Born for the MFA


Two days a week, I don’t come home after work.

Two days a week, I ask my parents and husband to account for the blank I am leaving, to feed and bathe and tuck in my children.

Two days a week, I eat dinner alone at an aluminum table in an urban food court, park my rear in a straight-backed classroom chair for three hours and forty-five minutes, then finally trek across Boston Common in the dark toward my car, whose wheel I manage to keep straight through blurry eyes all the way back to Lynnfield.

Two days a week, I live a small part of my most powerful childhood fantasy.

In early December of 2011, facing my final semester in the Master of Arts in English program at UMass Boston after seven years of part-time study, I found myself saturated in a malaise of boredom and discontent.  I had spent approximately twenty-seven of my thirty-six years as a student and knew little of an existence without accountability to a teacher or my own intellectual exercise.  Two bouts of graduate school, first for Education and then Literature, had kept me marching toward goals and had furnished me with useful skills and knowledge for a teaching career.  Now I could see a finish line on the other side of a three-credit curriculum unit project on the short works of black American women writers.  Though my head swelled with a sense of accomplishment, my stomach dropped with the weight of loss.  Here I would be—still creating lesson plans that would leave me with piles of papers to grade on my personal time, still giving speeches about motivation and responsibility to students who chose not to do their homework, still loving The Scarlet Letter and Huck Finn despite teenagers’ suspicion of the benefits of reading 19th-century literature, still answering anxious student e-mails at ten o’clock at night about homework directions, only to have them ask me the following day, “Did you get my e-mail?”.  And therein lay the problem:  still.  I was on the verge of standing still, no longer reaching to grasp a new “gold ring” (in the spirit of Phoebe of Catcher in the Rye for those of you who have yet to bless yourselves with the pleasure of reading J.D. Salinger).*  A massive part of my identity, as well as a source of self-pride, was my commitment to being a student as well as a teacher.   So now what?

I panicked.  On a whim, I decided to apply to the MFA in Creative Writing program at Emerson College.  Yes—I was in pursuit one of those entirely impractical, “Would you like fries with that?” types of degrees.  And yet, the thought of being accepted washed over and through me like a salve.  I had dedicated ample time to studying how to become an inventive and well-read English teacher; I had married my best friend and borne two children, decisions that had filled me to bursting with broader worldly understanding and a stupefying sense of love.  Why wouldn’t the next move be to reignite the original desire that propelled me forward, the blaze that lit my way from the first time my five-year-old fingertips grazed the beige keys of my mother’s old Canon typewriter?

I made sure that I could articulate my reasons for applying to my recommenders, my family, and friends.  An MFA would give me 1) permission to write, and the opportunity to be held accountable for consistent, disciplined attention to the craft; 2) the opportunity to network with local published writers and budding writers; and 3) the credentials to teach creative writing at the undergraduate college level in the future.

I thought, “What the hell?  I’ll just try it.  I’ve got nothing to lose.  If I don’t make it in, I’ll apply next year.”  I wasn’t even sure how I would ever afford Emerson tuition, as each course cost four times as much as a course at UMass.  And applying was a selfish move, because I knew that my starting another program meant more reliance on my husband and my parents (who take care of Maddie and Drew full-time) while I disappeared into town for a night class every week.  But in gestures of true loyalty and belief in my affinity for writing, they all muffled any reservations, and encouraged me to go for it.

The March night I received the e-mail, Andrew was away on business, and I was nestled in the corner of our family-room couch, watching Glee episodes on our DVR.

Congratulations!  I’m pleased to inform you that you have been selected to receive an Emerson College Fellowship.

My heart rolled over itself, bounced up into my throat, then plunked back down behind the shelter of my ribs.  Holy shit!

When I applied to Emerson, I knew that the Creative Writing Department gave out two fellowships.  But these fellowships were granted to only full-time students.  “Oh, well,” I had figured.  “There’s just no way I could take more than one class at a time while working.”  Somehow, though, the department had considered me a candidate, regardless of my application as a part-time student, and now, the stars were aligning to send me an urgent, undeniable message:  This was meant to be.  This—this screwball idea to dive into a third Masters program (I mean, who does that?)—had actually been an inevitable necessity.  If I had to take two courses per semester instead of one, if I had to read novels and short stories in the most miniscule of cracks of each day, if I had to spend half of every weekend in front of my computer at the kitchen table, so be it.

