I have finally returned from my residency. It was intense, and frankly, I wasn’t much in the mood for “intense” at this stage in the game. But now that it’s over, I am grateful for the entire MFA experience, despite the fact that, at times, it seemed as if I was needlessly submitting myself to heart wrenching and ego destroying torture.
I had a sort of epiphany during the week. Suddenly, everything fell into place. I understood the subtlety of literary writing, and had a better grasp of my own writing nature (both the good and the bad). This clarity put me into a deep, contented calm. For months, I’ve been very frustrated and my mind has been clogged up with questions. I was one of those difficult students that challenged the academic world and the literary approach to writing. I felt as if I was in the wrong place (for me). I hung in there, but with a small dash of skepticism to make the huge serving of humility easier to swallow. Then, the final days of my last residency . . . things changed.
I don’t know if it was a matter of the right combination of lectures, or the fact that hearing the same truths over and over again in different ways finally allowed my mind to circle the concepts. Mayhap, my slow understanding can be attributed to forth quarter seasoning. I did wonder if every senior suddenly comes away with clarity at this pivotal climax in the program– but in talking to others, I’m guessing some do and some don’t.
Anyway, I went to school thinking I spent a great deal of time and money on an academic education which was nothing more than a needless hike off my path, (and a way to get a piece of paper to support a teaching job, should I ever want one) but I came home feeling as if getting my MFA was the smartest thing I’ve ever done. All the things my mentors have said from the very beginning suddenly rang true. I felt such a deep appreciation for their advice and encouragement. I also felt horrible, chagrined that I didn’t trust them, wasn’t more receptive, and didn’t immediately comprehend the abstract concepts they presented from the beginning. I think the professors, professional writers all (each already having struggled through these layers of understanding themselves) have a very difficult job transferring the knowledge to others. The failure rate must be very high. So many students leave with mediocre writing ability and shallow literary commitments. This isn’t the fault of the instructors, however. They say all the right things with admirable passion and an earnest desire to help beginner writers improve. They love literature, and sincerely want to introduce their students to the glory of writing from a “real place”. But writing students come with this hard to penetrate shield of ego that makes them thick as a rock. How those poor professors keep from bopping us on the head, I’ll never know.
In my case, I came to realize that what they are trying to teach about writing is unteachable. Writing well is something that only time, reading, grasping, and trial and error can teach you. Developing literary sensibilities is a bit like faith, somewhat intangible, yet it exists in your soul. Exposure seems to be the only way to absorb the essence of what a person needs to know to write well.
Like so many of the students I talked to, I came to the program expecting to be taught how to write. I thought that entailed learning sentence structure, character arcs, and plot development. I wanted to learn the nuts and bolts of writing. These basic skills are often clearly missing from much of the student’s work, which also shook my confidence in the program. “If the students can’t tell a decent story, who cares how beautiful their language sounds.” I thought.
But now, I think an MFA program is based on the theory that every student comes with basic storytelling knowledge. If not, they’ll learn it later. Due to all the seminars and classes I took before this program, I was more knowledgeable than most in the storytelling nut and bolts. Odd, that. So many of the students already have a masters in English, or at least a BA in creative writing, poetry, or English. This doesn’t help them master storytelling per say, but it does provide them a strong foundation for higher concepts. I was a different sort of student, lots of real life application skills, but lacking in a strong academic foundation. For example, every student in the program has this vast repertoire of literary reading to draw from. They are all familiar with Carver, Wolfe, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Whitman, and Hemmingway. I’ve only ready a few of these remarkable authors, and that was back in high school or in my one Classical Literature Class in college. Made me feel inadequate in classroom discussions, I’ll tell you. (I now understand why I had trouble being accepted into such a program. I was not what they were looking for, by any means.)
But as is my way, I tried to compensate. I read everything I could these past two years, and bought every book mentioned in a class, even if it was only a brief statement such as, “Did you ever read (fill in the blank)? It was a great example of what we are discussing”. I kept a list of titles in the columns of my notes, then bought every book referred to on Amazon when I got home. Now, I have this huge pile of unread literary masterpieces that I intend to plow through now that my school reading is over. I may have started off behind in this academic race, but I will end up qualified to discuss the great examples of literature (at least my opinion of it) with the best of ’em.
I must now turn my attentions to my thesis manuscript. I’ve rewritten this bugger completely, three times now. It still sucks. But now, I understand why. I’ve written this book with an edgy voice, in a style that borders on chick lit. Commercial. But the subject matter is very meaningful to me, and handling it in so trite a way makes the entire story ring false. I truly hate my book and my leading character, which happens to be bitter and unlikable, not to mention that she can’t stop saying all these stupid one-liners that make me cringe. I need to dump half the book and rewrite it to show the depth and the confusion of the main character. And I need to stop stereotyping the dancers in the book. I was trying to write a book about dance, but really, this has to be a story about one dancer. There is a huge difference. If this is a book about one dancer and her struggle with aging, it will be poignant and real. If I tell the story well, it will introduce my reader to those elements of dance I wanted to write about too.
