Reading & Writing

My MFA in Fiction (in 1600 words)

I had one real goal when I decided to get my MFA in fiction: to meet other writers. I knew that, in time (and with a lot of practice), I could most likely polish my work to publishable on my own. There are lots of books on crafts, lots of beautiful work from which to take inspiration, and I was in the position to spend a lot of time at my computer. The problem was, my main feedback was from my mother. My husband read my work but he never criticized, only praised. I needed some more expert, or at least informed, opinions. I also needed to talk about writing. I needed to talk about books, and get recommendations from something other than Goodreads. This was worth enough to me that, to complete my degree, I split my time between two towns, an hour and a half apart, living in two different apartments, driving on country roads in all kinds of weather.

The problem is, I’m not very good with people. I don’t always understand social norms and large groups sap my energy. Also, my imagination sometimes betrays me. When I imagined the group of writers I’d be at school with, I thought of hunched and surly introverts, people who’d seen the glow of their computer screens far more than they’d seen the sun, people who lived more inside their minds than in the real world. Not that I exactly fit that description, myself. But I didn’t expect a group of fun-loving extroverts. At the very least, I didn’t expect them to throw a Welcome-to-Grad-School barbecue at a lake.

I went, but I was terrified.

There was no sign telling me I was in the right place. I had met one professor, but he wasn’t there, and I didn’t know anyone else. People had hula hoops, people wore bathing suits, they laughed, there was a buffet. I had brought my husband’s favorite corn and bean salad to share but I was too afraid to bring it to the table–I made him do it instead. I parked myself on the outskirts, my heart beating like a rabbit’s, and ate nothing, speaking only to the few people who decided to seek me out.

After this terrible first impression, I don’t blame anyone who didn’t like me. I know that social anxiety can come off as snobbishness, and that my elevated pulse and sweaty palms aren’t always apparent to onlookers. At my first theatrical audition when I was fifteen, a woman approached me and said that she was going to sit next to me and absorb some of my calm–apparently I struck her as the most confident person in the room, when in reality, I was one heartbeat away from palpitations. I suppose I have a good poker face. Perhaps I should start playing poker. Unfortunately, this involuntary armor seems to keep people from having any clue what I’m thinking or how I feel about them.

Since my son was born, I’ve lost pretty much all of my social anxiety. From the moment you lie on a bed with your vagina displayed to a group of nurses and interns, shyness begins to fade. You make it through labor, and you realize you’re tougher than you thought. After these couple of lessons, I made it my task to socialize my son (and myself) whether I wanted to or not. I went to gathering after gathering of women I’d never met, ringing doorbells of houses I’ve never been to, and guess what? Nobody bit me. There might have been some emotional abrasions along the way, especially when discussing our kids’ development and parenting methods, but nothing that required so much as a Band-Aid.

But back then. Oh, I wanted to fit in. And I didn’t. Which was frustrating. After all, in my husband’s circle of computer/electric engineering friends, I’m the artsy one. But among my fellow grad students, I was straitlaced and conventional. Plus I was married, and in a group of mostly single, mostly 22-to-32-year-old artists, sex is going to be a big part of the social dynamic. After my first event (a literary reading), one of my fellow students came up to me and asked if I wanted to get a drink. I thought he was inviting me to a group gathering. He was not. Well, there were four of us. I brought my roommate and he brought a friend (one a gay woman, the other an enfianced man–which kind of added to my perception that the invitation was completely platonic, but I was deceived). By the third mention of my husband, my new friend had somewhat shut down, and though we all kept talking, it was incredibly awkward. Either that, or he didn’t mean to “ask me out,” but I’m just such a dud that he had no fun talking to me as a friend, either.

That’s how bad I can be with people. I’m still not 100% sure.

So let me just make a lot of long stories short and say that my MFA experience was riddled with awkward social interactions such as this. And we rarely talked about writing or books outside of class. Beer, whiskey, music, sex: yes. Even when my classmates met famous authors, that’s what they talked about. I once asked them what they did at AWP and they said it wasn’t really about the panels, but meeting people. They then described a long interaction with an up-and-coming author who was much-talked-about in my program, in which they spent hours discussing, if I recall correctly, Radiohead.

I like Radiohead. If I meet an author I admire, though, and have traveled hundreds of miles and spent hundreds of dollars to do it, I do not want to talk about Radiohead. Not for more than five minutes, anyway.

None of this is to say that I didn’t get a lot out of grad school. I loved my thesis meetings most of all, and my work on the literary magazine (until my tendency toward workaholism added to my social problems). Classes were good. My work improved dramatically. But even immediately after graduation, I had very few former classmates to whom I would send my work and who would read it and send it back. Now, it’s been years since I traded work or even had contact with anyone from grad school. I don’t even really keep up with them on Facebook. It makes me sad, when I think about it. But that’s life. Not all acquaintances stick, and sometimes people you thought were your friends didn’t really feel that way about you.

Now, on one hand, I still know these people, whether or not we are close. I know which ones to email if I need a small press recommendation or some poetical knowledge, and I’m pretty sure my correspondence would be met warmly. I know which ones never to try to contact again. Though I haven’t sent out work for peer review in a long time, I can come up with quite a few names I would ask to read my work, though I can’t say whether or not they would want or have time to do it. In this sense, I absolutely met my goal in going to grad school: I met writers. The insecure part of me believes there are a few who wouldn’t remember me, but that’s probably just neurosis. It is not neurosis, I’m sure, to say that some do not remember me fondly. Then again, who knows? As a fiction writer, it is my deepest desire to get into people’s heads and poke around, and that’s one thing people usually won’t let you do.

I’ve always been curious about other MFA programs, and whether they have a similar dynamic. I’ve also wondered, if I went to grad school when I was younger, when I was single, when I could have lived full-time in town–what would it have been like then? In many ways, I am glad that my marital status guarded me from the intra-program dating scene. Adding the he-likes-me-he-likes-me-not drama to things could have made it unbearable. It certainly seemed to distract some of my peers (though others seemed to derive creative fuel from such conflicts). But I’ll never know, will I? And that’s probably a good thing.

I have shied away from writing about my MFA experience for a long time, and obviously, this isn’t the most detailed post. There’s no need for gory details, really. To sum it up, there are times I wish I’d never gone, but overall it vastly improved my writing because, contrary to much of the criticism that MFA programs receive, it allowed me to return to and develop my own voice and style–something that my Bachelor’s degree had stripped away. It gave me much-needed reading lists and deadlines. It gave me the courage to eventually refuse to finish reading a book because I didn’t enjoy it (as opposed to my previous position that, if I didn’t like something, especially a classic, I was probably just too stupid to get it and should push through anyway). My advisor provided invaluable feedback and encouragement. And, really, it was probably good that I didn’t swim comfortably in the pool of my peers; without conflict, fiction fails, and no matter how much we invent in our fiction, we are always inspired by our own experiences to one degree or another.

Grad school also gave me the courage to make statements like that without worrying what anyone else might argue. I absolutely believe it and I don’t care how many big words and academic arguments any of you throw at me, I won’t back down.

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