Two days a week, I hike up Boylston Street toward The Walker Building, dodging the clouds of cigarette smoke that bloat from the mouths of artsy undergraduates as they cluster in small groups on the sidewalk.

Two days a week, I feel as gloriously young and unstoppable as they do, rewound back to a time bristling with the excitement of beginnings.

On Wednesdays, I take a class called Craft and the Contemporary Novel.  Come December, we will have read nine novels—including Nabokov’s Lolita,  Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, and Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road—and pulled apart their opening paragraphs, tones and points-of-view, structures, characters’ motivations, passages of flashback and narrative summary and dialogue, all to learn how to build a novel from the inside out.  Thursday nights find me in a fiction-writing workshop, where we read, critique, and discuss our classmates’ short stories, dabble in creative drills that demand our imaginative wit on the spot, and turn to masters such as Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff to enhance our understanding of the machinations of unforgettable storytelling.  Both of my professors are published authors, and both care intensely about our education, demonstrating their affection by punishing tardy students with the task of reciting the name of everyone in the room or by fiddling with the classroom thermostat until our bodies settle into comfortable temperatures.  I sit amongst other writers who treat their passions for writing as sacred and transformative, so much so that they are dedicating hundreds of hours and thousands and thousands of dollars to a program that will leave them with perhaps the most traditionally undervalued degree in the real world.

Emerson College reveres the arts and the creators who sustain humanity through the arts; individuals who want to grapple with the human condition by painting it, filming it, and writing about it; individuals who want to move people to action, or simply just to move people.  To participate in what I consider to be this exclusive group is a privilege that most likely I would not have appreciated at 23 or even 30 years old, my ages when I matriculated into my Education and English Masters programs, respectively.  Now, so much more is at stake.

I have just stepped over the threshold of my “what-I-want-to-be-when-I-grow-up” dream world.  In shifting around the attention I give to the most meaningful priorities in my life, I have made room for one that I have neglected for too long.  My family and my writing (and perhaps a little reality t.v.) nourish and carry me, and I am utterly grateful for these gifts—seven days a week.

* In Catcher in the Rye, protagonist Holden Caulfield suffers with uncontrollable anxiety over his—as well as other children’s—impending loss of innocence.  In one of the final scenes, he watches his younger sister, Phoebe, take a risk by reaching for the gold ring as she takes a ride on the carousel in Central Park, New York City.

“Aren’t you gonna ride, too?” she asked me. She was looking at me sort of funny. You could tell she wasn’t too sore at me any more.

“Maybe I will the next time. I’ll watch ya,” I said. “Got your ticket?”

“Yes.”

“Go ahead, then–I’ll be on this bench right over here. I’ll watch ya.” I went over and sat down on this bench, and she went and got on the carousel. She walked all around it. I mean she walked once all the way around it. Then she sat down on this big, brown, beat-up-looking old horse. Then the carousel started, and I watched her go around and around. There were only about five or six other kids on the ride, and the song the carousel was playing was “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” It was playing it very jazzy and funny. All the kids kept trying to grab for the gold ring, and so was old Phoebe, and I was sort of afraid she’d fall off the goddam horse, but I didn’t say anything or do anything. The thing with kids is, if they want to grab the gold ring, you have to let them do it, and not say anything. If they fall off they fall off, but it’s bad if you say anything to them.

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3 comments

  1. One can viscerally feel you excitement and hope in this piece. well done.

  2. This is a great post and I am very happy for you. I have been debating an MFA program now that my kids are grown up but haven’t had the nerve to apply. Your experience gives me hope.

    • Hello! Thank you for reading my blog post!! Absolutely, you should go for an MFA. (You could try a low-residency program, if need be.) Going back to school for writing has infused me with passion and the desire to follow professional goals again. I highly recommend. Plus, instead of being stressed because I have so much work to do, I am actually a happier person at home with my family, because I am nurturing a crucial part of myself. Good luck!

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