So, (sigh) it is back to the drawing board, yet again. I only need 120-150 complete pages for my thesis, due on April 9th. They don’t really want a finished product, they prefer a writing sample as tangible evidence that you’ve developed as a writer. This will be shelved with a zillion other thesis manuscripts, all equally imperfect – they are, after all, only examples of student work. They say your “book” (the one you might sell someday, or share with the world) is something that comes later, long after you have graduated. Trusting that, I will not fret my book being incomplete. I will just do the best I can at this stage in my development. I’ll concentrate on those opening pages. Then, I think I will probably put this novel aside and turn to something else for a while. Sometimes I think this is a book I am not meant to write – or not meant to write now, at least. But I must attend to it to complete my thesis, like it or not. Anyway, my book has been an interesting tool of torture, but it’s brought me to a greater understanding of writing as an art.
Funny, what made me a good dance teacher was my understanding of dance as an art, rather than approaching it as an activity of entertainment or a physical mastery of steps and tricks. And the bane of my existence was fighting dancers and their parents to teach the vital element that gives dance artistic merit. My students, due to their youth and their endless exposure to commercial dance venues, saw only the surface design of dance, quickly becoming overconfident in their abilities when they mastered technique. They were always so sure they knew what they needed and wanted and they were forever looking for validation through foolish means. Meanwhile, I went crazy, because they were blind to the deeper understanding I was trying to convey. Very few of our students ever gained a true grasp of the art. Many of our most talented were thwarted in their progress because of ego and/or their parents trying to control the flow of their dance experiences – wanting instant gratification and worthless kudos in the hear and now. I was always thinking long term, wanting them to reach greater heights, which would not only allow them to develop into true artists, but make dance more richly rewarding on a personal level. That kind of gratification beats any ego stroking around. But this kind of seasoning takes time, and can only be achieved with sacrifice. (Sacrifice is not a popular thing with people today.) It was frustrating. Sad. I wanted so much more for my students than I could teach due to all the obstacles – not the least of which is the spoiled mindset of our contemporary culture today. (For the record, Mark felt the same.)
The kicker is, as a student, I’ve been on the other end of this struggle. I’ve had the same dense mentality in writing that I used to consider ignorance in dance. Go figure. I guess all art forms are the same in central ways. Art is so close to the ego and psyche, we are resistant to growth. We must accept our limits first, and that is painful. Great art is so much more than surface design or skill building. It is not just that you can execute a piece. It is not enough to copy what you see others do. Being an artist is about personal expression, truth, and creation from the gut. It isn’t what you can do on the surface, but what you understand underneath it all, which shades and influences the work, that makes a difference.
Mark says I’ll be teaching writing before I’m done, and no doubt he is right. I’ll publish a few things, gain the credentials I need to feel qualified , and then, filled with a passion for art, I’ll want to share it with others. That is my way. I’m a natural leader – or a blustering bossy boots, however you want to view it. Either way, when the time comes, I’ll return to the other end of the spectrum, a leader once again in a war against mediocrity. It will be a new battle, but a battle I am familiar with, even so. Life truly is circular, I guess.
But for now, I am still a student. I am working hard to swallow my frustration and shed my need for ego stroking. I am facing my demons, which involves accepting the limits of my talent and committing myself to facing my weaknesses rather than hiding behind my strengths. It’s hard. Painful. And so many days I just want to quit. Of course, I won’t.
Our guest speaker this term was Andre Debois III. He wrote “The House of Sand and Fog”. You may have seen the movie. He was such an inspiration. Upbeat, funny, and very real. He talked about how difficult the journey of developing your craft can be. And he talked about what an MFA can and can’t do for you. His honesty was insightful. Inspirational. Depressing too, but in a good way.
One of my previous mentors, William Lychack, taught a wonderful seminar called the Fraud Police. He gave us poignant readings that demonstrate that even great authors feel inadequate, questioning their talent and their work. It is a very dark business, this learning to write. Ravages your confidence. Shakes you to the core. His lecture was riveting. I wanted to go shake his hand, thank him, and apologize for being such a tree stump when he was mentoring me. Instead, I simply thanked him for the class. I’m an idiot. Don’t need to explain that to him. Nothing he didn’t already know.
In Andre’s lecture, he told us about why he became a writer. He described how he felt the first time he wrote a story. He was in college, and had just turned an assignment in to his English teacher. Then, walking home he noticed a single leaf on a tree branch. Every blade of grass. The way the sun glistened off a car roof. It was as if he had abruptly awakened to the world. Everything was in focus. Intense – his emotions, observations. He felt so very alive. Writing did that for him.
It does that for me too.
I listened to this successful author, not thinking he was lucky or had some amazing gift I shouldn’t dare aspire to. In fact, he didn’t seem any different from me – just further along the difficult writer’s journey. When he talked about how painful writing can be, how alone and heart wrenching it made a person feel at times, I knew I was not alone. My experiences are no different from others who’ve written before me, or from those that will come along after. Pain is a part of progress – a part of developing any artistic gift to a greater potential.
So . . . I will continue to face the discomfort, trusting what my teachers have told me. Determined. Without fear. Without regret. Most importantly, without doubt.
I won’t settle for “adequate” or seek a quick commercial fix – even though my ego longs for some kind of validation. People who do not understand all this will say, “What have you published?” And when I say, “Nothing,” they will smile politely, assuming this is a sign of failure. I’ll know differently.
That is what getting an MFA has done for me.