I checked out the requirements and found that I met them, so I went and applied and got accepted. “Good deal,” I thought. “I’ve got it made.”
You know that old adage ‘the more you learn, the less you know’? It couldn’t be more apt. I had no idea what sort of seedy world I was trying to join. Craft books? Writing workshops? AWP? Literary journals? Writers writing quality works that mostly only get read by other writers and made no money? Huh? What’s all that? I thought people wrote good books (and bad books…there are some terrible books at B&N) and then money just ‘poofed’ into their bank accounts? No? Shit.
The program at UAA is a low-residency program, which means that, for each of the three years, the only required physical presence is 12 days in July, during which time the students and teachers all participate in the residency, which is a 12-hour-a-day, drinking-from-a-firehose sort of event. The rest of the year, the students email back and forth with their assigned mentors (the professors), trying to improve whatever it is they’re writing. So, I showed up at my first residency in the summer of 2017 knowing almost nothing about the writing world and feeling very out of place.
You remember the antagonist from Terminator 2? Robert Patrick’s character, the ‘melty terminator’, model T1000? Remember when he was frozen and then Arnold shot him and he shattered into several thousand pieces, but, because he was inside a steel mill and it was real, real hot, quickly thawed and then all the pieces just sorta congealed back into a shiny pool of metal? In the movie, the T1000 turns back into his badass self. During my first residency, that’s sort of what happened to my dreams and thoughts, except for the whole re-forming part. My thoughts and dreams are largely still a shiny, amorphous pool, but they are finally starting to show some signs of recombobulation.
It’s been about 16 months since I began. I don’t claim to have learned how to write, but I have learned to write better and I feel a little less out of place. I now know what ‘point of view’ is and can sometimes keep myself from stumbling between characters like an American at Oktoberfest. Story arcs? Sometimes I manage to incorporate them. One dimensional characters? Moved on to 2-D.
I’ve joined that seedy writing world, which has exposed me to poetry (I used to think poetry was both dumb and too confusing for me to understand) and writing conferences and literary journals and all sorts of good stuff. I’m going to AWP in March and think it will be constructive, rather than just fun. I’ve submitted some short pieces (I haven’t heard anything back, but that isn’t really the point). I’m making connections in the writing world, which isn’t quite the same as simply joining that world, though it’s related.
So, after all that blather, here’s the important question: is it worth it? Spending all that money on a graduate degree when you can more easily (and for much less) sit in an office or coffee shop and pound out stories and verse.
I say yes and here’s why: the vast majority of successful writers (we can argue all day long about the definition of ‘successful’…let’s please don’t and just agree that it means ‘good’) have some sort of association with the academic side of writing. Stephen King was a high school English teacher; Tolkien taught linguistics at Oxford; Rowling studied Classics. John Grisham has a law degree, which requires an inordinate amount of writing. Dr Seuss has a PhD in English Lit from Oxford. I’m not saying that one must have a writing-related degree to be a good writer, but there does seem to be a correlation.
To sum it up, I’m happy I’m in my MFA program. I love that it’s a low-res program because I am able to write on my own schedule. I’m thrilled to get quality feedback on my writing from successful and trained authors. It’s awesome to be joining the writing community. Will having an MFA make me successful? It is no guarantee, but, if one day, I happen to strike that right cultural note at the perfect time and the sounds ring out true, then I will happily give some of the credit to my program. If not, oh well. At least I’ll be able to tell better stories to my family.