2016, Archives, October 2016, The MFA Years

On Balancing Your “MFA Life” with Your Personal Life (Or At Least Trying To Do So)

I’ve been meaning to write a post about my second year for a few months now. The delay hasn’t come from a lack of ideas, but in part from the difficulty of deciding what I should say, what would be the most useful. The other factor, of course, is that my workload has been significantly heavier this year than it was my first year. I’m taking three classes (“Hypoxic Workshop” again, “Uses of History,” and “The Personal Essay”), whereas most second year MFA students at Alabama take only two (I don’t regret my decision, but….). I’m also teaching two classes (English 101: Freshman Composition), which takes up far more time and mental energy than my position as a TA for a lecture class last year. Because I have so much to do, it often feels like time spent “working” should be spent on reading and researching and writing for classes and lesson planning and grading and responding to students’ e-mails, and any time beyond that should be spent actively unwinding, socializing or watching TV or taking the dog for a walk. The reality, though, is that I’ll never be fully caught up on my classes (more and more true as the semester goes on) and that if I want to spend my “working” time writing a post for the MFA Years (or anything else for that matter), it’s equally legitimate.

Lately, I’ve been thinking most about how to balance my personal life with my life in the MFA, and how these lives necessarily coexist but often feel like they need to be kept separate from one another. Or, put another way, while my MFA life can’t help but bleed into my personal life in certain respects, it feels like I have to suppress any issues in my personal life when it comes to participating in the MFA as both a student and a teacher.

My MFA life and my personal life have been pretty different from one another this fall. In MFA world, things are going relatively well. I’m generating new material that I think is promising, I’m able to make time to see friends and enjoy myself in spite of the workload (for instance, I went to an incredible reading as part of The Conversation Literary Festival in Oxford, MS on Monday evening and this coming weekend I’ll be hanging in New Orleans). I have a piece coming out in The Adroit Journal soon, and the novel I published last spring, Glass Shatters, has sold around 400 copies at least, a solid number from such a small press. I’ve adopted a very sweet dog from the Humane Society—Honey, pictured above—who, in spite of her occasional stealing/destruction of socks, has offered me many welcome cuddles. The MFA part of my life is not perfect by any means. There are social insecurities that still rise up when I’m among my peers here, times when I feel left out or when I’ve realized that a friendship isn’t necessarily being reciprocated. There are times when I have too much grading and just want to shove it all in a drawer, when I miss Los Angeles, when I think about how much more money I was making before starting the MFA. But all in all, my life in the MFA has been relatively okay this fall in terms of workshops and teaching and relationships with others.

My personal life, however, has been difficult in comparison. I’ve been involved in a months-long conflict with a family member (I’ll leave it at that to preserve that person’s privacy, though it’s been painful and frustrating and something that has lingered with me since the beginning of the semester). In addition, in Tuscaloosa, I was in a relationship for about the same period of time, with a man named Jed, a paramedic turned police investigator. Jed and I would spend weekends together and usually a few nights a week too. He gave me a key to his house so that I could let myself in and had a bag of my dog’s brand of food in his cupboard because I was over so often. It was that kind of relationship. Serious, not casual. Then, two weeks ago, he abruptly broke up with me, saying that he didn’t want to continue to develop feelings for someone who wasn’t planning to stay in Tuscaloosa for the indefinite future (although I’ll be here for another two years and he knew my circumstances from our first date, before the key, before the dog food). Sure, the way Jed handled the break-up revealed quite a few red flags in his communication style and maturity level, and I know, intellectually, that we had some fundamental incompatibilities, but it was so nice to cuddle with someone while watching 30 Rock on the couch (his “real person” couch, his “real person” TV, because he had the money to spend on such things), so nice to know that I didn’t have to worry about figuring out plans because I could always just spend time with Jed. Finally, my depression and anxiety have grown worse recently, and with a psychiatrist who is long-distance and doesn’t always remember to check his phone, it has been challenging to figure out adjustments in medications and to make sure that I get access to those medications in a timely manner, and I’m still not totally sure whether I’m on the right combination of medications or not.

Though these are the particulars that apply to me, I would be surprised if there’s a single person in my MFA program (or any MFA program, for that matter) who doesn’t have some sort of ongoing stressor/struggle in their personal life, whether it be long-distance relationships, dwindling bank accounts, unexpected illnesses, etc. Not to mention that the amount of work that is demanded of an MFA student, the balancing act between our writing and everything else that’s expected of us, can exacerbate many of these issues.

When I’m in a writing workshop or a literature class or teaching freshman composition, I feel like that very real part of myself and of others can’t show through—to do so would be to make the environment uncomfortable. We have to be present, engaged, insightful, generous, regardless of whether we’ve just gotten engaged to the love of our life or been dumped by the love of our life last night. Our writer self is supposed to be separate from our personal self. And even being in a class like “The Personal Essay,” when much of our writing is about these challenges, the conflicts and intimate struggles of our personal lives, the discussions still have to take on a certain critical distance, a distance that I find frustrating even if I understand the necessity of approaching nonfiction writing about the self in that way (ergo why I am primarily a fiction writer and prefer satire, science, and history to autofiction).

I don’t write this post offering answers. In an ideal universe, there would be better and more affordable access to mental health services, more support and resources for students of color, for queer students, for female students, for students with children, for students who are the first in their families to attend graduate school. It would be less taboo to mention in workshop or to a professor that you are having a bad day or a bad week or a bad month instead of just feigning that everything is fine.

Instead, I write this post to acknowledge this less glamorous side of the MFA program, because it can be easy to idealize the MFA, to imagine it as this unmitigated writing time, this sanctuary from the real world. But the rest of life doesn’t cease to exist, and while sometimes things are great, there may be times in the MFA when you wish you were writing more or reading more or achieving more in some way but are inhibited by your personal life and all that comes with it, and that can be doubly difficult when you know that you only have a limited amount of time in the MFA and it can feel like time wasted when other issues encroach on your ability to more fully devote yourself to your studies.

All I can say is that you’re not alone. I’m there with you, and I suspect many others are as well. The MFA, despite its bubble-like qualities, does not preclude the fact that the rest of the world keeps going on around us.


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