Inside the MFA
I just finished my first year of the MFA! I’m quite speechless, so this post is short and sweet. I’m in disbelief of all the things I’ve read and written this year. This year has been one of the most difficult in terms of finding balance, but I definitely feel enriched by the experience. I recently watched the third years in my program do their thesis defenses (the first hour is public) and was floored by each individual’s grace while discussing their work. I’ll admit, I felt a sinking anxiety when I thought about my own future thesis that will take shape in the next two years (I need to write so many poems, what will they look like?! How formally “experimental” will they be?! Who do I still need to read?!). This feeling was quickly relieved when I thought about how much I love working with the other two poets in my year, and writers outside my genre. These wonderful people are the reason I came here, and I am so glad we all have two more years to share work and books, drinks, and laughs.
I was fortunate enough to attend the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference a few weeks ago in Los Angeles. Students in my program talk about their past experiences at AWP in almost mythic terms. AWP is the place where you might bump into your literary idols while waiting in line at the book fair, meet your future agent through some mystical circumstances, or simply party it up with people whose names you only know because of Twitter. Part of this myth exists the less talked about phenomena of going to panels upon panels, getting lost in the book fair, going to off-site reading after off-site reading, losing your crew at some party that feels unnecessarily fancy, crashing the Airbnb (you’re sharing with nine other bodies, of course), then waking to do it all again. In many ways this was my introverted self’s nightmare. On my last day in Los Angeles I took an hour bus to The Museum of Jurassic Technology by myself to get a dose of alone time. On my red-eye home, sleep-deprived while planning the lesson I was to teach in the hours after landing, I wondered if it was worth it. My short answer is yes.
I’ve been thinking a lot about writer’s block lately since I’ve started to have more time to write after figuring out some semblance of work/life balance. Writer’s block has always been a frustrating concept for me, maybe because I desperately want to believe that my ability or desire to write is not left up to some muse or mystical impulse. Then again, I don’t want to invalidate sense that sometimes it doesn’t feel like the right time to write, or that I don’t have something interesting to say.
I’m only about a month into my second semester and my life already feels thick with the usual things like books, lesson plans, articles, internship tasks, applications for summer funding, and poems crammed into whatever spaces are left on the ever-growing to-do list. What’s strange and somewhat surprising is my newfound sense of being settled here, amidst the barrage of tasks. Settled, but definitely not stagnant.
This is sort of a strange post as I’m not actually in class or teaching from mid December through mid January, but in this liminal winter break place, I’m thinking a lot about revision. This idea of a “break” is sort of laughable to me since I think there’s always something to revise, and new pieces to write. The work never ends. I can always tinker but I don’t think I’d have it another way.
‘Tis the season for feeling tense. I’m sure many of you reading are applying to programs right now, which is both exciting and hellish as the holidays approach. MFAs like myself have papers or exams to grade, coursework to finish, pieces to revise, and various deadlines for contests/fellowships/residencies are fast approaching. Often some semblance of balance feels somewhat unattainable. I have grading to do right now, and of course instead of tying up loose ends I am watching Bjork music videos and submitting to journals.
One of my biggest fears upon entering the MFA was that workshop would be a source of enormous anxiety spurring impostor syndrome, which would set me into some horrible cycle in which I would be completely unable to write. I think this fear came from my forgetting that writing is a communal activity. I don’t think I realized that I was yet to meet some of the best readers of my work. Maybe I sit alone in my apartment reading or in a coffee shop with my headphones in when I’m writing, but there’s that undeniable urge to talk about a piece with a friend, to bounce ideas off one another, to ask them for their thoughts.
Like many (most?) people, I find transitions incredibly difficult and anxiety-inducing. What is comforting is that this scene (writing at 1 a.m. on a weeknight shoving a semi-stale “everything” bagel into my mouth) is not terribly distant from where I was roughly a year ago, except I was writing statements of purpose and selecting poems for my writing sample instead of writing this column. Five weeks into my MFA, there’s a somewhat constant feeling that I’m not somehow not doing enough on top of a fairly full schedule (I’m a TA which means leading two sets of discussion a week and attending lecture twice a week on top of my own coursework and a feeble attempt at a social life).
The title of this column is perhaps a little deceiving, I myself am generally skeptical of any title that alludes to sensation and am reminded of things like Dateline specials and conspiracy theories. I mean to say that Inside the MFA is a column in which I’ll be sharing my experiences as a first year student at the University of Minnesota. In a way, I’m “on the inside” of this MFA world, which, admittedly is somewhat secluded. However, my aim is to not to sensationalize. Rather, I’ll be describing my experiences here for perhaps potential MFA-ers thinking about applying to programs, and possibly current MFA-ers and creative writing educators interested in this particular experience, as I navigate teaching, writing, and building literary community.