2017, April 2017, Archives, The MFA Years

April Showers Bring ANXIETY

Image: 陳 冠宇

Springtime can be confusing. The weather is friendlier, the world unfurls from its winter slumber, birds sing in the tree outside your window, etc. But this time of year also brings tax returns, looming seminar papers, and summer work struggles. For those who have braved the tumultuous MFA application process over the past few months, there are three likely mindsets at this point in the year:

  • Sadness at knowing they won’t be sitting in a graduate workshop in the fall
  • Pulling their hair out (with excitement/anxiety!) trying to decide between offers, or
  • Pulling their hair out (with excitement!) figuring out living situation and moving details for August.

Each position comes with its own anxieties and challenges. Each can invite a sense of futility and/or imposter syndrome. I’ve been the sad applicant, the anxiously-comparing-stipends-applicant, and the oh-my-god-I’m-moving-in-four-months applicant. I am also now a graduate student in a creative writing program, and now realize that perhaps a slice of this perspective would have placed my anxieties and worries in a more helpful context. I hope reading this helps you move past any application-related funk you may currently be in.

In April of 2015 I was finishing my MA at Penn State. I had no plans after August and, to be honest, that was a little scary. I would be staying in State College to teach composition over the summer, but after the final day of class, it would be back to living at home. I’d applied to five MFA programs and had been rejected by four and accepted by one with too little funding. I had also applied to 30 or so jobs with nothing but a couple interviews to show for it. All of this added up to a hazy sense of being adrift: after August there were only floating what-if’s and (what seemed at the time like) rapidly diminishing possibilities. I wondered why I had bothered to put so much time and energy into the application process to begin with.

Soon after the fifteenth, however, I picked up a couple classes to teach near home in the fall. I would wind up picking up another class at a university in Philly, along with some side work writing online. At the beginning of that semester I was teaching to get by, but during the next few months I discovered a sharp interest in composition studies, which enriched my teaching experience. I was given the opportunity to teach an intro to creative writing course the next Spring semester, which is still my most rewarding professional experience. I also stumbled into the opportunity to help start a writing group in Philly, which introduced me to so many great writer friends in the city.

In April of 2015 I had thought the next 12 months would be pointless, but instead I was afforded more opportunities and experiences to grow. I’m also glad to have had a year off, since grad school is exhausting, and I needed the break. More importantly, not attending an MFA program that year helped me view the MFA not as an end goal, as I had after getting my last rejection, but instead as one stage of a longer process.

In April of 2016 I was in a dramatically different position than the year before: I was accepted to three programs, received full funding at each, and was going through way too any pro/con lists in order to make what I had not anticipated would be a very fraught decision. I had only applied to programs I seriously wanted to attend, not anticipating I would have to choose between them. It was stressful and anxiety-inducing to pick apart and compare offers in order to extract tradeoffs. The decision process also required me to really meditate on what I wanted from an MFA experience, other than the rather generic desire of “time to write.” Did I need four years? Or just two? How important was location? How important was the sense of community in a program? While this was difficult and uncomfortable, sorting my priorities helped me not only make a decision, but also helped me get a better sense of what specific shape I wanted my writing life to take.

Once I’d gotten through that process and accepted my offer at Maryland, the anxiety of finding a place to live set in. I started to wonder, based on no reason whatsoever, if I had made the right decision. This apprehension settled in the back of my mind like a thin layer of dust. It was mostly easy to ignore these thoughts throughout the summer, but whenever they resurfaced, they clouded my mind with their dirt and debris. These worries were aggravated when I moved: starting a new life in new place, regardless of the reason, can be difficult, especially if you know no one there. My uneasiness was assuaged slowly over the course of several weeks, and by mid-semester I realized what a great community I had become a part of, and I felt a concrete confidence in my decision.

Now, in April 2017, I’m in the middle of my second semester, enjoying a boom in my writing productivity while slogging through stacks of comp papers to grade every few weeks. I answer student questions in office hours, and read my friends’ work every weekend for workshop. There are still things to worry about: how to maintain an income over the summer,  the massive amount of enjoyable work I have to do, whether I’m performing my teaching duties to my fullest extent.  It was easy to become trapped, both last year and the year before, in the anxieties of the moment. I thought that imagining where I would be in a year or two would be helpful, but instead doing so only reinforced the claustrophobic nature of my dread for the future.

Revisiting what worried me this time last year or the year before, it’s striking how temporary those feelings were. If you’re currently in a similar position, it may not seem like it now, but your feelings of dejectedness, anxiety, or stress (at least related to the MFA application process) are fleeting in the grander context. To shed these sensations, it may be helpful to seek out, identify, and articulate the next challenges you face, whether those are finding more time to write or hunting for an apartment hundreds of miles away. Once you’ve got a clear sense of these challenges, and get busy addressing them, it may be easier to banish the angst and worry to the back of your mind. This strategy helped me push through my malaise of two years ago and my stress of last summer. And when it comes to my new challenges, like working on my novel in the months to come and finding summer work, I’m sure it will help then as well.