Over the last couple weeks I’ve been hearing more from my grad school, Emerson College, than I’ve heard in the previous seven years. Before, I got the occasional email asking me to become part of their alumni group, and, never much of a joiner, I always kept my distance. (And since I still owe a crippling amount for that education, the idea of donating to the alumni organization seemed a little much.)
For whatever reason, the preliminary reviews of my fourth book caught their eye, so now I’m giving them a story to use in their alumni magazine, and I’ve just sent in the answers to an “alumni profile” the school will use to advertise themselves to potential students.
Answering the questions on the profile got me thinking again about that whole educational experience. I got an MFA in creative writing, and though the degree itself—that is, the piece of paper—never did me any good (and some harm, I suppose, given the debt), the actual classes, and working with some excellent writers, really were important to me. And this, of course, is what the profile wanted to know about. How did the school help, and how were its lessons important in your career?
A lot of things are bandied about concerning MFA programs, some of them true, some not. Sure, there’s a tendency for those programs, by their group-critique format, to produce a monotone, safe style of writing. And yes, they are often outrageously expensive. But as I wrote my answers, I started to recall just how wonderful it was for me, at that point in my life, to have some major writers (Gail Mazur, Andre Dubus III, Christopher Tilghman, to name a few) treat me as if I were someone to be taken seriously.
I went to grad school with many questions, but probably the central one was: Am I any good? I learned I was good, and I learned I needed to get better if I wanted to be published. I learned there were no magic tricks involved, just a lot of hard work.
To say the program “taught me writing” is of course overstating the issue. I knew how to write; I just didn’t know how use my skills to hone the writing I was doing. In other words, I didn’t know how to make myself learn to write better. My self-critiquing skills were terribly underdeveloped.
I can’t quantify the amount I learned over those two years, but I do know that I emerged from the program (going soon afterward to Romania on a Fulbright grant), with the conviction that there was hope. An added layer of confidence covered me, and I knew that, given enough time and effort, I’d make it.
As I also mentioned in the profile, the life I have now is not what I imagined when I left Emerson. This is true in many ways. What I imagined—what I think most reasonable people would imagine—was a life of teaching (the only job that degree could actually earn me) and publishing the occasional book when time allowed. What I never imagined was that I’d never actually teach, and instead beat around the world with library jobs (a wonderful career if you can get it, by the way) and then move full-time into novel writing. While it was always a dream, it was never really a possibility.
Part of this is due to the fact that I don’t write the kinds of stories I imagined I’d be writing. In grad school, I didn’t read, or write, anything approaching genre fiction. We didn’t study it in class, focusing instead on purely literary works. And so, by example, I that was all I wrote, and was convinced that was all I’d ever write. Was there some snobbery inherent in my conviction? Certainly. But what I didn’t know then was that, a few years later, while shaving one morning, I’d have a moment of realization.
Over the previous years, I’d written lots of stories and a few novels and sent them all home. My mom would read them and give her comments, but I never heard anything from my dad. So I cornered him once and asked what he thought of the stories, and he admitted that he didn’t read them. He tried, he said, but after a few pages would give up. No insult meant, but they just weren’t his kinds of stories.
So, shaving, I mulled over this frustrating situation, and decided that it was time to try to write something that even my dad would read. And so I gave crime a try. And one thing led to another.
Could I have reached this point without the expense of an MFA? Probably. But I do think that it would have taken much longer. An MFA is more like an acceleration of learning, two years in which your sole occupation is learning the craft. Some learn more, and some learn less, and the difference between the two has less to do with the school than the student’s level of commitment.
It’s possible I’m wrong, and that things would’ve ended up about the same without the program. But I have no way of replaying my life without it, and so I have no regrets. I even have some good memories. And who knows? Maybe some day I’ll find myself teaching students who are a lot like I was at that age, young writers who just need a little encouragement, an occasional rap on the knuckles, and a little respect to help them become what they truly want to be.
(Originally posted at the Contemporary Nomad)