In a perfect world the MFA is straightforward: you go to class, you do your writing, and you teach or work on a literary magazine. When I started at Brooklyn, everything else in my life settled into place, whether it conformed to my busy life or went on temporary hold until I finished my degree. Grad school became my excuse for canceled plans, overdue emails, forgotten birthdays. It was easy to forget to take care of myself too. Aches and pains got pushed aside until the drafts were revised and the papers were graded. But then came the kind of symptoms that I couldn’t ignore. The pain was just discomfort at first. It wasn’t like the swift blow from a fist, but a gradual pulling and squeezing in my lower abdomen. When the pain intensified, I sat in front of my doctor and mapped across my body where it hurt. She patted my shoulder and told me the symptoms were likely stress. “Get yourself some glitter,” she said, “and relax until we get test results back.”
Relaxation and self-care became my mission. I even wrote a blog post about it. I splurged on Korean sheet masks and lotions, bought fancy soaps, listened to more podcasts. I tried to move through my days with a certain calculated mindfulness and calm. It was harder than I thought it’d be. I was tired all the time and the pain hurt so much I had to miss classes. My mood was low, my frustration high. I was writing a lot but wanted to spend most days curled up in bed with a heat pad.
At the same time, I’ve had to grapple with the fact my grandmother, whom I love more than anyone, is getting older. The bubble of zen I tried to create around myself would crack every time I spoke to her and thought she sounded sad, tired, or lonely. I was counting down the days until summer vacation, which I had planned to spend with her.
And then my test results came back. The specifics aren’t worth going into; this is not my first illness rodeo. I started new prescriptions and read countless Wikipedia and WebMD articles. I was overwhelmed by the amount of care I felt I needed and the timeline I was given, the recommendation that anyone with my symptoms and prognosis would feel sick for a few months. Not days, not weeks: months. I drafted an email to the director of my program and let it sit in a folder for two weeks. I spoke about it with a therapist. I cried to my mom. Then I made a decision, checked the email for typos one last time, and clicked send. At the end of this semester, I am taking a medical leave from grad school.
If you’re reading this piece, if you’re on this website, chances are you’re applying to an MFA or have applied to one in the past. You know the deal: it’s an extremely competitive degree and many prospectives apply two or three years before getting in somewhere they want to attend. If you’re currently in a program, It’s quite possible you’ll find yourselves in my shoes. Maybe you will get ill or have an ill family member. Or maybe illness isn’t an issue. Maybe you just find yourself miserable after your first semester, wondering whether you made the right decision, fantasizing about hopping on the nearest greyhound to wherever. I can’t give advice across the board; everyone’s situation is different. But what I do think is true for every writer is that the MFA, while incredibly helpful and wonderful, is not a requirement. And for those of us who do attend a program, it is not the beginning nor end of our paths. So if you’re in a program and something about this resonates with you―if you’re sick and have been pushing yourself because you’re dying to get to the finish line―take a deep breath. Pause. It’s okay to realize you need to take a step back for a moment to get yourself right.
You made a commitment to writing, even more so than to the MFA. And writing isn’t going anywhere.