2017, Archives, October 2017, The MFA Years

Abandoning the ROI – From the Corporate World to the MFA Program

Photo credit: Neil Hall, Glass Office Building London

I’ve been a graduate student for three weeks, and have cried in my professor’s office once. I haven’t been here long enough to determine if this ratio is a success or not, but am continuing my market research nonetheless.

Let me back up –

Before I started the MFA program in Creative Nonfiction at UC Riverside, I spent ten years working the corporate world in online marketing. Six of those years were at the same job, a small gaming company in Austin, Texas. That company was a place where I knew how to succeed. I knew my coworker’s various quirks and how to approach the right person to get what I needed. I knew the promotion calendar like the back of my hand, and had code and graphics and all the nitty gritty details down to a science. Life at that company was very comfortable for me and although I was sad for my tenure there to end, I left optimistic in the pursuit of dreams with writing and education and all things creative.

Three weeks in to the first quarter of my MFA program, I’m realizing this dream is different than I thought it would be.

After I settled from packing my dogs, belongings and entire life to move across the country, I told myself that I would now consider writing my job. I’d been working a 40-hour workweek nonstop since completing my undergraduate degree, and thought I should treat writing the same. I set up a little writing desk with favorite pictures, colored pens, a book of daily affirmations and a pug calendar. Writing would be my new job, and I would write!

And I did… sort of. I wrote some blog posts. I wrote a few editorials. I wrote a rough draft to a short essay, but I didn’t write anything for the manuscript I brought with me to school. You know, the manuscript I told myself I’d finish in two years – the main reason I’m doing this degree. Those messy, unkempt pages kept sitting off in the corner. Every now and then I’d peek at them, but quickly shoved them aside and moved to something else. Anything else. Homework, workshop critique, flame wars on Facebook… everything was more enticing than working on those pages that desperately needed work.

In my classes, they’ve been teaching us how to regard writing like a profession versus a wily muse that occasionally shows up to play. Making set hours to work, telling ourselves that our number one priority for the next two years is writing – it all made sense. I did those things, but the little work I accomplished on the manuscript felt stale. It didn’t excite me. It was forced. A domesticated, hobbled muse.

That’s when I found myself in my professors office, spewing about all my frustrations and telling her that I was ambitious and I worked hard and I wanted to treat writing like my job but I hated everything I wrote and this was my big chance to change careers and give myself the gift of writing for two years but, three weeks in, I already felt like I was failing. I talked quickly. I tried to be professional, but I could feel that my eyes were wide and panicky.

She listened, and when I took a chance to breathe she calmly asked me a question. “Was every day at your job a super productive one?”

I thought back to that little gaming company in Austin where I spent six years. How some days I tackled all the challenges fluently and gracefully, with poise. But a lot of the time I just picked away at easy tasks in-between reading blogs or scrolling through Facebook. For some projects, I had no idea how to accomplish them and had to spend hours researching items which are second nature to me now. Even though I knew the rules of that office by the time I left it, getting there was not a straight line. And yes, there was more than once that I cried in frustration, feeling completely out of sorts and over my head.

This program, my dream and my beast of a manuscript are going to be the same way. It’s not enough to plop myself at a desk at 9am and say that I’m going to write for eight hours. Quitting my job, moving across the country and creating an entirely new routine is a huge adjustment. Not something to be understated. It’s going to take time to find the happy place between flirting with my muse, and making her work for me. That balance isn’t happening overnight.

A liberal arts degree like this one is not something I can treat with my logical, marketing mind. Its ROI (return on investment) isn’t like the conversion on all the landing pages I used to make. I can’t look at my experience and say, Okay well I’ve risen 10% in syntax, but the user base is stagnant. Instead, I’ve got to give in the experience and embrace the unknowns.

For now, I’m giving myself a break. Not every day is going to be a slam-dunk. At this point, I’m celebrating a mere lay-up. But it will happen. It will come together, and the more I can unwind the tight coils of my brain the easier I think it will be.