2015, Archives, November 2015, The MFA Years

On Finishing my MFA

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In September 2012, I embarked upon a creative writing MFA at Stony Brook, Southampton. This was my first return to academic environs since my completion of an MA in sociology in 2010.

In the intervening years, I taught briefly. I also attempted to write on my own. The idea appealed to me romantically—sitting down each day at my desk, a diary open in front of me, and just writing, writing, writing. Ever since my childhood, I have been an inveterate consumer of notebooks, always eager to finish one as soon as I bought it. I was, as yet, unfamiliar with the idea of revision, happy to believe that the words I had just penned would make their way unassailed to the printed page.

Writing on your own is harder than it sounds, much harder. It is difficult to stick to a routine when you are your own master. It is so easy to give up and say that you have no idea what to write, that you are suffering from a mental block. Imaginary headaches seem very real. At the time, my primary focus was writing a memoir that centered on my boarding school days and what I thought to be my uniquely tortured youth. In the absence of an external reader, I descended into self-analysis and not a little self-invention. I had no idea how to write for an audience. The only value in my writing was its therapeutic effect and this was a specious one. Ultimately, the person I was between the ages of twenty-four and twenty-seven, so seemingly in need of re-invention, was the person I had been for a very long time.

Apart from working on my memoir, I wrote copious amounts of poetry. Poetry comes easily to me—I’ve been writing poems since the age of seven. What was lacking, however, was an emotional honesty. I went for facile emotions, for the clichéd, for the sentimental. I mistook easiness for genuineness, later discovering that unfamiliar mediums, in contrast, force a certain honesty, stripped as we are of the expressions we glibly garb ourselves in. With some justification, I would later be accused by one of my poetry professors of being comfortably—and complacently—Victorian in my poems.

I came to Southampton convinced that I would continue on a poetry track. I also came with emotional baggage—the final months of my sociology degree witnessed my diagnosis with bipolar disorder, a beautiful moment of madness followed by a descent into numbing depression. When I joined the MFA program, I was still coming to terms with the illness.
I fell in love with the quiet, wooded campus, kissed and caressed so lovingly by the sun, more populated by deer than other human beings. As I continued with the program, I found ever more reasons to love the campus—there was something so magical about it. At night, it seemed kin to far more mysterious landscapes, landscapes inextricably linked with magic and the powerful fancies of the imagination.

In my first semester, I took a course on poetry as metaphor, and another on non-fiction, as well as the obligatory Introduction to Graduate Writing Course. The “Intro” course served to acquaint me with the debates and issues surrounding different genres of writing, as well as with writers commenting upon their own craft. In addition, it was a reassuring segue into the MFA program, partaking as it did of the rubric of my undergraduate literature courses, requiring us to produce weekly response papers. It also made me aware that I was part of an extraordinary cohort, a group of brilliant, humorous and touchingly vulnerable men and women who were ready to take enormous risks with their writing, and who were willing to parse their own fraught pasts to illuminate and give shape to their creativity. I was to come to understand that my classmates and fellow cohort members were forever ready to support and encourage me, to give me their considered feedback in workshops—and even offer last minute car rides to the grocery store.

I did not fare so well in my first poetry course, a course that had us negotiate poetic expression through an understanding of the materials (metaphors) we used—an extant manuscript we defaced to create our own poem, food, cloth, clay, and other material. This was entirely my own fault – I was afraid to take risks, too complacent about the worth of my own poems. I hid my unwillingness to experiment and move out of my comfort zone under the attitude of sticking to what I knew how to do best. Luckily for me, I would grow more courageous later.

My favorite course in my first semester was the non-fiction course. Our professor had us start each class by engaging in a writing prompt. I was nervous about attempting this, but discovered that being forced to put pen to blank paper without any preconceived notions did wonders for my writing. I discovered myself striving for authentic expression, achieving a raw emotional honesty. This served me well with my first submission for that class—an account of the days leading to my diagnosis in 2010. I did not fare so well with my second submission, a rather bluntly funny account of my boarding school days. As my professor pointed out, it lacked the vulnerability and honesty of my prior submission. I wasn’t giving myself to the reader.

In February, I returned to a snow-filled campus, and became used to being surrounded by blinding white all day long. My second semester was ultimately more exciting than challenging and I was cheered by my newfound willingness to engage with risk. Remembering my first poetry course, I took my second one with considerable reluctance. But determined to do well, I found myself enjoying experimenting with various forms of poetry. As with the non-fiction course in my first semester, coursework involved a fair number of in-class prompts. My professor was weird, zany, brilliant and full of compassion, always ready to address my self-doubt and fear. I discovered a long-forgotten penchant for humor.

