I’ve struggled with how to approach what should be a fairly straightforward overview post of my first year in an MFA program. I considered starting with an anecdote that would be both amusing and slightly self-deprecating, because if writers are good at anything other than, well, writing, it’s self-deprecation. I considered starting completely off-topic—say, my love for biscuits—and turning the whole post into a convoluted but apt metaphor for writing. Neither approach felt quite right.
I started over from scratch so many times, each attempt more frustrating than the last, until I began to realize that my inability to hold the arc of my first-year narrative in my writer’s eye was a symptom of an issue I have dealt with all year (for many years, actually): my battle with plot, organization, and continuity. Though “plot” is usually relegated to fiction writers, nonfiction writers—especially narrative nonfiction writers—have to work with it as well to some extent. The difference is, of course, that we essayists avail ourselves to a different set of key words, so to speak. I think of nonfiction writing like word find puzzles—except we aren’t given the list of words to find; we have to figure out the hidden words ourselves, and we can’t insert new letters to make the words we want to find. We’re stuck with what’s actually there.
My daily life revolves around lists. Lists of chores, hygiene tasks, meals, books, writing projects, deadlines, restaurants, the contents of my underwear drawer. I live with a severe anxiety disorder that makes it nearly impossible for me to not have a daily plan. I’ve always felt a little self-conscious about my list-making obsession, concerned that it makes me “un-fun.” Really, though, I’m significantly more fun when I can stick to a schedule—trust me.
Exhibit A: Schedule for May 24
5:30-6:00am Rise and shine 6:00-6:30am Walk the dog 6:30-7:30am Gym 7:30-8:00am Shower/get ready for work 8:00-8:15am Breakfast 8:20-8:30am Drive to work 8:30-11:00am Work 11:00-11:15am Coffee break 11:30-1:30pm Work 1:30-2:00pm Walgreens 2:00-2:30pm Lunch 2:30-3:00pm Rest 3:00-3:30pm Vacuum 3:30-4:00pm Bake 4:00-5:00pm Revisions 5:00-5:30pm Feed and walk dog 5:30-7:00pm Prep for friends coming over for dinner 7:00-9:00pm Dinner with friends 9:00-9:30pm Clean up 9:30-10:30pm Read and/or Netflix 10:30-11:00pm Prep for bed 11:00pm Bedtime
What’s interesting to me is that this tendency to outline my day-to-day activities does not apply when I sit down to write. When it comes to writing, I cannot work within a pre-determined blueprint; I write in order to understand—and if I write having already understood the topic at hand, I feel as though I am not only doing myself a disservice, but doing my readers a disservice. Writing, to me, is not just transcribing what’s in my head (if it’s that at all), but rather a recursive act.
So, in order to really capture a year in the life of an MFA student, I am resorting to yet another list. I hope my anal-retentiveness will be helpful to someone.
What I Learned During My First Year in an MFA Program
I need to write quickly and copiously before I know what the hell I’m doing
Some writers take it slow, producing a sentence every two hours (I’m being hyperbolic, of course, though I’m sure there is a writer out there who does this). I am not one of those writers. As I explained above, I write in order to understand—and the only way to do this well, for me, is to write a lot of material. I think of it like photography: great photographers take thousands of photos, but only keep a handful of them. The same goes with my writing. I can write a couple thousand words in one sitting, but it’s entirely possible that every single one of those words will change by the time I’m ready to share them with others. Which leads me to the second thing I’ve learned this year:
Revision is a vital part of my writing process
Over the years, from my students to fellow writing colleagues, I’ve been asked a countless number of times, “How much do you revise?” This is a difficult question for me, because I don’t really separate writing and revising. Revising is writing. It is literally the act of “visualizing” what conclusions you’ve come to, and reshaping and reworking the material to either distort or clarify those conclusions. I am always trying to make a piece better: envisioning different approaches, deleting this scene, adding this one, replacing this line with another. And you know what? It’s super fun. It’s also super time consuming. I learned this year that I must give myself enough time to revise extensively before turning in for workshop. Last minute just doesn’t work for me.
Criticism will always be hard
Going into this program, I thought I had a handle on my reactions to workshop comments. As an undergraduate, my anxiety was so unmanaged that I was able to put up a shield during workshops—it was almost as if I was dissociating, watching myself from above rather than experiencing the moment. Since seeking treatment, this shield has slowly eroded, leaving me feeling extremely vulnerable and exposed and, frankly, a little combative. Though I am not nearly as afraid of the world as I once was, I must remember that I have to take care of myself—that even though I feel a lot better, I’m still and will always have a mental illness. I often feel as though I’m trying to make up for lost time, for years of remaining silent when I should have stood up for myself. I just need to be patient with myself and not overcompensate.
Trust my instincts
I chose not to attend AWP this year for three major reasons: the organization’s inappropriate, disturbing handling of LGBTQ+, differently-abled, and racial/ethnic minority populations’ concerns; the cost of attendance and questionable benefits; and the sheer number of people that go to this thing. As an anxious person, crowds are a no-go. And we’re not talking a couple thousand people here, but several thousand. However, I still felt like I needed to have a writing-related experience outside of my program, so instead I sought out a smaller event that would push me out of my comfort zone and be beneficial to my studies. In April, I attended the Iceland Writers Retreat in Reykjavik. Yes, it was expensive—more expensive than AWP would have been—but because I was fortunate enough to have earned a full-ride in undergrad, I felt comfortable taking out a couple thousand dollars in student loans to pay for the trip. I did the same one summer during undergrad in order to attend a writing program in Ireland. Travel is important to me, and this opportunity just felt right.
Keep trustworthy readers close
I have one or two close friends outside of my program who are my go-to readers: they know me, they know my writing, and they do not hold back with comments. At first I felt guilty sending them drafts (even though they asked for them!) because I didn’t want to burden them. Asking for help in general is very difficult for me. I like to be self-sufficient, and I am easily embarrassed by failure, no matter how small. This past year, I have learned to get a little more comfortable asking for help, and now I’m at the point where I feel I can text or email the other two nonfiction writers in my cohort at any time for advice, and I think (hope!) they feel the same way about me. If you’re reading this as a potential applicant, know this: though this time is meant for you to work on your own writing, it’s also vital to go into a program knowing that you’ll be asked to help and support your classmates as well. Going in with the right attitude makes all the difference.
I’ve barely gotten started here, but it’s at least that: a start. I’m happy to announce that I’ll be continuing to contribute as a second-year, and I plan to write a few posts throughout the summer, including one extremely overdue post about my trip to Iceland. Thanks for reading. Write on.