We took a couple of creative writing classes way on back in the day. One of them was with a born-again Christian punk rock couple who wrote stories heavily "inspired" by 90210 episodes. For some doubtless well-intentioned reason (conversion?) they invited us to a Christian punk show/kegger at their house, which we attended in a Spirit of Adventure; the keg turned out to be full of fruit punch (really). In a different class one of our stories made a graduate student cry (yep, really: "Why do you hate men so much? I'm a white man (sob, sob) and I'm a GOOD (sob) PERSON!" To which we can only say: IT'S FICTION). Taking that as a sign from the universe, we moved on to the infinitely more pragmatic and lucrative field of postcolonial French literature. Lucky for you we've got friends who stuck it out in the trenches, all the way to the hallowed MFA. Consider yourselves warned, little cupcakes. And you thought AGENTS were cranky.
As The School Year Approaches, A Word About MFAs
by Special Guest Cherie "Hearts in My Eyes For Al Burian" L'Ecrivain
Every once in a while when someone is in my living room they notice that discreetly shelved among all my movies about sharks/dinosaurs/apocalyptic weather are the first three seasons of Grey's Anatomy. When the laughter subsides I explain that there is something about the camaraderie among the interns of Seattle Grace Hospital that I envy intensely. It seems they are constantly bonding over accidentally killing their patients or fornicating with the wrong people while I am alone in my apartment, hunched over my laptop playing with my imaginary friends—pardon, characters—and debating how best to wield the mighty power of the semi-colon. Writing can be some lonely fucking business, not to mention relentlessly hard work, and I will hazard a guess that the popularity of MFA programs has a lot to do with the sad truth that people will pay good scratch for the illusion that this most solitary of endeavors can be magically transformed into a team sport. Some genius figured this out and thus a powerful money-making/vast social experiment was born.
Beyond actually acquiring the physical diploma, it’s difficult to gauge the success of your tenure as an MFA student. It’s not like the degree is meant to help you land a well-paying job. Most of the workshops are heavily focused on short stories and then once a semester an agent visits the class and tells you that story collections are completely unmarketable and no one will even consider publishing yours until you have a novel to back it up. At least this way when you graduate without a book deal or salable manuscript it is only partially your fault. However, your time in an MFA program can be considered a triumph if you clock more hours actually writing than you do vomiting up your student loan money in the bathroom of every bar in Park Slope. If by your final semester you are still fucking around 95% of the time and then either staying up all night to throw together some nonsense for your workshop OR committing the cardinal MFA sin of submitting one of the stories from your application portfolio to your unsuspecting peers then CONGRATULATIONS, you have just wasted up to $120,000 and three years of your time. Also, bonus: everybody hates you.
You will also know how well you have done based on who you are still speaking to when school is over. All MFAs are composed of people who are used to being the standout writer in any workshop they’ve ever attended. So, take twelve to forty people who are equally good at something but accustomed to being the best and put them in a situation where they are required to critique one another and compete for praise and prizes. Have fun navigating that obstacle course of loyalties and animosities, particularly when the participants are perpetually steeped in sleep deprivation and alcohol. In any workshop you'll be lucky to find one or two people who are good readers for your “work”—yes, you will call it that, eventually—and that's nice and all. But more importantly, it’s clutch for your sanity to have at least one friend who understands that your most outrageous fantasies are about having health insurance and that every time someone at a dinner party asks if you “rent or own” your Brooklyn apartment, a little part of you dies inside. More likely than not, the day will come when you need a someone to talk you out of leaping into the Gowanus Canal because a professor calls "bullshit" on something you wrote, a friend who will assure you that your time would NOT be better spent learning the far more lucrative art of court stenography. Your non-writer friends may certainly enjoy the novelty of having you around, but when they are eating at restaurants you cannot afford it’s good to have a person you can phone from the bathtub while you crack open another box of wine and ask the universe why everything has to be so hard.
Bear these things in mind at orientation as you surreptitiously look for wedding rings amongst your classmates and debate the merits of this or that bar near campus. Later, when the personality disorders begin to surface and you know more about these people than you ever wanted, comfort yourself with the thought that, for all their shortcomings, you’ll never again be so beset by a group that routinely asks after the well-being of your characters as if they were old friends and can happily bond over beers and a rousing affirmation of the power of the mighty semi-colon.