will become our thesis project so we really need to get it right. This is no longer writing at the experimental level or sampling various genres, this is our most important work to date and so the level of energy that goes into my submissions due every other week is much more in-depth than in previous semesters.

The bottom line is that I don’t just want to get this right, I have to get this right if I ever hope to graduate. And, of course, that is a big part of why I am doing this so that I can complete a book length work. In my case, finishing my memoir was one of the primary reasons I applied to do an MFA in the first place. I knew I needed help and I am definitely getting it.

In teaching practicum, I have the advantage of having had a career where I led 100s upon 100s of training sessions and so I am comfortable leading a group in learning. I have the disadvantage of not having had an undergrad class for decades so I am very far away from the experience I am trying to replicate. I am hoping, however, that what I lack in understanding as a student, I will make up for with experience.

We are now drafting our first syllabi and one afternoon, in between panicking about how and when I would get this done with everything else that is going on and trying to make a mental note of what I still had due each day, I was lying there next to our gorgeous little grandson and watching his face, eyes moving behind closed lids, certainly dreaming of something and suddenly it all came full-circle for me.

This, I thought, is why I am doing this. He is why I’m doing this; for my future but also for his. I am doing this so that I can capture my own stories for future generations to read, one day.

But, more importantly, I believe, I am doing this – at least the teaching practicum – so that I can learn how to teach young minds about the power of the written word. I thought about what I would want him to know when he reaches college age and is sitting in his first writing class. As he slept I began to piece together the elements from my life experience that I could draw upon to shape a class and suddenly I was taking notes on my iPhone and imagining assignments for each week of my sample semester.

And I smiled. And as I did so a tiny foot found it’s way on to my hip and was followed by a strong little hand that patted my shoulder and then formed a little victory fist as if cheering me on in his sleep. I am learning. This is why I am doing this.

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