Portland / Transition / Tucson / Writing

That Post-Grad School MFA Blog Post

Commencement speech, June 2012

Commencement speech, June 2012

I’m sorry, but it’s a legal term of my student loan, along with my firstborn’s soul and the head of Daenerys Targaryen (because I’m about 97% sure that Joffrey is the CEO of Sallie Mae). If you’re going to read the blog of someone who’s received their MFA, you’re going to eventually be reading about how they’re not getting their MFA anymore. Here we go, then.

This June will mark two years since I graduated the Pacific University MFA, which feels like a nanosecond. It also marks four years since I started it, which feels more like two centuries back. I have a hard time remembering the person I was when I started; even looking back in pictures, it’s tough to recognize that girl (she was, after all, dyeing her hair red). She wasn’t a writer. At all. I mean, yes. She’d written one, maybe two personal essays in the three years between undergrad and grad school. She’d drafted a creative thesis for her college graduation, along with a bunch of bad “novels” and fanfiction in middle and high school. But she never carved out specific time to sit down and string words together, or even to read. She was marching down a career path that was already making a detour to a cliff’s edge seem preferable, after only a couple years in.

I can’t prescribe an MFA program to anyone who has ever wanted to write, but for me in that place four years ago, it was the best possible choice I could have made for myself. My life was re-infused with passion and purpose. I became disciplined; I learned quickly to say no to everything else in the world I might otherwise be doing, like watching movies or exploring downtown or lounging in a bar perfecting the art of pool shots. I heard the stories of successful writer’s journeys so when my true struggles with creation and publication began, I was (kind of) prepared. None of this would have happened to me if I had just, I don’t know, made a new year’s resolution to really “check into that writing life deal.” Some people might be better at learning those ropes on their own. If so, congrats. Enjoy your not-$60K-in-debt lifestyle.

I hesitate to name one result of the MFA as most important, but definitely up there toward the top are the people I met. I didn’t know writers before I started the program; books were handed down by unseen demigods who had been granted the power to publish their words by divine right. When I began my grad school residency, I realized that for the first time in 25 years of life, I was among my people. I fell madly in love with my friends and all that they were: brilliant, thoughtful, dedicated, astute, awkward, fun, understanding of what it was like to possess a writer’s heart in an unappreciative world. With them, in a world where conversations about narrative point-of-view were treasured, I felt unequivocally at home.

In those two MFA years, life changed. I began to value my skills, which meant valuing myself. I left the job that made me eye bottles of bleach as though they’d quench my thirst. I ate better, dressed better, used my time as if it was precious. I grew up.

But like most bubbles, they burst. And I guess I can’t say that I had this big, mean, terrible bust when I graduated. No, the writing life kept going. Opportunities came along that I’d only wistfully dreamed of while I was in school. My writing got better. It keeps doing that (anytime that ceases to happen will be when the true panic ensues). What grates at my heart like a rusty razor is missing the people, the at-last tribe.

Relationships are hard to keep across the country.

Holy fucking duh.

The people may be reachable, but the cloud is gone. We’re no longer counting down the days together where we’re converging in the same place to hear our favorite writers speak and sing karaoke. There’s only so many people you can keep in contact with, and only so often. Meanwhile, the “kids” still in the program–fewer and fewer I actually know as each semester passes–take our places. Steal our advisor’s hearts. Belt out our karaoke songs and chow on our Maggie’s Buns (it’s a Pacific thing, sorry). If one wants to feel replaced, they need only lurk around Facebook during residency week. All of the shenanigans are happening, but you’re not invited. You’re not even remembered.

Which would explain the flare-up of homesickness in my gut the past couple of weeks. I’m proud of who I am as a writer and what I’ve accomplished, but it’s lonely work. Without a regiment with built-in companions, it’s worse.

I’m still trying to get my footing in this city. There’s so many people and so much bustle I miss from my groovy Oregon lifestyle. I get these sudden waves of regret: did I put myself out there enough in school? Did I socialize enough? Did I miss an opportunity? Was I a social pariah who just convinced herself otherwise? Is it all a dream?

Then, I get a lifeline.

A couple of my fellow Pacific alums, my long-distance writing group. There’s Stephanie, who through some freak scheduling fluke never shared a workshop with me during our whole school career, and Sharon, who studied fiction while I was laser-focused on memoir. Somehow we came together again, many months later, from wild-flung corners of the continent. We video conference in our workshops, compare notes, share the experience of marching on without a dictated beat. My pieces grow stronger by leaps and bounds. I’m inspired by gnawing through their work’s issues alongside. So much of what I missed about school ushered back into my life like a care package. It’s not the same, no. Then again, neither are we.

So. If you’re looking for MFA insight, here’s what I’ve got. You may not come away with everything and everyone you had during those golden grad school years. But if you can hold on to a couple of the best parts, a taste of what fueled you, a fraction of that tribe to keep stumbling with, then you’ve graduated with honors.

And for the love of god, stay off Facebook during residency week.

Pacific University's Marsh Hall, June 2010

Pacific University’s Marsh Hall, June 2010

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