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On (Not) Writing in a MFA Program

[photo cred: Jorgen Kesseler]

When I came to IU, I was assigned a MFA mentor, Willy Palomo. Before long, our relationship shifted from mentor-mentee to a friendship of mutual support. It was at the end of this semester, as we were commiserating together over ice cream, that Willy shared a nugget of wisdom, “I feel like every three or four months in grad school, I’ve become a completely different person than before.” When I think back to my life in August compared to now, I have to agree.

They say that the first semester of graduate school is the most difficult. For me, the day-to-day schooling (showing up to class, doing assigned readings, participating in discussion) wasn’t the problem. My classes were set up similarly to those I took in undergrad. Since it’s only been a couple of years since I was there, slipping back into that schoolwork routine was natural. Yet, this has been my most difficult semester of school ever. By the end of it, I was truly unhappy. I only had to pay attention to my daily habits to see it. I was staying up until two or three am every night and still waking before my alarm. I was stress eating cookie dough, Cajun burgers, Rally’s fries with mayo, barbecue chips, and any candy I could find. I had stopped going to the gym. I was crying every day.

Most of those issues had little to do with my actual classes (though finals week did hit hard). By far, grad school’s most difficult part has been navigating personal relationships, both new and old. I imagined that beginning grad school would be freshman year all over again. Everyone would be interesting and open to making new friends. That was only partially true. When I arrived, my cohort got along well but it quickly became clear that there are old wounds amongst other writers in my program that still bleed. In learning about these problems, I felt like I was being asked to choose sides over a battle I neither witnessed nor fully understood. The first half of my semester was tense as I tried to figure out how best to respond. At the same time, I was trying to maintain old relationships. I have friends from high school, college, and post-college spread from coast to coast. I missed them all. My family is large and split among multiple states. Trying to keep everyone up to date while also showing my interest in their lives is a full-time job on its own. Trump’s election put strain on many of those relationships.

Grad school is lonely in a way that undergrad is not. People are more isolated. They have to work harder, are stressed about money, and most are far removed from their families and partners. It isn’t just me that feels this way. Most of my first-year friends have been put through the emotional wringer as well. Collectively, we’ve fought with our parents and family, broken up with long term partners, yearned for our homes, dealt with depression, questioned why we decided to pursue our degrees, recognized our own disappointment with our town or program, and staved off loneliness with TV binge-watching.

After four months of grad school, I’m a different person with a new understanding of myself and others. Now, I have my own nuggets of wisdom.

First, I am very grateful to be a part of a three-year program. Other people don’t get it. They pity me for having to spend extra time here. “Oh wow. You got stuck in a three-year program? Yikes.” I chose this. Three years of writing time is precious to me. After everything I’ve struggled with in this first semester, I can’t imagine only having two years. As it is, a sixth of my MFA time is already up. This makes me anxious because this semester has shown me just how easy it is to NOT write in your MFA program.

There will be demands placed on you when you first enter graduate school. Many will be emotional demands like the ones I faced and didn’t expect. Others will be programmatic. This past semester, I had to take three classes and only one of them was a fiction course. Every semester, I’ll have to take a literature course that requires hundreds of pages of reading and thoughtful analysis. I also teach which requires extra reading and creative feedback on my student’s work. Other demands you’ll place on yourself. Maybe it was to combat the loneliness, maybe I’m just a social person, but I joined clubs and organizations to make friends. I’m on a dance team, a part of the Latino Graduate Students Association, and a member of an undocumented student alliance activist group. While I’m happy to be involved on my campus, I’m also disappointed by my own creative output. At the end of my first semester, I only produced 45 pages of fiction. And not all of that was completely new material.

It’s easy to put your energy into areas of your life other than your writing when you first start an MFA program. Sometimes that’s necessary but be conscious of how you spend it.

While 45 pages isn’t much, it’s something and a few strategies helped me achieve it. Create a writing schedule for yourself and jealously guard it. Start with small, measurable goals: “I’ll write for an hour every morning or four hours every weekend.” Try setting up writing dates. A couple of weeks into the semester, my fiction pals and I agreed to meet every Monday and Friday for two hours to write. Hold each other accountable and think of that time as an unmovable appointment. Don’t schedule anything else during those hours. Most of the time, it was helpful for us. But you can’t let other concerns creep in on your time. Sometimes, we’d meet at a coffee shop and talk about our personal problems instead of write. We’d respond to student work instead of write. We’d stress about our lit courses instead of write.

Just write.

As we ring in the New Year, my first semester resolution is to be more loving with my writing time. I’ll set aside more of it and allow myself to fully enjoy it. I’m going to do better because I have to. For next semester, I signed up for a novela writing class as well as fiction workshop. Somehow, I’ll produce more than double the amount of writing that I did in the last four months. The goal will be around 100 pages. It may be insanity—a crash course on writing diligence—but that’s what I’m here for.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some characters to dream up and flesh out.

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