In the years preceding my acceptance into the MFA program, I had long teased out the same story in my mind. With the passage of time, it grew longer and longer, taking on a life of its own. In many ways, it drew inspiration from the Bollywood movies I mainlined as a child, full of odd, Dickensian coincidences, sappy love scenes and episodes of incredible violence. I had thought I would never write this story down. But the novel class I took in my second semester allowed me an opportunity to put it to paper, in two fifteen-page submissions. What touched me the most was the readiness of my classmates to engage with my submission, to identify with its characters, and to give me thoughtful, consistently helpful, and empathetic feedback. My dread of the first workshop session proved to be ill-founded.

The two fifteen-page installments I wrote for the class served as the foundation for my thesis, a novel about, and fictitiously by, an imaginative eternal child-woman who spins out her sprawling story from within the confines of a psychiatric ward, using her fellow inmates, dolls and environs as the building blocks of her narrative. This was a long way away from the novel’s initial shape. It began as a massive draft, at one time running to about eight hundred pages, heavily dependent on exposition and the dialogue of several characters scarcely indistinguishable from each other. It was my advisor, with whom I also took three thoroughly enjoyable classes, who advised me to give my novel a voice, something it had hitherto lacked, as well as gently pointing out its dialogue-heaviness. It was in creating the novel’s voice that I came up with my narrator. It is her perspective that lends originality and difference to what would otherwise have been an overblown potboiler.

In my third semester, I took a short story class. Even though this was predicated on reading, rather than writing short stories, it informed both my thesis and my writing in general. I learnt that one of my crucial drawbacks as a writer was my inability to create characters who grew, who matured in the course of the story through easily identifiable transformative moments. Working on this was of immense help to me in editing and re-drafting my thesis. I wrote three stories for the class and my professor’s painstaking feedback with my first story was very educative. For my remaining two stories, I took risks: fashioning the narrative of a man who discovers his transgendered identity in the course of marital dissolution, and the story of a mercenary for hire who operates in a landscape where identity is fluid.

It was in my third semester that I took the first two of several courses with my advisor, a sardonic and benevolent mentor who always seemed humorously exasperated to see me. Initially queasy about the 250-word limit he assigned to the two weekly pieces he had us hand in, I discovered that it was the perfect medium to work with. Writing for his class taught me a certain tautness of expression, an ability to create originality within a very short space. I found that a limited canvas was, in fact, far more beneficial than unlimited space.

In the following two semesters, I began to focus on my thesis. I took advantage of the opportunity to take a class in Manhattan, enrolling in a writing seminar on illness. For me, this class was the toughest experience of my MFA career. I was confronted with fundamental flaws in my writing—an over-reliance on the abstract, an inability to unpack the experiences I was writing about, all of which translated into text that was unfriendly and difficult for the reader. This was especially hurtful, since I was eager to see my experiences dealing with mental illness as potentially educational and illuminating. I am still learning how to write for an audience, to move beyond the expectation bred of undergraduate literature courses that the reader will do the work to understand where I am coming from.

This is my last semester at Stony Brook, Southampton. I have finished my thesis and am dealing with the seemingly excruciating administrative rigmarole that attends completing graduation checklists. I am far more grateful to the university, to the writing program and to my dedicated, encouraging and always on-call professors than I can ever express. It is at this program that I have made initial stabs at developing a writer-ly routine, at revising and editing my work (something I am still a novice at), at addressing intrinsic shortcomings in my writing. I once never thought I would write anything but poetry. I discovered a talent in—and a passion for—non-fiction. I created a novel that is readable, whose narrator is simultaneously original and terrifying. I wrote my first ever book review and found it a place at a national daily in India. All of this was only possible because of this program.

But I am also infinitely grateful to the program for another reason. It was here that I discovered an even keel, and a mature understanding and acceptance of my illness. I have been privy to its peaks and troughs even while negotiating the coursework, but my professors have always been kind and thoughtful, always ready to offer me a helping hand. I have felt valued not just as a writer, but as a human being. Their affection has been immense and humbling.


Adreyo Sen is his last semester at the MFA program in Stony Brook Southampton.  His thesis is a novel incorporating elements of magical realism and fantasy.

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