9 Notes From a New MFA
During my latest 14-hour drive home from Halifax, and the last drive of its kind for some time to come, I got to thinking about what I've learned over the last two years. I think I was lucky, in that I approached the process of getting my MFA as something of a lark and a means to an end, so I didn't have any particular preconceived notions or expectations about the experience. I was free to ride the tide and see what happened along the way. Here is some of the flotsam and jetsam I picked up, both in the classroom and out, from my mentors and instructors, my classmates, and myself.
1. Murder Your Darlings. Every writer has heard this at some point in time. It's easy to fall in love with a specific turn of phrase, even when it just doesn't work for some reason. So it has to get the red line of death in the editing process. After a couple decades writing for hire, I rarely have darlings on the page and tend to be very open to suggested edits. So in my case, this takes a different meaning, which is: Understand when to let go of your grand plans, whether for research, structure, or purpose, and just let the current take you along to wherever you should be.
2. Find Your People. The idea of a writing community is a critical one. Most research and writing is done in a fairly solitary state out of necessity. But the improvement of the words on the page depends on exposure, inspiration, and conversation. Having a writing group nearby is a great idea; not always possible, but advantageous. And when it's difficult in person, it's certainly an option remotely, as my classmates and I have learned over the last two years. Whether we've cheered each other's successes, celebrated personal events, or commiserated in writerly angst, we've all had one another's backs and will, no doubt, continue to do so in the years to come.
3. Money Opens Doors. Let's be honest: An MFA is really expensive, and if someone thinks it's a one-way ticket to fame, they're delusional. That said, the degree serves three purposes, as I see it. First, it's terminal, so it indicates a level of accomplishment that can serve as the foundation to teach at the university level; a useful option for someone cobbling together income streams. Second, it can offer the nudge an agent or editor needs to take a look at your work; the expectation is that you have spend time and money improving your craft and may generate a higher-quality product. And third, for those of us who already write professionally in one capacity or another, the MFA provides validation of the practical skills we've developed; it's an acknowledgement of the value and quality we provide on a daily basis.
4. Start a Project. Just start. A book's structure may be reworked endlessly, or the voice shifted midstream. The research may be a beast (mine is) or the apparent path to completion may hit a snag. But the first step is to grab a hunk of clay and start working it. Even if your project is only tangentially related to your goal, it still counts. For example, while working toward her MFA and writing her book, one classmate moved to a new city and set herself the goal of stalking (erm, that's making) friends. Fodder for the book? Yes. Ultimately a much larger framework for living? You betcha. In my case, my new endeavor is #ProjectRoadWork ... details on that soon!
5. Remember to Laugh. If there is one thing that characterized my MFA experience, it was laughter. It's very easy to take oneself and one's efforts way too seriously. High art. Serious literature. Profound issues of humanity. They're all parts of the conversation. However, the minute you buy into the hype is the minute you become insufferable to yourself and others. Laugh. At the difficulties of research. At the absurdities of academia. Even, as a cathedral full of people did last week, at the questionable Latin of a graduation ceremony. Laugh with joy at the company of compatriots. Laugh with pleasure at the sound of locals and come from aways alike singing sea shanties at a post-graduation kitchen party. Just laugh.
6. Place Does Matter. On one hand, this applies to my place as a writer and my place geographically. I promised myself when I started my MFA that I would not move until I finished it, so that I could control my living expenses. On the other hand, this also applies to the location of my MFA program. I don't know if all low-residency students have the benefit of such a warm cocoon when they are in session. For me, Halifax has become as much my place as anywhere else I've been. In fact, I trooped my parents up to Nova Scotia so they, too, could get a feel for this port city at the edge of Atlantic Canada. My educational experience is inextricably tied to my experiences at Canada's oldest chartered university and in the city it calls home. I am very proud to say I took my MFA at the University of King's College and Dalhousie University ... in the summers, while consuming copious amounts of seafood and Propeller ginger beer.
7. Always Keep Learning. It's easy to convince ourselves that we know all we need to know at a certain point. Taking my MFA after establishing myself in my career was a wonderful reminder that learning keeps us sharp and bright and ever so much more interesting, both in our own minds and to others we may meet. It was a grand opportunity to spend time with people who shared a thirst for knowledge. At the moment, one of my classmates is serving with a nongovernmental organization in Myanmar. Another is recovering from heart surgery. One just got engaged. Others are plodding through information dug up from Afghanistan and Japan. And those are just the ones who didn't make it to graduation.
8. Believe In Yourself. One of the questions we answered (repeatedly) over the last two years was, "Why are you the person who should write this book?" We each needed to be able to explain exactly what made our take on our subject unique. As a side effect, we all gained clarity about why we'd chosen our topics, how we were approaching them, and why our voices were important. This whole writing process is not for the faint of heart. In fact, I'd venture to say that if you truly can't come up with a reason why you're the right person to write your book, you're probably the wrong person for that book. Once you answer the question, though, don't look back. You know what you can do; move on to believing what you will do.
9. Adventure Begets Adventure. Perhaps the most important thing I've learned is that earning the parchment is not the end of anything, but the beginning. In fact, the process of taking the MFA has the potential to open your mind to any number of things, from professional pathways and specializations to personal opportunities and relationships. The trick for me, now, is to keep surfing from adventure to adventure as long as the inspiration holds!