Tuesday, September 21, 2010

State of the MFA: Year Zero

State of the MFA: this week's retrospective on the grad school process and plans for the future.
I begin before the beginning.  I begin with year zero.

I've posted in the past about how I finally came to the decision to apply to MFA programs. It was something that I'd greatly resisted when leaving college even though I majored in English writing -- my institution's degree that was half English lit, half writing classes.  I thought that writers had to be starving artists because they earned so little.

I rather liked food, so I applied to law school.

In short, law school sucked.  The parts of it that were cool, they told me I would not do as a practicing lawyer.  The parts of it that were a akin to waterboarding while watching paint dry, were the ones they told me I would do daily for the first ten years I practiced until I could afford to pay someone else to do them for me.  So I left.

Panic and whimsy hit me all at once.  I was in love with Chicago and I hated it.  I walked the South Loop and ground my teeth and hunched my shoulders against the wind and the drizzle.  I walked the lake shore and wanted nothing more than to sit next to a young tree and watch the waves.  I remember getting a copy of Poets & Writers mailed to me by my mother -- because for some reason you can't buy a newsstand copy of it in Chicago -- and going out to the marina during the last days of October.  I sat on the cold cement and dangled my legs over the edge.  Behind me, an occasional jogger or cyclist went by.  There were no boats tethered except one; the rest were already in winter storage.  One lone goose paddled up to me; he hung out with me the whole time I was there just in case I might feed him.  The chill seeped through my jeans, and my butt and thighs went numb, I gave the finger to the law school homework I'd been assigned and read every MFA related article in Poets & Writers until I could not feel my fingers for the cold.

Deciding to apply to MFA programs on or around November 1, is a difficult proposition.  I don't recommend it as a strategy.  But I was desperate, unemployed, not in school, and had just moved back into my parent's house.  It was a prove yourself by doing this situation.  So I did.

I applied to six schools.  Three were reach schools (fully funding all students), two were considered sleeper programs, and one was a safety school.  I don't necessarily recommend "safety schools" when applying to MFAs.  Wherever you apply to should be someplace you would actually move to and live there if you got in.  However, I was in a bit of a strange situation, what with the whole dashing of one plan -- I had done nothing but plan to be a lawyer for the 24 months prior -- and the unemployment, and the when are you going to move out of my house questions ... I was willing to go someplace I didn't really want to go to just to be moving forward.  I didn't get into the three schools that fully funded all students -- I later found out that they'd each had 2000-3000 applicants -- but I got into all of the other three, and went to one of the sleeper programs.

But in that dark period between Jan.1, when the last application was due and mid-March when they started letting people know, I did the smartest thing I could have done: I dedicated myself to writing the shitty first draft of a novel.  I finished it and proved to myself that I was a finisher not a quitter (quitting law school had put me in danger of thinking that way).  And I kept my mind off checking the MFAblog hourly.

At the time, the MFAblog was THE ONLY place to go.  Since then it's gone downhill and the Poets&Writers online forums for this sort of thing have improved drastically.  But don't post on either, or spend January and February checking either: it will only drive you crazy.  And then, two or three years later, you'll realize that you sounded just as naive, pretentious, impatient and whiny when you posted as those people who are posting today.

I think, in an ideal world, I would have asked more questions.  I would have taken my time applying.  I would have considered low-res programs that fitted my creative needs, instead of looking only for schools that would provide me with an excuse not to take my bizarre skill set into the job market during what was not-yet-called-a-recession.  Back then, my mindset was that if I showed up and applied myself, whatever teacher in whatever program could teach me to write well, and I could take that and use it as a foundation for whatever it was I wanted to do.  Back then, I also didn't know what I wanted to "do" in terms of my own writing.

I waffle between saying I would have been more successful if I'd waited until I'd known myself better, and saying that I learned more about my writing because I was in the MFA.  I think that if you're leaving nothing (like I was) to find yourself, then go and go boldly.  If you're leaving a job or moving a spouse ... maybe you want to find yourself first.

Highly Recommended