I graduated from the MFA program at Goucher College in Maryland, which focuses solely on creative nonfiction. The couple dozen writers in my 2007 graduating class were fierce, talented memoirists and narrative, investigative, and immersion journalists from all over the world: throughout the US, Europe, South Africa, and even a representative from McMurdo Station in Antarctica.
While I consider my MFA program as a learning stage in my writing life, and had some positive experiences, I wish I had done things differently.
What I Did Wrong
On Age. I started my MFA program when I was 25. I should have waited 10 years, at the minimum. In 2005, I had the material; I just didn’t have the perspective. (And I still don’t.) I learned from my workshops and lectures, and I was introduced to nonfiction I wouldn’t have found on my own, but my universe wasn’t, and still isn’t, big enough. (More on writing when I’m not ready.)
On the Limited Residency. I had to choose between Goucher’s limited-residency program and Sarah Lawrence’s graduate writing program, the other program that accepted me, full time. Eyeing flexibility, I chose Goucher: I flew to the east coast for three summers for multi-week residencies and was able to develop and write the bulk of my manuscript in California. I didn’t have to relocate or quit my job. (However, I did leave an editorial position at Skywalker Ranch, in the middle of my MFA program, to write in Montreal for a summer.)
While the limited residency was convenient, the option would have made more sense if I was married, or had children, or had responsibilities that didn’t allow an uprooting. (I wasn’t even in a relationship for most of my MFA program.) I could have moved to Brooklyn for a spell, as living in New York was an item on my To Do list I’d yet to cross off.
On Writing a Book. Perhaps I shouldn’t have attempted this; I could have been more productive crafting smaller, tighter pieces. But both inspiration and competition drove me, as most of my classmates had book ideas: on working in a funeral parlor, on the gun industry, on a murder in the South, on the life of farming in the Midwest. They would weave book-length stories, even though only 150 publishable manuscript pages were required to graduate. Somehow, in the midst of residency madness, I convinced myself I had to write a book. And I did. A story with a beginning, middle, and end.
It was simply the first draft.
But was this so terrible? It was the first major literary project I’d completed, and despite what the final product was, it felt good to finish—to trudge through the motions, the doubt, and the pain. I was reminded of crossing the finish line inside the Superdome in New Orleans after running my first marathon. Five hours, 50 minutes. Slow and sloppy, but I did it: 26.2 miles.
I remember the words of one of our faculty mentors, Suzannah Lessard, who likened writing to sailing. We could write essays, yes. But she urged my sailboat to drift away from land: To sail into sea so far until I could no longer see the coast. To get lost in the vast ocean of my mind. To come back to shore, with exports from abroad, even if these weren’t treasures I had been looking for, and if the shore to which I returned wasn’t the one I remembered.
She gave wonderful advice, but I’m still not sure about the whole book thing. Read by a select few, mine sits in a drawer, and is the only tangible evidence that I was in an MFA program. If I’d gone the other route and wrote shorter, focused pieces, would I have something to show for today?
What I Did Right
On Writing What I Know. My freelance reporting assignments aside, I’ve not written about things I don’t know. It may be a fault, and I should push the inquisitor in me much more, but there are so many things about myself, my life, and my universe that I don’t understand—and I could spent years musing and not be satisfied. I confidently state I was an expert—an active participant—in what I wrote about in my MFA manuscript; but while my lack of perspective is palpable, so is my curious, naïve voice that fumbles through it. If anything, the book captured what I saw, felt, and knew at that moment. And that is valuable.
On Voice. My third-semester mentor, Joe Mackall, called my book a memoir/literary journalism hybrid. Two voices emerged: one of a memoirist, and the other of a journalist and cultural commentator. I was technically able to do both, but switching between modes from chapter to chapter was a challenge, and it never really worked. It makes sense now, as I wasn’t ready to handle both at once, and the omniscient narrator in me never knew what the point was. (How embarrassing.) But the project was a successful exercise in voice: my teenage self narrated the journey, wide-eyed and fearless, while the older narrator interjected when she needed to.
It’s one thing to have a distinct literary voice; it’s quite another to conjure and control the many you have. I struggled. And I’m glad I tried.
On Vulnerability. I’ve written many blog posts (mainly brainstorms and mindclears), or pieces just for me that I’ll never publish—like the writing in my old journals. As I wrote the book, I convinced myself that no one would read it when I was done. But when I finished, I let it go. And after some distance, I realized that I released writing that was far from my best, and far from ripe. But perhaps that was the beauty in it: acknowledging the act of writing as a process, and my growth as a person and writer in front of those who know and read me.
More on the Writing Life:
- The Blog Queue: On Writing When You’re Not Ready
- Flaws & the Art of Nonfiction
- A Writer’s Little Helper: A Squirrel is My Muse
Cheri Lucas Rowlands
Writer at Writing Through the Fog. Editor at Automattic.