MFA writing programs can be inspiring or soul-sucking. Mine was a little of both.
I entered an MFA program later in life than many of my classmates, but I probably had more delusions than anyone about what it would be like. I imagined what lay before me was a beautiful, bohemian dream, with writers sipping cheap red wine and lounging on sofas until the wee hours. We’d read to each other from our work. We’d talk about ideas and language; the air would be thick with the smoke from cigarettes and hash. We would be one another’s fiercest critics, but also each other’s fiercest advocates. We would all be a little bit in love with each other, and there would be no jealousy, only art. Art would be our God.
I was in the program for about two weeks before it dawned on me that my bohemian dream was just a fantasy. Like me, a handful of my classmates were also married, but the married ones all had children. The MFA program was what they did before rushing home to make sandwiches and administer baths.
The rest of my classmates were fresh from their undergrad. They were there for job training, which in my MFA program, wasn’t preparing them for lives as professional writers, but adjunct professorship. These students, in addition to their coursework and their own writing, were learning to teach at the university level by teaching undergrads how to write complete sentences. It seemed pretty grueling. Many of them complained about not having time to write.
If Art was our God, we worshiped privately, at our individual desks, in moments we’d stolen from other priorities. Communion happened only upon occasion: Sometimes my friend J and I would meet at a coffee shop and spend hours writing, not talking, happy to be creating in one another’s company.
Another impediment to the bohemian dream: I didn’t know how to talk about writing. Most of my classmates had studied creative writing as undergraduates; I’d studied geography. I didn’t know the right writers, I didn’t speak the lingo. They threw around words and phrases like “trope” and “comma splice,” while I slid down in my chair and hoped nobody would notice I wasn’t participating in workshop discussions. I’d won a coveted fellowship to be there, but I felt like an impostor.
In many ways, though, winning that fellowship was the thing that allowed me to believe in myself as a writer. I’d written stories since I was old enough to hold a pencil, and I was probably the only kid in my high school English class that got excited about writing term papers. But I still never thought of myself as a “real” writer. I was other things: Waitress, Housewife, Friend, Daughter. First-class Nobody. But not a writer; not me.
I learned quickly about tropes and comma splices. I learned how to interweave symbols and similes. I learned when to use “lay” and “lie.” I read Nietzsche and took courses in Native American Literature, and Southeast Asian Literature. In my memoir/personal essay class, we debated about truth and readers’ expectations, and whether or not to use a lot of quotations. In short, I learned what “writing” was. I learned the rules.
I also learned about other writers. We are sensitive, analytical, bookish people, no matter how many tattoos we might have. But writers are not necessarily nice. Sharing a talent with someone is not enough to make you instant friends, and sometimes it makes you enemies. People occasionally cried after their stories were eviscerated in workshop. Once, I was one of them. There was a kind of pack mentality, antithetical to my bohemian dream. More than once I saw the group turn on someone, and make them an outcast. To be honest, I felt like a bit of an outcast at times.
Participating in the program changed my writing for the better. Still, I worried that I no longer sounded like “me,” that my voice had been flattened and that my writing sounded like… like a product of an MFA program. Like everyone. Like no one.
Standing on the steps of the English building after my thesis defense, the program director looked up into the oaks and congratulated me on my achievements. “You’ve learned a lot,” he told me. Then he looked me dead in the eye and said, “Now, go forget it all.”