MFA Hesitancies

It’s not as if I woke up one day and decided I would do this: spend money and time, peel myself away from the track laid before me. I admire people who know their minds and make decisions, firm and quick. They don’t seem to have doubts or second thoughts and for that reason they are, to me, superhuman.

But a funny thing has happened this year—my year of choosing one path and then rather dramatically course-correcting: over and over people have said how impressed they are that I changed my mind and followed my heart, come what may. So maybe we all have these little superhuman abilities when something really important is at stake.

I don’t mean to say it was easy—not at all. And I felt a good amount of embarrassment, too. Did I seem as chicken-sans-head as I felt? The thing I’ve found is that if you believe in yourself, other people—the people who matter—will believe in you, too. Good friends want to be excited for you, and they want to see you do that thing that you’ve always wanted to do.

I feel exceptionally good about the decision I’ve made, but there are a few things about the MFA that I hope I can manage in the next two years:

  1. Balancing full-time work and the MFA program - I know others have done it and have managed their families besides. Surely I can, too—especially without kiddos or significant other. However, the creative space flourishes when the mind is at its best, least cluttered, most rested. At the end of a long workday, the day’s quota of problem-solving and problems-yet-to-solve can really drown everything else out. I’m not sure how to manage this, but I’m practicing leaving work at work. (If you’ve succeeded at this, please share your tips in the comments!)
  2. Writing and writing well - I love it, but can I do it regularly and despite all other commitments for two years? Time and determination will tell.
  3. Money - One’s money is one’s business, but I will say that this is an investment for me. I’m not expecting it to pay out in terms of ever achieving a New York Times Bestseller placement (if only!) but I do hope to learn, stretch, and eventually publish. To me, that’s worth it—but the cost and cost management is a stressor.
  4. Workshop - Honestly, this is the least of my worries at the moment. I have a pretty thick skin, thanks to age and experience, though I may feel more vulnerable in just a few weeks. Every participant, I’m sure, wants to Not Suck. We want constructive feedback, including criticism, but we don’t want to appear foolish. Oh, humanity!
  5. The residencies - I’m looking forward to them, but as someone who has fully embraced her introversion*, days packed with lectures, readings, workshops, and all manner of socialization sound exhausting. The bright light on the horizon? I received a note last week that I’ve been awarded a single room in the dormitory for this upcoming residency. (Yes, most participants share a double.) I’m so relieved! There is a chance of survival after all.

If you are currently at an MFA program, low-res or not, or if you are entertaining the idea or if you’ve graduated (ages ago or just a few months ago), I’d love to connect.

And for anyone at any point in the writing/MFA journey, I recommend The Postmasters Podcast.

View of Corridor, David Scott Mitchell's Residence, c. 1907 - State Library of New South Wales

View of Corridor, David Scott Mitchell's Residence, c. 1907 - State Library of New South Wales

*Most people cannot believe I’m an introvert. I’m not particularly shy; I like people well enough. But after socializing I need copious time to recharge. I have three days after the January residency before I go back to work. Think it’ll be enough?

Why I Decided to Get My MFA in Fiction

On a trip to Scottsdale with my then-boyfriend a few years ago we visited Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West. It was a weekday in February, which meant we were the youngest on the tour. When the guide asked the group where we all were visiting from, we said, “Napa Valley!” There was, I swear, an audible gasp. One lady said, “No …!” as if this could not possibly be true. And we said, well, yes. Envy on every face.

Napa Valley is the place of vacations for those who can afford it. It’s a place of fine food, beautiful California wines, impeccable wineries … And I can’t disregard the complaint that this place has become a playground for the rich. In a sense, it really has.

For those of us who live and work here, sure, we do enjoy the beautiful scenery, and we do splurge on great meals and wines when we can. There are bocce leagues and farmer’s markets and local events that emphasize the unique community this is. But like anywhere, work is work, and life is life. Just because one lives in a vacation spot doesn’t mean that they are as carefree as those on vacation. 

I moved back to the valley in 2002, fresh from a two-year stint teaching English in Prague and needing a steady paycheck and a life away from family. I was quite young then and not sure what shape my life would take. I imagined, vaguely, a husband and children but, as it turned out, had trouble falling in love, and when I did fall in love, invariably it wouldn’t work out. 

Never mind, then, I lived life. Enjoyed friends and restaurants and wines. I read and wrote when I could with no real goal in mind.

The Napa Earthquake

The 2014 Napa earthquake quite literally shook me out of my complacency: I had to get out. My condo wouldn’t stand up to another temblor and neither could I. Plus, Napa was limited to food and wine—it was all anyone cared about—and I wanted more. There was little diversity and stifling connectedness. My friends were getting married and their lives were moving in other directions. I had to move.

I researched cities with no known fault lines. I researched companies in those cities. I brainstormed inroads. 

I decided in April to pursue a MA-TESOL at Middlebury Institute of International Studies (MIIS). It was located in Monterey, not exactly an earthquake-free zone, but I could risk it for two years. I’d taught English, after all, and I imagined myself abroad—perhaps in Eastern Europe—working for a company managing their English-language communications. I gave notice at work; I prepared my condo for sale.

Fast forward through many unplanned events: ankle surgery and subsequent recovery, flooded garage and repairs, conversations with friends who were so proud of me, following my dream and all. 

And I realized that I wasn’t following my dream. My dream is to write, write, write until I get better. Until I die, really. 

The Fiction MFA

I wrote to MIIS, where I had been offered a dean’s fellowship, and said I wouldn’t be attending after all (to the tune of my $750 deposit) and applied to four low-residency MFA programs with plenty of hope but no expectations. I was accepted immediately at two schools; denied (after much waiting and fingernail biting) at two others—which in the end was a relief. Two acceptances proved enough of a decision.

There’s a lot of debate out there about whether the MFA is “worth it”—and it’s a debate that will probably continue to the end of time. I imagine it’s probably a good step up in value from my English undergrad degree—which is to say monetarily not much. (Though I would argue that my career trajectory owes a lot to my ability to write and edit, this blog notwithstanding.) Language, literature, humanity recorded, “pen is mightier than the sword” stuff—this is all extremely important to me, and I cannot change it, much like I can’t change my height or obnoxiously large shoe size. I crave learning and improving. I crave literature, and I want to create it, if I can. And so, yes, to me the MFA is very much worth it.

So I will be at Vermont College of Fine Arts soon for the winter residency. I’ve got my boots ready! Just need a good coat and a couple of solid sweaters. Stay tuned. I plan to blog the experience here.