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What I Learned in Year One of an MFA Program

In this post I’m supposed to be wrapping up my academic year, only I’m in the odd situation of having no year to discuss. Which isn’t to say I haven’t, you know, been alive and attending an MFA since August. It’s just that I’ve used my platform here to give out advice about publishing and applying, because probably that’s the most helpful thing I can do for anybody reading this blog. And I don’t like to mention the inner workings of my program, the glory and the drama, because I’m trying to be discrete. Chill. Classy. As the great Amy Poehler once wrote, “I don’t want people to know my shit!”

But fine, let’s discuss what I’ve been doing, and if y’all glean any lessons from it, then good for you.

***

First, the boring professional stuff. The application story from my undergrad writing workshop at UMass Boston, which I submitted in order to get into this MFA, won a contest at New Letters. The first story I wrote in Ohio was a huge floop that needs major revisions. The second story I wrote in Ohio won the fiction prize at Mid-American Review and placed third in a contest at Glimmer Train. The third story was also a huge floop, but then I revised the crap out of it and it got published by Amazon’s Day One. The fourth story is pretty solid and got submitted around a bunch within the past month or two, so I’m waiting for someone to take it. A fifth story hasn’t been touched since workshop and also needs major revisions, but I think I got those. My poetry was accepted by Sugar House Review and Tupelo Quarterly, where the second poem was a contest finalist. One of my undergrad poems was also nominated for a Pushcart by Rust + Moth, yay!

Right now, I’m polishing off a new batch of poems about motherhood and a few more short stories (mostly about Judaism and anarcha-feminism) before I hop back on all the things I should be revising. Finally, I’m working on my novel in a more serious way this summer by swapping chapters with a friend in the program.

In editorial news, I’ve been taken on as an assistant fiction editor at The Journal, and I still work as fiction editor at Reservoir and copy editor at Raleigh Review.

For summer, I applied to the Tin House Writer’s Workshop, Sewanee, the Kenyon Review Workshop, Juniper, the virtual residency at Millay, and the YIVO Institute’s Uriel Weinreich program in Yiddish language and culture. I was waitlisted at Tin House but ultimately removed myself from consideration there and at Sewanee when I was accepted to the Uriel Weinreich program. I was accepted at both Juniper and Kenyon, then I realized these two workshops happen at the same time and chose Kenyon. I have yet to hear from Millay, but those announcements aren’t scheduled to happen for another week or two.

***

As far as the internet goes, I’ve backed off the Draft Facebook group in the interest of saving time during my first teaching year, but I’m still fairly active in this group, which you should join if you’re thinking of applying to an MFA in fiction.

***

Now let’s talk about the actual education. My MFA has been good for four kinds of learning: I’m learning how to write better fiction, I’m getting a chance to explore other genres with the experts, I’m able to take advantage of courses in different fields, including composition and Jewish studies, and I’m learning about that thing they call professionalism.

It’s important to break down all these types of learning, because most applicants are under the impression that it’s all about the first one—ie, that the entire purpose of the degree is to advance in your primary genre. But there are precious few people who only need this particular type of education. For my own part, I actually find the direct instruction in fiction to be the least helpful part of this practice. Which is not to say that my fiction workshops haven’t been a total revelation! But ideally, in your home genre, you should already be fairly advanced, and you should be capable of advancing even further, albeit slowly, without help. Workshop and mentorship should function as a sort of shortcut, enabling you to pick up on new concepts as they are explained to you over the course of a few hours or days, rather than taking months or even years to figure them out using only the power of your silly brain.

What I’ve been especially grateful for at Ohio is the degree of flexibility that allows me to pursue workshops in poetry and nonfiction. This is the second type of learning I’ve referenced, and it’s good even for people with zero interest in crossing genre lines. We should all be audiences for our creative colleagues’ work, which means gaining some understanding of the mechanics in poetry and nonfiction. We should all be pursuing humility, and there is nothing more humbling than me in a nonfiction workshop, desperately trying to figure out what my classmates are even talking about. We should all be prepared to teach introductory courses in a wide variety of genres, helping students to identify and amplify their talents, even when those talents lie outside our areas of expertise.

And of course, I actually like poetry and have enjoyed learning more about it. Maybe I even want a second MFA in it someday. Now is a convenient time to explore that impulse.

It’s also true that having an excuse to hang around a strong university taking as many courses as I can handle is awesome. As a writer, I enjoy learning stuff. It feeds my work, because now I have lots of thoughts bubbling to the surface, lots of complex theory and hidden history I want to put to words. It also feeds my soul. I’m psyched about composition courses and Jewish studies courses. I’m thrilled to learn Hebrew and Yiddish and how to coax freshmen into writing better essays. This is the third kind of learning I’m talking about, the kind where you pursue some non-writing academics and see where that takes you. Not all MFAs do this, but I think all of them should. In any case, my stuff gets better when I’m constantly expanding my mind.

Then there’s professionalism, the last kind of learning I’m doing, and the one that has been most important for me. Before I came to Ohio I was fond of telling people professionalism was a crock, an invention of phonies hell bent on eliminating the authentic self from public discourse, a way of berating people for calling out oppression, which is a necessarily “rude” and “unprofessional” act. All that is still true, much of the time. But also, there are a lot of wacky, weird, delusional, and mean humans out there, and a shockingly high number of them are drawn to the writing world and/or academia. Existing in the MFA has helped me to reframe my old point of view.

Let’s say instead that professionalism is the art of dealing with difficult or bad people, of minimizing conflict when you must interact with difficult people, of preempting these people so they never even get the chance to be difficult at you. Let’s say that most MFAs are going to expose you to to folks with whom you’re not totally compatible, to perceived and real injustice that you can’t immediately counter. Let’s say professionalism is healthy boundaries, is reacting with dignity to the outrageous insults that life tends to toss our way. Not that I have always reacted with dignity myself, but I’m learning, finally, and I do credit the MFA for this breakthrough.

***

Is . . . anybody still reading? Really? Okay, then I guess I’ll wrap this up by talking about my friends and family. My friends, obviously, are rad and beautiful geniuses whose company almost makes me forget how much I miss Boston. My daughter is largely over her moving anxiety and also has stopped pooping on everything, which has helped us form a closer bond. And my boyfriend proposed so now we’re getting married or whatever.

***

And with that, I’m out. Good luck to you all, and happy summer. Please take this time to enjoy the good weather and forgive yourself for any imaginary failings resulting from your life under late-stage capitalism.

You can expect more personal-type updates from me this time next year, unless I think of a way to get out of it.

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2 Comments

  1. I’m an older student in my 50s pursuing an MA in fiction, and I was drawn to your comments about professionalism. I’ve been in the corporate world for nearly 30 years, and the bad people you find incompatible are unfortunately everywhere, both in and out of graduate writing programs. Every company has them, every job I’ve ever worked has them, so it’s good that you’re learning how to deal with such people because that’s a skill you’ll need for the rest of of your life. Wherever you go, there you’ll find jerks, charlatans, bullies, jackasses, and braggarts. Not necessarily in that order. Congratulations on your writing awards, and get back to revising those stories!

    My best to you,

    Sonny Bohanan
    University of North Texas
    Denton, Texas
    MA in Creative Writing-Fiction

    Liked by 1 person

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