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Thoughts on the MFA: What I Did Wrong (and Right)

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.

Defying Hitler

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.

albany bulbOn 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.

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Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Writer at Writing Through the Fog. Editor at Automattic.

11 replies

  1. I know this is an old post, but I had to comment and say how much I love it. I started a PhD at 22 and although I’ve enjoyed it, I’ve recently begun to realize how much more I would have appreciated grad school if I had waited until I was older.

    Also, your blog is amazing– can’t wait to read more. :)

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    1. Hey there! Thanks so much for digging through and finding this older post. Since I wrote it, I’ve begun to revisit some of the themes I explored in my manuscript, but it’s been a slow process. In fact, I often feel I’m not quite up to the challenge (that whole thing about thoughts and ideas being unripe…).

      Thanks for the comment!

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  2. Appreciate and admire the honesty and reflection in this. Love the sailing metaphor from one of your faculty mentors, and think ‘writing as process’ is spot on.

    Um, I know this kinda misses the point, but can I read your book?!

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    1. If you read it, I’m going to ask for your help; I think you’d be both critical and gentle with your feedback. I need someone distant from the material — but who also knows me and is familiar with the themes I like exploring — to help me extract ideas or scenes worth reshaping into new pieces. If there are any! :)

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  3. “The only tangible evidence that I was in an MFA program” – totally feel this. I wrote a book during my creative writing MA that no one except my examiners will probably ever see. I still don’t know if it was a colossal waste of time or if it somehow propelled me forward: maybe it’s that I had to write that book to get to other, more pressing things.

    I also really like what you say about your writing at the time capturing what you “knew at that moment” – I think it’s so important to do this, to have a record of it, even if that record doesn’t turn out to be what we thought it would.

    Thanks for sharing this.

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    1. Yeah, I think I view it as a waste of time because there was no final product “good enough” to show others, but at the same time it did propel me forward: I wouldn’t have been able to move on until I sat down to write what I did.

      Still, those themes and ideas continue to creep into my writing today, so I know I’m not entirely done with them. I’ll have a chance in the future to give that story another shot…

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  4. Why does there have to be such “definition” to everything?

    Right/Wrong does not define who we are. I think/feel that we should be defined by our relationships and interactions with the rest of the planet, not how we reached each of society’s set milestones.

    You made choices that were right for the time of your mind, they in turn had an affect on your life and relationships. Perhaps the real story is right there.

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  5. I love the reflective nature of your post. ‘On Age’ grabbed me immediately. I am finishing a Master’s degree now, at 38. Although it’s not an MFA, I still feel I have gotten so much more out of the process by waiting as long as I did. I have also been writing a memoir over the past year, and although I may not be completely ready, I certainly have more perspective than I would have had at 25, so again, I’m glad It’s taken me some time to get to these projects. ‘On Vulnerability’ you share a very insightful perspective, too. I’ve only just started my blog, and am writing and posting many things that aren’t ‘ripe,’ as you say. I enjoy the process, though, and believe I will continue to grow as a writer by simply writing and sharing along the way – it often feels risky, though, so I relate to your sense of vulnerability. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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    1. Hey–glad that you identified with this, particularly the “on age” and “on vulnerability” stuff. It’s amazing how time can change our writing; in fact, it’d be a neat experiment if, every few years, I wrote a post on the same subject — just to see how my angle/approach is different.

      That’s great that you’re finishing up your master’s degree and have been working on a memoir! Keep it up.

      Cheers,
      Cheri

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