A Letter to My First Semester in the MFA
Dear September through December,
Where on earth have you gone?
When I came to Southern Connecticut, I was warned that the estimated 2+ years in the MFA program would fly quickly. But I had no idea that *you,* oh First Semester -- with all your baggage of new location, new people, new standards, new life at home -- would be so nimble and slip by so easily. Yet here we are, at the end of the experience.
So I step off the whirlwind and survey what's left. Like any new experience, you brought some things, eliminated others. There are novelties, lessons, and yes, even damage (but that's normal and okay). There are some doubts removed, others inserted. You are messier than I (naively) thought you'd be. But that doesn't I change how grateful I am for the encounter.
So September through December, with every writerly fiber of my being, thank you for teaching me the following:
1. Time is rare and precious in the MFA.
As noted earlier, I realized quickly that my time in the MFA is going to speed by. Add to that a busy semester schedule of a graduate assistantship, commuting, non-writing classes, and life in general, and I've got much less "pure writing time" than I thought I would. In fact, I was devastated to find that I produced very little *new* material for workshop this semester, but rather re-worked some old things (although that's not entirely uncommon, apparently). While the hecticness of grad school left me overwhelmed as a newbie, I think it was valuable for me to learn how easily time can be taken for granted. If I'm to make the most out of this program, I have to use wisely every minute of it (and as an ADHD-esque person, I have to work doubly hard). Short-term, that means sacrificing what little "free time" I have to do anything MFA-related, whether it's writing or reading. Long-term, it means knowing ASAP what my thesis is going to be and getting started on it. (There's no such thing as a "head start" on that.) The MFA, as a parallel to the writer's existence, is not a 9-5 job; it's a lifestyle.
2. Messy is okay.
As a perfectionist, this was a hard lesson to swallow, but a lot of times quantity trumps quality in the MFA. Because time is hard to come by in this program, it's important that I make writing a regularly scheduled habit (*not* something at the whim of the Muse) to constantly churn out new material -- and one result of that is going to be a lot of less-than-superb work. Basically, I just don't have the time or luxury to make every single thing I write brilliant, but that's okay. The expectation in my MFA workshops (in the beginning, at least) is not that I prove I'm a great writer, but that I'm writing.
Moreover, because workshops are expecting drafts and not polished pieces, they're a good opportunity to grow in my work via trial and error. After I turned in my first workshop story, my professor commented (to paraphrase): "It's a very neatly structured and deftly-written story, but human life is much messier than this. I give you permission to be messy." Essentially, I had played it safe, writing something that I knew I could pull off successfully, without endeavoring to *grow* as a writer by stretching new muscles. But in MFA workshops, taking risks -- even if the result is an ugly mess -- is commended, because it means I'm not remaining content or stagnant with my process. Conclusion: improvement will come with much more material and many more tried strategies, not with a few pretty pieces.
3. I will both love and hate my literature electives.
Due to the structure of SCSU's curriculum, I had to take 2 literature courses and 1 workshop this semester, which was a lot tougher than I anticipated. (I probably read more in this semester alone than in my whole college education combined.) On my worst days, I felt like the literature classes were a waste of time and a distraction from my writing, particularly as it's so difficult for me *not* to work hard at everything (I promise that is not a bragging right, it's a curse). But as I mentioned at the beginning of the semester, maintaining a scholarly / reading perspective is extremely helpful for the creative part of the brain, mainly because the insane amount of mandatory reading has introduced me to so many different styles and structures for writing. While I don't think I'll be producing a novel like Dickens's or Zora Neale Hurston's, reading their work (and noting their contrasts) has definitely given me some ideas for my own.
4. It's not cool to slack off in workshop critiques.
Especially with end-of-semester stress, it's very easy to get caught up in how the program is benefiting me and my writing, and yet to forget about my fellow workshoppers. The MFA is a program that relies on community, on giving and receiving feedback from fellow, professional-aspiring writers. So while an MFA writer might not necessarily follow my advice, there is nevertheless an obligation to try to give them good advice -- to respond to their work as thoughtfully, professionally, and respectfully as I'd want them to respond to mine. It's a waste of people's time to give BS-ed, last-minute critiques that are not reflective of their hard work. If my workshop experience is dependent on the quality of the people in it, I also need to strive to be a quality contributor. So, even when the personal stress is high, critiques are the last thing I can get lazy about.
5. It's all on me to prioritize my writing.
My takeaway this semester is that, if I want to be a writer, I have to be in it 100%. It's easy to blame lack of writing on my classes, my GA schedule, my ADHD-like symptoms; but at the end of the day, how much I write or don't write is all on me. If this were professional life and not grad school, I'd have even less "free time" to devote to writing. The goal of the MFA is not to make it easy for me to write, but to train me to make it a priority amid the chaos of real life. If writing is my top priority, it means I will revolve everything else I do around that -- that I will be always writing or brainstorming to write or reading to get inspiration to write or just getting a non-writing assignment out of the way so I have more time to write. Sometimes it will means doing less-than-stellar work in some areas so I can work harder on my writing. Sometimes it will mean writing even when I'm not well-rested or comfortable. But just like every other passion in life (family and friends and dreams), if I love it enough, I will make the time for it.
September through December, it's been an enlightening, harrowing, doubtful, happy, crazy, and uplifting experience. Thank you for your lessons.
January through May . . . here I come.
Grace and peace to you.