[Note: This post is a big fat whinefest, meaning, it might not be particularly relevant to anyone who has yet to experience grad school.]
I’m sitting here at my writing desk surrounded by my current reads: The Lonely Voice, What If? American Short Story Masterpieces, A Room of One’s Own, The Situation and the Story, The Garden Party, various notebooks, writing instruments, and a large pink polka-dotted mug still warm from the last swallows of tea. I am staring at the computer screen, stunned. You might say I’m experiencing a type of post-traumatic stress disorder. This is my attempt to make sense of what happened. I’m a writer, damn it. That’s what writers do. They attempt to make sense of chaos, and give some sort of meaning to it. (The image above is of a telegram from Dorothy Parker that captures my own sense of lostness and trepidation as a writer.)
Here’s what I’m sorting out. On Monday, February 11, 2013 I passed my written and oral exams: I successfully defended my thesis (a collection of short stories), whatever that means. And yesterday I submitted it to an online thesis formatting “authority,” which will in turn notify me if my formatting needs correction. Eventually, this authority will submit it to the graduate studies office and sometime in the murky future I will receive a piece of paper that says I have earned a Master’s of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. I do not plan on attending graduation ceremonies. I will stuff the piece of paper into some drawer.
I have mixed feelings about all of this and will be sorting them out over the coming months and years, I’m certain. I have earned an MFA? What the hell was that all about? And why did I go through all the pain and expense of it? James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, and Virginia Woolf never went through some corporate meat factory (otherwise known as an American graduate school) to earn an MFA. And not everyone has what it takes to be accepted into the Iowa Workshop or Oxford or Cambridge, so…
Well. I have to justify it to myself somehow. There is truth in all cliches, and the one about getting out of something exactly what one puts into it is no exception. None of the experience, in my opinion, of earning an MFA can be measured with some empirical, qualitative, measurable, objective assessment. When I sat in the room with my three committee members (see this), I felt like a bloody impostor. Who is fooling whom? I kept thinking. I thought this partly because I kept out of the limelight for the duration of my time in the program. I kept to myself. I rarely went to readings, never read, never pub crawled after classes, never became part of a group of writers that I would stay with for the remainder of my days. Nope. Not me.
Besides that, I kept thinking, “Come on, then. What do they really think about the short stories I wrote for the thesis? Do they think my thesis all crap but have to keep the conversation positive in the name of civility and formality and because they’re just damn nice people?” I didn’t know what to expect, but couldn’t help wondering if I’d be drilled about all my inadequacies as well as the list of thirty books I’d read in the program. I expected to be sliced and diced in a pre-fab mandoline where I’d come out of the room in shreds and dripping with blood and sweat.
Birds and butterflies fluttered ’round the room. Flowers bloomed. Harps played. Which worried me. The kind of worry you get when you stare at a large gash on your skin made by a rusty nail. Would it get infected? Would I get lockjaw? Were they simply being polite and secretly looking at the time on their phones so they could get out of there as soon as possible?
The defense ended. Papers flew back into folders. Arms slid back into jackets. Thank-you’s made their rounds. And that was that. It was like the night I lost my virginity. Yes. That’s all there is to it. Everyone went her/his separate way. End of story.
A friend of mine told me that her committee took her out to some cafe or pub or something afterwards to celebrate. I told her I thought mine would not. And I was right. What does it all mean? Am I that unremarkable? My family didn’t either. But that’s because my family rarely celebrates anything, and that includes birthdays and Christmas. So my sniveling is unwarranted. My thesis defense was a non-event. I get it.
What really bothers me now is, what the hell happens next? There is a glut of writers, a glut of books, more and more self-published. I have a serious rejection complex that preceded the days I began to write. There are fewer an fewer jobs to get to even support one’s writing. I have a substantial debt to pay off eventually. The future looks anything but bright. And I agree with the idea that no one gives a rat’s ass about your MFA. All they care about, in the end, is what’s on the page.
Still, when things look as bleak as they do today, I have to remind myself that I did learn technique and I did gain exposure to resources that I might never have had outside the program. I suppose I will have a few advantages that I didn’t have before. Still, I know I’m not alone in my state of aftershock and ambivalence after all has been said and done. But life goes on. And so, despite my sense of defeat, must my writing. Plus ultra!