Saturday, April 24, 2010

Is the pursuit of the MFA really what it's cracked up to be?

Juliana and I were sipping coffee and discussing Aimee Bender one evening. This was October 2005. We had made a special date to go see Aimee Bender read. I was (and still am) a great admirer of Aimee's work, so when I knew she was coming to town, I made sure Juliana, the only other writer I knew in the neighborhood, was going with me. After the reading we made note of how sober Aimee seemed. She seemed very clear-headed and peaceful. Juliana noticed the soberness of the writer and claimed it to be a good thing indeed. We, at this point in our lives, were not sober. As I've said, this was October 2005, and it was Tucson, Arizona. For us, we were the only writers in our community of artists and musicians, and there was not a sober one of the lot. For Juliana to notice Aimee's sober clarity was not an unusual thing.
“I'd like to be sober,” I said.
“You should go to grad school,” Juliana said. “I think it's the right thing for you to do.”
“Oh, yeah? What did it do for you?” I asked. Now, I would have asked any question to keep her going. It isn't like I would not have valued what she had to say, but I didn't see how she was any better off than I was. At the time, Juliana was working a couple of days a week at the Food Coop, teaching a couple of bone-head English 101 classes at the community college and holding steady at one shift a week at the bookstore. All said, I doubt she was even making enough money to pay her student loans much less than having enough money for a comfortable life. Before I go further, I should explain that this was Tucson. There just wasn't much work to do.
“What did it do for me? It gave me a great network of people, I can teach, and I got to be an editor at Tarpaulin Sky. If I was half the writer you are now before grad school, I would be twice the writer you'll ever be.”
I said nothing. I smiled. I didn't want to let on that I took her words as a dare. I am a man, after all, and even though I'm no longer a kid, I still have something to prove.

I left Tucson (divorced, broke and brokenhearted) in December 2005. I'm pretty sure I told Juliana how much her friendship meant to me before I left, and I'm sure she knows how much she means to me now. Her words never left me. I still hadn't really thought about grad school, mostly because of the more pressing concerns that were life. As the spring of 2006 began, I was seeing a shrink, as I'm sure most people do when they feel bad, troubled or whatever. I was still angry about the months I lived in Tucson, and I was still very angry about what seemed like every relationship I had with everyone failing all at once. I told my shrink about all sorts of things that were bothering me. At the end of our sessions he gave me “assignments” to think about during the week. I typed up the first assignment, and I was prepared to turn it in to him. Rather, he had me read it aloud. I had told him that I was a writer (or that I wanted to be one) during our first session. After I finished reading what he asked of me he said: “You should go to grad school.”
“Why?” I asked.
“You're clearly very good at writing, and besides, it really will make you a master at it.”
Before we go further, let me say, the therapist was so much more gentle than my friend. Is that always true?

I had no idea what the MFA abbreviation meant (Master of Fine Arts), nor did I really know one school from another. As I looked at programs, I looked at two residency programs and two low-residency programs. A residency program, as you can probably guess would have meant leaving Denver again and going to school somewhere. Not only had I just returned from an ill-fated life excursion, I had way too many debts, bills and a mortgage to contend with. Naturally, I looked at the low-residency schools to see what they offered. I downloaded the application for Goddard College shortly thereafter. Admittedly, I chose to apply to Goddard for two reasons: Juliana had gone through their program and raved about it, the school is in Vermont, and I had never been to New England.

The application process was not too different from the assignment process. I don't remember all the ins-and-outs of it. There was an essay-type question, a number of letters of recommendation, and a sample of creative work. Honestly, I felt very insecure when I submitted my application. I only applied to Goddard College and if they did not accept me I would have been okay with it. After all, when some college rejects you, you're done. There is nothing more you have to do. Getting accepted, well that's a different thing altogether. Upon acceptance there is work to be done.

That seems like a very long winded preface to a story that isn't very long. Grad School for me consisted of five trips to Vermont: 3 Januarys and 2 Junes. Each semester we spent our first week in Plainfield, Vermont going to workshops, meeting with our advisers and our small groups. On campus we had things going on from seven in the morning until midnight, should that have been of appeal. Mostly, we spent time getting to know one another and partying. I felt like the winters were easier residencies to focus on school work.

The stats: two years, four semesters; 20 packets (forty pages each), five critical papers ranging from 6 to 20 pages (two short critical papers, one long critical paper, a teaching essay, and a process essay) for a grand total of 72 pages; 46 two to three page annotations of books I read (the minimum was 45), and a creative manuscript of about 50,000 words. It was a great deal of work.

But, did grad school teach me to write?

No. It taught me so much more.

Graduate school, especially the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing is not the place to go if one has the desire to learn how to write. In fact, grad school is a very inappropriate place to learn to write. Graduate school helped me think about writing differently, more critically I guess. It taught me to analyze what I read to help develop my writing. Graduate school helped me to think in terms of page count and deadlines, things very crucial to good work habits. Graduate school did for me what Juliana said it did for her: it gave me a great network, I got to teach, and I got to be a small press editor. All great things indeed. And ultimately, grad school was worth my time, my effort and worth the money.

I wonder if this is the case for everyone? The pursuit of the MFA is not viable for everyone. I would not recommend the MFA for someone who wants more money. There are other masters programs for the money-driven. The MFA is good for those who want to teach. There are great benefits too, how about education for the sake of education itself, which is perhaps the best reason of all.

Since graduation I've been able to do things I never would have thought I could do. I get a great deal of time everyday to write. Grad school didn't exactly give me more time in my day for writing, but it did give me a mode of work and priority to work and time management skills. I've drafted several novels, many of which I have listed on this site, and dozens of short stories. I've been able to find work as an editor at Umbrella Factory Magazine and as a screenwriter at RocketHouse studios. I don't think having the MFA is directly responsible for that, but having it gives me confidence.

Since that October night in Tucson, Arizona in 2005, I hope I have lived up to my potential not only as a writer, but as a person. And as far as Juliana's statement? Well, I'm twice the writer I was, and I'm not even half the writer I will be.

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