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Staggering Along

A year ago around this time, I had just submitted my first few MFA applications and was grappling with the same stew of emotions that most of us crazy enough to pursue an MFA degree feel during application season: excitement, anxiety, fear and so much self-doubt. The MFA felt like the appropriate next move in my life, but first I had to get in somewhere. I knew if I sent my best writing, I’d have a puncher’s chance at an acceptance or two. I spent hours on my applications, but something still felt off with the first few. My statement of purpose wasn’t really me. The portfolios I submitted had my best work overall, but some of it was a few years old and didn’t reflect what I was thinking and writing about now.

But working through that was critical. As I submitted my last few applications in late January, my portfolio and statements of purpose morphed. I became confident enough in my work that I felt I would get accepted somewhere, even with long odds. I did, and with a few electronic submissions on Tuesday, my first semester in the Rutgers-Camden MFA program will be complete.

This first semester did not go according to plan at all. I ended up a part-time student through circumstances I could not have possibly predicted or planned for. This has flipped my MFA script in a bunch of different ways.

  1. I didn’t get to enroll in a workshop or craft class this semester, only a teaching practicum. This was by design, so I could teach English Composition in the spring. The setup would have been ideal if I was pursuing an MA to become a teacher, but that is not what I’m about. I am going after an MFA to write poems, to help others write and to learn the language of how to talk about stories. On the flip, my practicum class was loaded with academic writing about pedagogy and I often felt way out of my element. I injected a creative spin when I could, persevered and sincerely enjoyed getting to know the professor. But it was a slog more often than not.
  2. Just from reading this, you know me better than my cohort does. So far, I have only shared a classroom with maybe half of my cohort. I haven’t even met all of them yet. Those I shared a class with must think of me as the quiet, long-haired guy they don’t really know because that is how I project myself in a classroom. I can talk about poetry and writing for hours if you know me or if I am behind a keyboard, but that doesn’t make me gregarious or outgoing. I had my moments. I tried to make friends with a few people and there was a group project. But the entire semester felt like a trial and a challenge against who I am as a person.
  3. You probably know me better than my professors, too. A few weeks ago, I finally met (for the first time!) a poet I have been eager to meet since I learned he was teaching at my program. I don’t know how the wave of information travels within my MFA program, so I have no idea if this professor knew me or even knew of me. I knew him by sight because he is where I want to be, a published poet. His reputation precedes him. I own his books and you might, too. We met because we attended the same “published authors touring” reading and afterward, we both needed to go the men’s room simultaneously. I tried to stem the awkwardness by introducing myself outside the bathroom and most critically, after we both washed our hands, but it was still really strange, not the stuff of a budding poet’s dreams.
  4. I appreciate every opportunity a little bit more. And there’s the volta! A part-time status but full-time dreams led me to jump at every opportunity I could (within logistical reason) this semester. When my program’s administrator asked for a student to introduce an author who was giving a reading from her most recent novel, I jumped at the chance and treated it like a mini-class. I bought a used copy of the novel and devoured it. I listened to interviews with the author, inhaling stories about the novel’s creation like a diver greedily gulps oxygen. I created a 90 second introduction I was proud of, something creative that reflects who I am. There are lots of opportunities like this in MFA programs, if you check your e-mail, fix your schedule around these events and make them yours. I’m already signed up to rep my school at AWP in the spring, and I can’t wait to see what else will happen.
  5. I am more focused on what I want out of my time spent pursuing an MFA. My creative writing in the last four months has happened in much the same way it did before my MFA journey: a poem here, a poem there. I expected that by now, I would be immersed in a writer’s life, but life has pushed up against my writing more often than not. That said, I realize this is just the beginning. My first few craft and workshop classes will change me in ways I can still only imagine. I am so grateful that my MFA program is understanding of my non-traditional journey to the degree. Because of that, I am even more committed to making the program better for having me in it. I’m not sure if I would have that attitude if I was on the same journey as everyone else: trying to juggle moving to a new place with taking classes and teaching (mostly) disinterested freshmen how to do things with words. That’s a heavy burden. I suspect I would be too caught up in my own shit if I were on that path.

My MFA journey has been somewhat disorienting so far because I’m not much closer to where I want to be. In all likelihood, I will graduate a year after most of my cohort, which means I haven’t yet met most of my “real” cohort yet. Right now, my future classmates are agonizing over their writing samples and considering what program might be the best fit for them.

If they are anything like me, they belong in the Rutgers-Camden MFA program or one like it. I say that without hesitation, which means that despite my frustrations, this first semester has been a smashing success. Here’s hoping the same for all other current and future MFA’ers.

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