Tuesday, September 1, 2015

A Variation on the Writing Path: Part II: The MFA

You may never feel like a real writer until someone gives you that first resounding acceptance, and requests your work for their journal. At least I never did. In my time at grad school, I had a few publishing nibbles that somehow convinced me to never give up. But ultimately, I lived in the convincing bliss--and still do--that there is something worthwhile in the act of writing.

In regard to having a career in writing, I got minimal support from my advisors at Goddard. If anything, this wasn’t even a consideration. It’s as if there is an unwritten rule that everyone pursues an MFA to become a working writer, but no one talks about it. This seemed particularly true at Goddard. In fact, if there’s one thing you sacrifice for going to a lauded school that no one seems to regard enough, it’s that you may come away from it lacking in the knowledge you might find most useful. The awful thing is you won’t realize this until it’s too late. The real world experience you get from just writing is about all you can count on.

I probably could have done more at the time I was in school, but no one provided any encouragement or direction, and I didn’t have a clue. I don’t blame myself for my naivete, because even when I managed to ask for guidance, I received stern resistance, as if my enthusiasm turned them off. This is perhaps not so surprising. These advisors were just struggling writers like we all aspired to be, most with a few modestly published books from obscure presses. I got the sense that none of them wanted us students to venture into their hallowed halls; we acted like they all had some secret society to protect, and they never disabused us of the notion.

I used to staunchly defend Goddard against this shortsightedness, but the truth is, I’d advise anyone to not go there unless she has exceptional self motivation. Almost ten years out, I only know of a handful of my classmates that are still writing (I’m referring primarily to the fiction writers). I would be curious to see the statistics on post MFAs in creative writing who are still actively pursuing that dream. Unfortunately, it can seem as elusive as that, pursuing a dream. I’ve also lost touch with most of my classmates--perhaps a reality of the long distance so many end up traveling to attend a low residency program.

I didn’t go to Goddard for a career, exactly. I wanted to get the training and instruction of an MFA in order to become a better writer. I can honestly say at the time I applied, I was desperate to get my foot in the writing door, and Goddard’s program looked appealing.

Since then, I’ve pursued literary journals, publishers, and agents in the face of often daunting indifference. That I’ve managed to eke out a writing practice is more a testament to my perseverance--I would be hard pressed to give much credit to anyone else. I’m always curious about these young writers whose debut novels or story collections have three pages of acknowledgements, as if it takes a village to make a writer. I suppose it does require one to produce a book, and then when the blurbs are given out, more names to thank again.

Several years on from my MFA, I have begun to find some support and encouragement from a community outside of Goddard. Yet even this has the taint for me of feeling unnatural, even contrary to its purpose. I’m still looking for a way to establish my presence in the proverbial community of writers. The village isn’t on any map.

No matter my gripes about Goddard, I am almost certain I would have felt far less comfortable in any other program. I made do with its peculiar limitations. I should stress that the work was not easy, but it was rewarding and worthwhile. After the initial struggle, I became adept. I was eager--maybe too eager for my advisors’ modest expectations. But I learned how to read critically there, and how to apply what I was reading to the enrichment of my own creative work. This was useful for me in eventually writing reviews. This is what I made of the program for myself. I could have done it more easily if I had wanted; I chose to push myself. I had to overcome my own limitations to stay on top of the reading and writing. It was like riding a wave in shark infested waters for two years; though you might lose your balance a few times, you never fell off.

In this regard, I don’t mean to sell short Goddard; I actually loved my advisors there, who instilled in me my practice. I still write regularly, which is usually daily. Without question, it is an important part of my life. I can’t even keep up with all of the new material I generate, though unlike Vollmann, I don’t have the wherewithal to get it all between covers--though I’m sure I wouldn’t even if I could.

Writing is one of the most self contenting vocations because it creates its own projects, its own problems, its own momentum. That is, before or after you strip away the sense of humiliating slights, the chronic rejection, the crippling envy. Even in spite of these difficulties, it can be practiced without much to impinge from the outside world. I was thinking today why I do any of it: why work so determinedly on a fifth novel when the first four may never see the light of day? I don’t know if you need to have an audience--but it is nice on occasion. Just the fact that I’m writing this somewhat intimate confessional on a blog gives me the sense that it will reach a few interested readers. As for the novel du jour and the hard hours of obscure toil that go into it, there’s a small hope for its discovery by someone other than myself. Who doesn’t want the rewards of a celebrated work?

One certainty: no two writers follow the same path. Although I can say that I got serious about writing when I decided to pursue my MFA, I had expected the completion of the degree to make the choice of writing as a vocation a bit more comfortable, more conducive to my aspirations; looking back, it’s been anything but that. 

Interested in reading Part I? Check it out here.


  1. A cri de couer we hear all too often about this "profession". I'm totally with you and encourage you to keep with it. But what does it mean for someone who isn't, as your bio has it, "[p]ublished in dozens of literary journals"?

  2. I guess, as I said in the opening paragraph, try to live in the convincing bliss that there is something worthwhile in the act of writing.

    I don't mean to be glib.

    Another way of looking at it is that you have to start somewhere. I started a while ago and I'm still trying to get traction.

    I was reading this piece on Joy Williams (short story writer) in the NYTimes Magazine, and learned that even after all of her "success", she still isn't making a living at writing--at least this is what is implied in the article.

    I don't know if it will ever be a full career for me, but I can dream.

    Thanks for reading, Jim!