Nothing about my first semester, both good and bad, is really what I expected.
Before entering my program at Emerson, I imagined this sort of idiotic kind of glamour, a substantially posh lifestyle that is living in Boston: theater shows, poetry readings at old stuffy Cambridge bookstores, $10 lattes, beautiful drunks (there were enough beautiful drunks to make up for everything else my experience lacked), and adults with 20/20 vision wearing thick rimmed glasses. Okay, so Boston is exactly like that, and I can only assume it’s a place for hipsters to go to feel more hipster and to have sex with lots and lots of hipsters. I don’t know, that’s not really my thing. Beyond this silly (and accurate) vision I had of Boston, I also imagined I would be a furious writer. Not furious as in angsty, but someone who writes with furious intensity. I pictured a 70 page manuscript, publishers, street cred. I’m being facetious, but you understand the sentiment; I thought I would write more.
I actually wrote less during my first semester than I did before starting the program.
While I wrote less, the quality of my work substantially improved. I don’t mean that an MFA program is there to make you a better writer; it is and it isn’t for that purpose. An MFA won’t give you talent, by any means. What it will do is help bring clarity to your work. Not just the clarity in the sense that readers will understand what you are saying, but clarity as a way to communicate your ideas and images to mean exactly what you want them to mean. In other words, you gain control of your craft. For example: pre MFA I broke my lines so that the next line would be unexpected; during the MFA I learned to break lines more naturally in regards to rhythm and pace. The latter is not necessarily better than the former, but I am more able to control my lines than before. Okay, so I learned stuff. That’s not so bad. What is bad is that I wrote about 7 poems, only 4 of which I really like. I’m uncomfortable with that kind of slow pace.
I didn’t go to any poetry readings.
My program does have a weekly reading for students, but it’s for all genres (fiction and non fiction as well as poetry). I can’t think of anything more boring than listening to someone read me their story or essay. I’m sorry, I don’t discriminate against genres, but I don’t have a great attention span. It is very rare that I don’t get lost when hearing other people speak for more than a few minutes at a time. Also, there was only one guest reader who came to do a poetry reading at our school. Back at my undergrad university, we sometimes had two or three a semester. Granted, Emerson is a very small school whereas GSU is huge. But I feel that I should be getting more since I’m paying almost 3X as much to attend Emerson than Georgia Southern.
Grades don’t determine talent or improvement with your craft; it only determines how consistent you are with turning in your work and showing up to class.
So this isn’t just a problem with MFA’s, but with all of academia. Grades don’t determine intelligence or artistic ability. What it does show is that you go to class, turn in your work, and participate. The problem? All of that is nice and dandy if you are looking to hire someone reliable, but that’s not the point of the MFA. The point is to make better writers out of us, and you can be a good and prolific writer without being reliable to others. Secondly, the application process to these programs is based almost entirely on talent and craftsmanship; why bother doing that if we are just to be subjected to being graded on our course completion? Maybe they should start grading us on how many publications we get. Not only can the college brag about how awesome the students are, but it also fosters competition. Really, I’m just calling for something more tangible to be graded on other than being a good student. I mean this change in grades to only be applicable to workshops, not literature courses. (Note: I got an A in both of my classes, I’m not complaining because of my grade, just what the grade really stands for).
You will be distracted by other obligations to your program than just writing.
This goes along with my first point that I wrote less than I did before joining the MFA. I spent much more of my time completing work for my literature course than I did writing. In all honesty, there was very little writing that I did turn in. If you want to get an MFA to take time off to write, don’t do it. Many of you will end up teaching along with school, or even work part time when you realize that big check they gave you for attending their school really wasn’t all that much and you can’t stand the thought of living off Ramen like you did back in college. An MFA isn’t time off; it’s work. Lots, and lots of stressful, unguided work. You are what determines if your time spent during the MFA is worth it or not, and that means a lot of time spent not writing, a lot of time researching, trying to get published, reading and writing essays, reading other poetry. The worst part is you have no idea what works and what doesn’t work and you have no one telling you if what you are doing or writing is what you should be doing or writing.
And I absolutely love it all. Yes. I loved/love it. Almost every day I went to class tired, pregnant, hormonal, sick, angry, upset. But I loved every second of it. I am always around poetry. I am always reading poetry. I have the time to figure out how to do it, for the most part, on my own. I love that I have the balls to not care about criticism of my work. I love that I can pick and choose which opinions to listen to. I can decide for myself what is and isn’t bad advice. I feel like I’ve earned something from poetry.
So, if you want a master’s degree that’s almost useless unless you have the publishing cred to go along with it, along with some of the most amazing writerly experiences you will ever have, do it. Go get that MFA. But don’t expect to learn how to be a writer because no one will tell you. You have to learn that part on your own. Don’t expect to have lots of time to write, you won’t, especially if you have any sort of life outside of writing. Don’t expect your grades to matter; they don’t. If anything, your first semester as an MFA student will show you if you really really really oh so badly want to be a poet like you’ve always dreamed your wildest dreams about being, or you really just like the idea of being a writer. Being a writer means that you have to write when you are sick and tired and pregnant and cranky, when loved ones die, when your relationships start to fail, when you’re fat and hate yourself for it. It means doing the goddamn work when you really don’t feel like it but you do it anyway because that’s who you are: a writer. You, writer, have titanium testicles the girth of Zeus’s head, so hoist those bad boys up into a jock strap, put on your big girl panties, suck it up and go write because you know that it’s completely worth it.