2017, Archives, October 2017, The MFA Years

In Search of Lost Mojo (An introduction)

Image: Adeline Oka

You applied to MFA programs last winter peddling your best traits: a voracious curiosity and an insatiable lust for soul-stirring prose.

A year later, after a 17-day cross-country road trip originating in South Florida, after getting settled during one of those famed blissful Pacific Northwestern summers—the apex of which was witnessing a cosmically rare solar eclipse from smack dab in the path of totality—after briefly evacuating to New York City when those dreamy days combusted into a toxic haze fueled by catastrophic wildfires, you find yourself in rural Oregon the night before fall quarter starts, shivering in your Miami clothes, frozen before a white screen.

Fraud, you scream in your head.

It’s not that you knowingly deceived the ad-coms; what you’re realizing is, like the photo from eight years ago you still keep on your Tinder profile, that portrait of your writer self is outdated.

That version was based on who you thought you were at 24, when you first seriously considered getting an MFA upon realizing, during your first graduate program, that you didn’t just want to read and write words all day; you wanted to read pretty words and learn how to craft them. You were convinced then that no other life would do.

In the years that followed, you have chased that writing dream (or maybe that dream chased you?) across oceans and continents. In a medieval English hamlet, you worked brutal shifts at a hotel bistro to support your habit while reading Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell’s classic (and validating) account of being a broke-ass writer working in European hotels and restaurants.

You fled from there to Istanbul, where you worked as a copy-editor at a national daily newspaper. You witnessed the Arab Spring unfold in the headlines you crafted. Years later, that newspaper would be seized, your bosses imprisoned, your colleagues deported, by the very ruling party that they once extolled. These events dually inspired you to commit to the written word, believing as you did that bringing truth to power was your one true calling, but they also inflamed your cynicism. You began to question whether words—your words—mattered in the face of systemic real-world violence.

Between Turkey and Corvallis, you chased the sun and made your home in the tropics—first in Indonesia, then Miami Beach. You put art aside and invested outside of the life of the mind. You produced business intelligence reports, ghostwrote nonfiction books, administered international development programs, co-founded an economic magazine, taught in prisons. You lived on the beach. You circumnavigated the U.S. by train. You excelled at project management. You became an entrepreneur. At times you even made decent money.

But you were restless. The remedy, you determined, was to be a more devout practitioner of your art.

A decade after you put “get an MFA?” on your Life Goals list, you finally removed the question mark. You diligently combed through Poets & Writers’ exhaustive directory of creative writing programs, flagging those offering fully funded, full-res non-fiction tracks. You shortlisted 15, and applied to 10. Six would say yes, one would say maybe.

You cobbled together a writing sample from random essay-ish things you’d written and shopped it around to friends. To your horror, each person—bless their close-reading hearts—held opinions about your pieces that violently opposed what the others thought. How were you to convert all that feedback into meaningful edits with impossibly limited time? Your brain exploded.

When you weren’t uploading transcripts, soliciting recommendation letters, crafting personal statements, or taking the GRE, you played investigator. You read countless blog posts and articles on individual programs and the MFA broadly; lurked on relevant online forums and Facebook groups; and interrogated dozens of current and former students at your preferred institutions.

You were ostensibly looking to enhance your admissions strategy, but what you were really after was assurances—guarantees that your life choices were optimal. Like all compulsive research projects pursued to excess, your fact-finding was an expression of your deep anxiety: that you were being played the fool.

Week one of your first fall quarter comes and goes. You find to your relief that being a student thrills you. You devour reading assignments, produce colorful marginalia, explore extracurriculars.

But that creative fire in your belly? Still out.

It seems you are not alone. Losing your mojo is a common experience amongst MFA first-years. The application process, apparently, does not just bend, but breaks.

How do you find your way back to your words? How do you motivate this stranger, who is so evidently not the writer girl from the applications—not a girl at all, in fact, but a bona fide, albeit reluctant, adult?

How do you commit when empirical evidence point to other rewarding existences where art could be optional?

What you do not second-guess is choosing this program. Like in prose, setting and characters are key. The Pacific Northwest, with its lovely trees, abundant cafes, and DIY ethos, constantly enchants. You find small-town life cozy and inviting.

Your cohorts, meanwhile, are real gems. They can engage you when you are being irreverent and playful, but they also allow your intensity. You are welcomed into their homes. You sing karaoke with them.

And then you remember this thing about your self, this essential thing that has remained true over the years: your creative process requires collaboration. Pure solitude is an insufficient antecedent for you, while dialogue and play are as instrumental as suffering.

So you dwell less on the luxury of that overused application phrase, “crafting a space for your writing,” and focus more on how to meaningfully fill that space. The right stimulating activities and relationships will eventually lure your mojo back.

Or so you hope.