I did undergrad in three years, taking extra summer and winter courses to knock out credit requirements. It was in the summer after my first year that I wrote the first short story of my adult life, then another two stories for a class I took in the fall of my second year. In spring of that year I didn’t really write. Over the summer, I think I wrote two new stories, which I workshopped online in the MFA Draft Fiction Workshop. Then, in my third year, I took two fall workshops and a yearlong thesis, workshopping three more stories in the process, along with a bunch of flash. I even pounded out a bunch of terrible poetry in my last semester, which somehow got me into the Salem Poetry Seminars for Massachusetts public college students.
As I’ve said before, I applied to a ton of MFAs. I applied with the best work I had, which probably wasn’t the best work I would have been capable of had I waited another year. Some great schools said yes, some other great schools said maybe, and some of them saw that I was way underbaked and said no. I eventually settled on Ohio State because I wanted a program with a strong academic component, access to quality courses across the whole grad school, and resources for families. Then I moved here, and that was that.
What I notice now about my undergrad work is that it was hugely variable in quality. Some of it won prizes, and some of it was published in magazines that people in my family had actually heard of! And some of it still makes me wince in recollection; some of it was embarrassing.
Either I got things right the first time…or I never got them right. For me at that time, what constituted progress was not learning how to fix my bad stories but learning to get it right more often. (Of course I thought I was making major edits to all my prose, but looking back I was completely wrong: I was rearranging deck chairs, sometimes on the Titanic.)
With my most recent story—which I am not ashamed to say was a hot steaming pile of poop when I brought it into workshop—I am finally learning to change the things that don’t work.
I showed my first, roughest and most horrible draft to some people I know from the Internet. I got as many comments as I could, then did some spot checking. But I knew this wasn’t enough. In preparation for my first workshop, I retyped the whole thing, adding and deleting passages, tightening some prose, and generally trying to make my sentences pop more. This is, by the way, where the old Cady would have stopped.
But that wasn’t enough either. Oh boy, was that not enough. I was lost with this story, and upset by it. I told anyone who would listen that writing the thing felt like pulling teeth. I brought it into workshop, where my classmates and instructor kindly, gently, generously helped me develop much firmer ideas about why and how I was sucking. I read all my classmates’ excellent notes on my work and I read all their excellent letters, and I figured out what elements the story was missing—which scenes I had to rewrite, which I had to write for the first time, and which I had to cut. Then I did that, causing the story to double in length. It’s a little intricate, taking place along two threads, present and past, with two passages that are really just sort of meditations on the life of the narrator and one passage that takes place in the more distant past. And when I tried to juggle those passages around in my word processor everything still felt wrong and bad, and I got nowhere.
So the next step was to print out the whole story, cut up the different passages, and rearrange them on the floor while my daughter was at daycare.
This task completed, I retyped the entire thing from the pieces I had rearranged on the floor, continuing the process of refining the prose as I went. Then I printed it out again with color-coded highlights over different recurring themes and objects, as well as over the narrator’s second-person verbal tic. Laying the story out like this helped me notice the places where I had sort of forgotten the things I wanted to recur throughout, so I was able to reintroduce these recurring elements into passages where they’d been left out.
Then I took my red pen to the same printed copy and did some proofreading, and a lot of cutting. And then I admired my draft. Perfect! I told myself. Haha. That night I realized that it was riddled with proofreading errors and awkward punctuation, so I did another run through. Now there’s less in the way of typos and needless commas, more in the way of readability.
I like the story as it stands. Really, I do. And while it might be possible to keep rearranging deck chairs, I’m proud to say I’ve rebuilt a solid ocean liner around the desiccated wreck that I first brought to workshop. Or something. I took bad writing and made it better, rather than throwing it in a garbage bin and having a long cry about my failings.
So why am I rambling about this process? Why should you care that I sank 40 hours of my life into a given story, wasting paper as well as time?
Because I really believe this is what the MFA is about, or at least a large chunk of what the MFA is about. The feedback I got from my peers in workshop, as well as from my instructor, was much more useful to me than any other feedback I’ve ever gotten in my life. Useful in the way that I truly believe only in-person feedback from a carefully selected group—not just your assorted writer friends—can be.
It’s entirely possible to produce good stuff and get published without the MFA. I’ve done it, mostly due to blind luck and persistence. But there is something about the structure of this place—about people encouraging you to dig deep, about learning to fix a story rather than toss it—that’s a much bigger and more complicated thing. The MFA is not teaching me to write, but to be the best possible doctor to my own writing. The MFA is teaching me to come to the work with humility, prepared to bust my butt and change everything as part of a systematic process. I like the idea of a systematic process, because I’ve spent way too much time vomiting words onto a page and hoping it all works out.
This is why I think people should apply to an MFA program. This process is, in my opinion, what everybody should bear in mind as they write their applications, but also after they show up and start at their respective schools.
And speaking of apps, I see it’s almost October. In a month or two we’ll be getting down to the wire. Good luck to everybody who’s reading this, and I hope you end up exactly where you need to be.