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 mode, 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.

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