2016, Archives, June 2016, The MFA Years

Lessons Learned After Year One

This time last year, when I already held the knowledge that I would be moving out here to Wyoming, I had already mapped out thematic threads and research leads for my to-be book project. I knew where I was going with my writing, so there would be no need to veer off course. This path I had set out for myself seems to me now to reflect two tendencies/impulses of mine that are, on the surface, contradictory: my desire to be exacting and my desire to wander. While I like listing out everything I need to account for and plan accordingly, these plans almost always reflect an unrealistic optimism. I’d like to think of this habit as both a strategy to organize myself, but also as a kind of daydreaming. I like to plot out sky-high possibilities as if it were all actually possible, even if it’s almost never quite within my reach, at least within the initially-charted conditions.

As you might guess, this kind of planning has its pros and cons. In the instance of starting an MFA with a book project in mind, it was more damaging rather than helpful. I started my first semester of the MFA thinking that I knew what I had to do, which, of course, kinda defeats the purpose of an MFA, which is to explore new terrain. I gradually began to realize that I needed to let go of my initial expectations for myself, grand yet still viable as they may be. I may yet find that my initial map might help me—that it is, actually, a tool of benefit as I had conceived of it in the first place. But, whether or not that will turn out to be true is not the point.

If there’s a piece of advice I’d like to pass on to incoming first-years and prospective applicants, it’s that you shouldn’t hold fast to your initial writing goals when first coming into the MFA. Sure, it’s usually comforting to draw out a flow chart of your ideas and how you plan to implement them, but take this process with a grain of salt. In order to fully realize your goals, you must wildly explore all possibilities for your writing. This means that you’ll have to generously heed, and therefore lend legitimacy to, the advice of your writing peers and teachers. Of course, this isn’t to say that you should be spinelessly lending legitimacy to authority figures within your field—that philosophy or attitude is never good. Rather, I mean that you shouldn’t dismiss the feedback or advice from your peers and teachers altogether (you can dismiss their ideas in the long term all you’d like). For the sake of experimentation, however, it’s good to temporarily give yourself over to the ideas of others and believe in them, act on them, even if just for a semester.

This summer, I plan on pushing myself into new terrain both literally and metaphorically. I want to write the kind of poems I might have never written before when I had a plan. I want those poems to fail, to fall, scrap themselves, get roughed up. One way that I hope to do this is through the writer’s retreat that I’ll be going to later this month, the Squaw Valley Community of Writers poetry retreat, which is in California. As you might know (because I can’t seem to shut up about it), I’m from Baltimore, Maryland, and, as of this moment in my life, I have yet to set foot in a West Coast state. I’m really excited for this trip, not simply for the retreat itself, but also because I’ll be driving instead of flying. That’s right—not only do I get to go to California, but I also get to see the landscapes, at least the view from I-80 and US-50, of Utah and Nevada, two other states I’ve never been to.

As eager as I am to make this drive, my decision to attend CoW’s poetry retreat was primarily driven by hopes to expand my sense of community with other poets, which brings me to another lesson I learned this past year. If there’s anything that’s equally important to writing as aesthetic experimentation (and important in considering an MFA generally), it’s community. MFAs are shaped in such a way so that you’ll learn just as much from your peers as you will from your teachers. Furthermore, you should come in knowing that you won’t simply be benefiting from others’ advice, but that you’ll be expected to give advice and overall support to your cohort. Just like a family, relationships within your cohort should be based on principles of mutual support and respect (this is the ideal, though I know this really isn’t always the case).

But, honestly, community can formed anywhere, not just within the MFA. The MFA shouldn’t be seen as an end-all, be-all for your development as a writer. (Actually, the MFA should hardly be considered important from a certain perspective considering the neoliberalization/marketization of the university, but that’s a consideration that I’m going to leave on the sidelines for now.) And, if you’re like me and are going to a fairly small program or are considering applying to small programs, you’ll want opportunities to expand your community as much as possible. Earlier this year, I went to my first poetry retreat, The Home School, and it was incredibly refreshing to hear from so many new and different voices. Plus, you’ll never know where you’re going to meet kindred spirits, artistically speaking. It’s quite possible that you won’t meet any in your MFA (which isn’t terrible, but I suppose not ideal either). Obviously, we all want to meet those few people that will become our most intimate readers (and friends), so it’s good to keep in mind that community can found in many, many places, and retreats can be one of them.

However, I know that some folks (many folks?) are interested in a creative writing MFA not so much to focus on their artistic practice, but so as to climb the academic ladder (I could go into the various reasons why this desire is, well, not cool, but, again, I’m going to leave that discussion on the sidelines for maybe another time). Even for those of us who are genuinely eager to develop as artists, we get blindsided by a larger cultural force that compels us to act on values that are rooted in capitalism and, subsequently, a false meritocracy. What I’m trying to say is that we tend to compete with one another, which is generally contrary to forming communal bonds. If there’s a final piece of advice I can bestow upon you, reader, it’s that you should do your best to combat this impulse. Academia is a social sphere which may encourage you to become individualistically cutthroat. Since I don’t have any concrete strategies for fighting against the process of internalizing this culture (at least not yet), I’ll just say to be on the lookout for value paradigms at work based on hierarchy and to do your best to dismantle this thinking within you.

I hope some of you prospective MFAers out there find this post helpful.   I might post more of my mental wanderings here over the summer, but if not—see y’all in Year Two.

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