Friday, May 27, 2016

MFA Life: Not As Scary As I Thought

A Year in Review

Yes, my fellow young writers, take heart from that title. You'd never know it from the stress of applying to MFA programs -- nor from the bedlam of controversy surrounding them, for that matter -- but actually being in the MFA is not nearly as terrifyingly intense as it sounds.

That's been the case for me, anyway, at Southern Connecticut State University's MFA in Creative Writing program, where I recently finished my first year of graduate studies. I feel like I'm being obnoxiously repetitive at this point, but I can't say enough how much I am enjoying the experience and feel that I made the right decision. Coming from a small, close-knit English department in undergrad, it feels perfect being in an environment where workshops (and even literature elective classes) are an intimate size, making it easy to develop meaningful relationships with instructors and fellow writers. One of my last experiences of the semester was attending a night of thesis readings by graduating candidates, including two brilliant women who'd been in my prose classes this year; the amount of love and support (and the lack of enough seats!) I saw in that room was astounding, and it reminded me so much of the family atmosphere I adored at Westfield State. Basically -- clichédly -- it feels pretty great to be part of a talented and passionate writing community.

To properly balance off my enthusiasm, I suppose I should note that it's not all rainbows and butterflies -- nothing is. Graduate school is no cakewalk, but I feel fortunate in that the dedication to excellence I found at Westfield made me well-prepared for the crazy workload and high standards of grad classes. What I wasn't prepared for, however, was the surprisingly relaxed atmosphere at the heart of the MFA: the workshop courses.

Relaxed? you say. In the all-intensive, higher-worldly, great-and-powerful graduate MFA? Yup. Relaxed.

I was shocked when I discovered this atmosphere. After all, I'd come from an undergraduate writing concentration that prided itself on challenging students toward their absolute best. I'd taken workshops where we were expected to churn out new stories almost every week of the semester -- and good stories, not the I-wrote-this-the-night-before kind, or even the first-draft kind. In those workshops, there was a tough-loving emphasis on always turning in one's best work and on constantly producing work, for which I'm grateful because it taught me to take writing seriously. I had imagined that an MFA program would be that kind of intensity times ten -- with maybe less personal supportiveness, more objective criticalness from faculty. But here at SCSU, it's been a different vibe altogether. In the fiction workshop, each student submits only three stories throughout the semester, consisting of any length or subject of their choosing. (By grad school, writers are assumed to be producing work independently -- no more hand-holding prompts here!) Sometimes those stories are revisions or rewrites of work from previous semesters; sometimes they are partially-completed chapters; sometimes they come with notes from the author saying they're not sure where to go with the story and are looking for suggestions. While sloppy work is still looked down upon, workshop submissions in the MFA are essentially anything-goes, and workshops themselves tend to be conversational and informal (albeit professional). But what shocked GPA-obsessed me the most, I think, was the lack of emphasis on grading: at least in the fiction workshops, nothing gets individually graded, and as long as writers put good effort into their submissions and critiques, it's not difficult to earn an A for the course.

"The Throes of Creation" by Leonid Pasternak
I'm sure that the mechanics of workshops varies by the college, and certainly things must intensify once students begin working on their theses. Yet speaking to friends who have pursued MFAs and graduate studies elsewhere makes me suspect that this low-key workshop approach is common among MFA programs. When I say I was shocked to discover this, what I mean is that I was initially skeptical -- indignant, even. Grad school was supposed to hard; it was supposed to be challenging and high-strung and make me write more and harder than I'd ever written, wasn't it? But here, the most stress I've experienced has been from my lit electives. How was I supposed to improve in my writing and keep up the motivation to work hard when my graduate professors seemed more laid-back than my undergraduate professors?

But the longer I've been in the MFA, the more I've come to understand the value and thought-process behind all this "chillin'." At the end of the fall semester, I remember asking the fiction instructor some revision questions in full high-stress m
ode, and he immediately calmed me down by saying something to the effect of: "This program is for you [the MFAers] and is your journey. Whatever you need to do to make the most of it for your writing is what what we want, too." That encouragement to take ownership of my grad studies made me realize that the low-key workshop atmosphere didn't come from an attitude of laziness, or of not taking the field seriously. Quite the opposite -- it comes from a place of respect and an expectation of maturity from student writers. In a graduate writing program, the attitude is that everyone here is an adult: we got into the program because we're good writers and we wouldn't be here if we weren't serious about writing. Thus, how much and how hard we write is not something to be micro-monitored by our instructors, but is entirely dependent on our own work ethic (as it is for any serious writer). The MFA program's function is to simply be a support system for whatever it is we are doing with our writing.

