Musings on the MFA (from an Alumni Perspective)
I visited Fairfield University’s MFA in Creative Writing Program yesterday for Alumni Day. Alumni Day is intended to be an opportunity for current students to intermingle with graduates of the program and for grads to network with one another.
(Spoiler alert: I hate networking. I’m awkward and weird and have no clue how to talk to people. Special shout out to COVID-19 for compounding this issue by
allowing me to basically live in a bubble for the last two years. Well played, COVID.)
I started my MFA not long after I turned 40. It was a very meaningful time in my life (read: mid-life crisis). I really needed to learn how to write for therapeutic reasons, and when the clock strikes 40, all sorts of fun, panicky things might cross one’s mind, like, oh, I don’t know – dying – so yeah. No time like the present, I decided. So, I got in to Fairfield’s program and it was great from a logistics standpoint. Low-residency programs mean most of the work is done via independent study and then you go to two intensives per year, nine days each. But, there were some things I didn’t know upon entering the program:
1) MFAs yield mostly literary work. Highbrow, intelligent stuff. Poetry. Depth. Beautifully crafted prose that hits you at the sentence level. Not a good look for someone who’s debut novel features a four-page scene detailing the aftermath of a shaving incident in the narrator’s nether regions.
2) Reading aloud is scary. Especially when you are reading something you wrote that was intended to provide you, the author, with restorative healing benefits. Well, guess what? I have it on good authority that anxiety is the opposite of healing.
3) Lots of people in MFA programs don’t really know what they want to do with their lives. I guess that’s cool – I mean, we go to school to try stuff out and see what works but I just thought everyone in my MFA program was going to be like me (again, adjectives here include type-A, laser-focused, borderline psychotic, scrappy hot mess). Wrong again.
So, back to Alumni Day. Your immediate question might be something like… K.J., this doesn’t really sound like your cup of tea, so why did you go? Well, even as an introvert, there are people I connected with in my MFA program. Unfortunately, most of them weren’t going to be there, especially my mentor (more on him later) and the two people who make up my awesome little writing group – one has COVID and the other just moved to the other side of the country. But, I did have another friend who traveled all the way up from Florida who I was excited to see. And there were other faculty members who I’d forged a connection with in workshops and who I was interested in catching up with.
There was also an elephant in the room that is my brain, which was this: Since graduating last summer, I got a literary agent and a three-book deal, which is sort of unheard of (at least in my program), so I should have felt like a rock star. I mean, right?
You want to know how I felt instead? (Sure you do, or else you would have stopped reading this by now.) I felt the same way that I had when I stepped foot in my very first workshop at Fairfield. I’d read all of these pieces from other students and they were just so… different than mine. I had this gigantic binder with everyone’s work printed out and my comments and I felt so dumb because I had submitted the first chapter of a love story while someone was writing a dystopian novel, someone else was writing a story about rape in the military, and still another person was writing something decidedly more… literary. The woman who wrote the story about military rape and I had dinner together yesterday evening, and I thanked her for being the first person to tell me that it was okay to just say the guy in my story had a nice ass. She said something along the lines of, “There’s room at the table for all of it,” meaning all kinds of writing. She validated me for writing what I enjoyed, what I was passionate about. And yesterday, I felt a little bit of that validation, but also I felt a little bit like a zoo animal, because people who probably wouldn’t have spoken to me otherwise were excited to talk to the girl who would have been voted “least likely to succeed in an MFA program” back on that first day when all I cared about was how to properly describe the posterior of the leading man in my story. I didn’t tell them about the agent or the three-book deal, but, you know, word gets around.
So, anyway. Back to the agenda for the day. This is the part that left me feeling some sort of way. They decided to host a panel on cultivating a writer’s life post-MFA, which seemed like a relevant subject and would invite opinions from not only the faculty on the panel but from alumni as well. It turned into an open-forum-type discussion where folks were welcome to share, and many did, and that was nice. I raised my hand at one point, but didn’t feel comfortable sharing everything I really wanted to say. Much like one of those moments in real life where you’re fighting with someone and the perfect witty comeback to their snarky comment hits you at the most inopportune time – like, the next day in the shower, for example – I just couldn’t get the words together to offer genuine advice that might be helpful, or at the very least, different than your standard “develop a writing practice” guidance. Of course, as a writer (and a coward when it comes to public speaking), I was able to scribble it down after the fact. My apologies to the Fairfield people who I neglected to share this with when I had the chance yesterday afternoon.
When you write fiction, there’s a protagonist. My advice to you is to let your journey be like a novel, and be your own protagonist. You can do this in three simple ways:
1) Develop your character. Every protagonist has quirks, birthmarks, tattoos, things that set her apart and make her different, and by the end of the story, she’s got a character arc as well. As the protagonist in your MFA journey, lean into the shit that makes you different. Different is good. I wrote commercial genre fiction in a literary program, and I didn’t think there was space at the table for me, with my awkward binder and silly love stories. Yet, here I am, agented and publishing not one, not two, but three books. Go figure.
2) Find your best supporting characters, and allow them to enrich the story to its full capacity. In my case, that meant trusting my gut when it came to selecting a mentor. Alan Davis, an author and consummate family man from Minnesota who would pick up a romance novel about as fast as he’d pick up a side hustle as a drug lord, was the kindest, most incredible mentor I could have asked for. I was supposed to submit 25 pages to him per month to read, and somehow the poor man ended up reading three of my four novels over the course of our semesters together. He offered constructive criticism, encouragement when I decided I wanted to submit my work to literary agents, and he genuinely believed that I could find success. Without him, there’s a good chance I would have given up after the first novel was widely rejected. We made absolutely no sense on paper; he just finished penning a gorgeous, dystopian novel-in-stories and I just finished writing a meet-cute scene. But it didn’t matter; we forged a connection and a friendship that I treasure deeply. People make the journey worthwhile, so develop characters who will make your protagonist’s journey an incredible one.
3) Perhaps most importantly, define the stakes. Isn’t that the first question asked in every writing workshop? What’s at stake for your protagonist? This was the part I thought folks really could have benefited from. When I made the decision to go back to school, I knew it would have an impact on my children, who were 7 and 5 years old at the time. I would have to add this burden to my already busy day job running a non-profit organization. I would miss important moments of their childhoods. I would create a situation where my husband had to pick up the parenting slack so that I could juggle school and work, and I would stretch myself to the limits to try and be as present as possible during what little free time I did have, which would alienate friends and family members. The most important things in my life were at stake. My marriage. My relationships with my children. Not to mention my own sense of self-worth, as I wrote manuscript after manuscript, submitted them all, and climbed aboard the rejection roller coaster for 18 months. It felt like everything that mattered to me was at stake. So I set myself a goal and, more importantly, a deadline. I promised myself that if I didn’t have an agent by the time I graduated from school, I was going to stop trying. Stop producing work like that. Be satisfied with the four books I’d written, even if they never saw the light of day outside of my hard drive. I submitted to agents the spring of my final semester, and the summer before graduation, I submitted an R&R to Elizabeth Copps. Then, I graduated. I stopped writing. Rejections rolled in, some a few weeks old, some several months old. And finally, in early September, a month and a half after graduating, Elizabeth called and offered me representation. But I was willing to walk away from it all, because I could not, in good conscience, continue to chase down a pipe dream at the expense of my family. If I was going to continue to write, it had to be professionally. It had to bring an income into our home and somehow help better our lives. People said I was crazy to work that hard and be willing to give it all up. And they were right, but the bigger the risk, the bigger the reward. High stakes make for a great story, in my opinion.
So, that’s it. I went to Alumni Day, and it was awkward and weird, and I didn’t say the things I should have said, and I didn’t see all the people I wished I had. But it was still good. It reminded me that I'd gone on a long and scary journey for two years, and I emerged on the other side an author. And that even if I was too scared to talk about it in public, I was still brave enough to have done it in the first place.