Such a hands-off approach may sound like an invitation for students to slack off -- and I'm sure there has been many an MFAer to do just that -- but in my experience it's been surprisingly liberating and productive. Less submissions means more time to finetune the quality of what I do submit. Seeing how much care my peers put into their writing, even without the grade incentive, motivates me to work hard as well. Most importantly, this is an environment that encourages taking risks. In the past, being obsessed with getting a good grade meant that I was likely to stick to the same kind of writing: I would use "formulas" that had previously received positive feedback, while shying away from experiments that could potentially fail and get me a lower "score." Here in the MFA, writing is seen as a personal process -- full of successes and failures -- which means I can feel comfortable experimenting with new styles for the sake of personal improvement. My last workshop story of the year, in fact, was probably the most experimental piece I've ever written (something I'd have never attempted in undergrad), and as it turns out I got positive feedback for it! But even if the feedback had been negative, the fact that I'm now brave enough to push the boundaries makes me optimistic for the progress of my writing.

I never thought that someone as intense and hardworking as me would ever appreciate a low-stress atmosphere in grad school, but I'm enjoying every minute of it. What's more, my writing is becoming better for it. So, I would call this first year in MFA life one big, crazy, and messy success.

Thanks for reading! Grace and peace to you.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Publication Alert: Barking Sycamores

Dear Reader,

It sounds utterly bonkers, but my first year of the MFA is officially completed! I can honestly say that this past semester has been one of the best I've ever had in my entire college career, and what's more is that I'm humbled and grateful by the growth I've seen in my writing in the past year. Mind you, those are very meager sentences to try to summarize what I've learned -- about writing and about myself -- but I think only a longer post about my MFA experience can do it justice. With a finals-free schedule, such a post shouldn't be too far away.

On to "business" matters (though everything feels like fun these days)... To kick off the celebration of summer, I'm happy to announce the publication of my poem "What You Must (Not) Do" in Issue 9 of Barking Sycamores. Of all the venues that have accepted my work, I must say that I'm particularly enthralled with this one. Barking Sycamores is a part-online, part-print magazine of neurodiversity: it celebrates the works of neurodivergent writers and artists, from the autistic to bipolar patients to those with synesthesia. Dedicating a whole literary magazine to neurodiversity is a beautiful step toward raising awareness about mental illness and neurodevelopmental disorders, but also toward humanizing these experiences. The works in this publication are stunning, and together they are one more reminder that we each have a unique way of looking at the world. Please take the time to look through!

You can find my poem "What You Must (Not) Do" here. (Note: for each new issue, Barking Sycamores posts one piece per every couple of days, until all the works in that issue have been posted. So if you want to explore the other pieces in Issue 9, be sure to check back frequently!)

About the work:
So, what am I doing in a publication for neurodivergent writers? Well, like all things in this world, it's complicated.

I may someday explore this more in my creative writing, I may not, but I've always been fascinated by the fact that mental illness runs in both sides of my family. Fascinated (haunted?), because while I have gone through life unofficially diagnosed, there is plenty of evidence that this mental illness runs a little in me. Since my late teens -- and most potently as an 18-year-old -- there has been a sadness and a spaciness for which only the words "depression" (minor, seasonal?) and "ADD" (mild, moderate?) makes sense. Living unmedicated and therapy-less means dealing with the raw forms of these in a strange combination; it means perceiving the world as fragmented, frayed, and with a dark cloud over it. I may someday explore the whole story of my mental struggles with readers, I may not. But for now I will simply say that I've come to appreciate my depressed-inattentive life most most strongly (albeit inexplicitly) through my writing, which allows me to make something productive out of this messy, melancholy daydream.

"What You Must (Not) Do" is one small, quiet way of being productive, I suppose. It's possibly among my most honest poems. I wrote this last summer on my own, not for a class assignment, not with the aim to write anything earth-shattering; I wrote it for me, as a way of appreciating beauty amid sad memories. I hope you're able to take something meaningful from it.

Enjoy and share away. Grace and peace to you.