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A different take on the MFA

In a previous post Abigail shared her experience with her MFA in Creative Writing and I wanted to give some insight into my experience with getting an MFA. However, for me, the reason I went to grad school relates to more personal aspects of my life so we can’t get to the reason I went to grad school without getting a little personal.

My first marriage was not a happy one, but I’d married young and put off my dreams of getting an MFA to help him. The idea being that after I helped him get to where he needed to be that he would give me the opportunity to do the same. But he never did.

While we were married, I worked a full time job and spent my free time working on my stories that I dreamed of one day having published. He would ask me over and over again why I wasted my time, saying that no one would ever read my stories and that they weren’t even good. After he left, my writing was the thing that kept me going through that heartache. I poured myself into my writing and by writing, I started to heal my broken heart. And though I knew it would be hard since I worked a full time job and lived alone, I decided to go to grad school because it was something I had wanted all my life and it was the last piece I needed to put myself back together.

During undergrad, I went to the University of Tampa where I got my degree in Writing and interned with the university’s MFA in Creative Writing program. The director of the program at the time was my professor in undergrad and was one of the first people to make me feel excited and confident about my writing. I told him that one day I’d come back to the MFA program but this time as a student and he smiled saying that he’d write me a letter of recommendation when I did.

Years passed and I still thought back on those magical weeks I interned at the MFA program, but I didn’t know how I’d ever have the money or the time. So to ensure I never lost my connection to the program, I would go to the public readings they held at the university where one evening I ran into my old mentor. I wasn’t sure he’d recognize me but when he saw me, he smiled and called my name. We chatted for a bit and he told me, the program was waiting for me whenever I was ready. Years later, I went back to another reading this time feeling about ready to go back to school where I ran into the current director of the program, someone I never had in undergrad but knew her as she was one of the mentors over the school’s literary magazine which I had worked on. We talked for a while and ultimately, she was the one that gave me the final push I needed to apply.

Once I got in, I felt a renewed sense of purpose. I was going to make my dreams a reality by getting the skills I needed and forming connections with other writers. I had written a novel and a handful of short stories but I knew they needed to be refined. And as I held that acceptance letter in my hand, I felt like I had finally taken control of my life.

I chose the MFA program at the University of Tampa not only because of my history with it but also because it was low-residency. Since I worked a full-time job, and would need to continue to do so in order to keep a roof over my head, it gave me the flexibility I needed to do both. The only problem was that my company only gave me two weeks of PTO, including sick time, so I would have to spend all my vacation days going to school for the next two years. It was a sacrifice I was willing to make though. Besides, as soon as graduation rolled around in 2020, I would be free to travel as much as I wanted. Ha.

The program was ten days each January and June and what a packed ten days they were! The days were exhausting, inspiring, and full of so much information that my brain buzzed each night as I tried to fall asleep.  I made some great friends who made the program a blast in-between classes and had wonderful mentors who made me feel energized about writing. The kind of energy you feel being around other people who dream the same thing as you is like nothing else. My first three semesters were like a dream and I looked forward to those ten days as a break from the monotony of my 9 to 5.

But then the program leadership changed and there was a definite shift in the attitude of the program. In my last term I was assigned to a mentor who did not believe in my writing and actively belittled it. She told me and my other cohorts that she didn’t see genre writing as worthy writing, alienating us from day one. We went to the interim director and he responded with a shrug, and said what do you want me to do about it? And I realized that my shining days of grad school were over. I no longer had the support from my program and actively dreaded each day in the program.

After residency, the term went on agonizingly slow and no matter what I sent my mentor in terms of writing, she hated it. I tried everything to get her to get her to see past her own biases and show her that science fiction could be more than ray guns and rocket ships but she refused to change her mind. And it was evident in the feedback she gave me that she did not provide a close reading of my work.

At the end of the term, she turned in some damning feedback that included accusations of me not turning my work in though I had turned in everything we had agreed upon. And with that final piece of feedback, all hope in my writing and almost all the work that had been done at the MFA to build me up seemed to have come undone in an instance.

But then, I read the feedback I got from my second reader. At the end of your term, you got another mentor to read your thesis to provide you with additional feedback. I had asked the old director of the program to be my second reader and as I read his feedback, my eyes filled with tears. He still believed in me. He read the same work my mentor for that term had read and consistently talked down about, and he saw the merit in it. And though it was a small consolation prize after a semester of someone constantly belittling me, it was enough to keep hope alive.

After the final zoom call where I was pronounced a graduate in my neon green headphones and an over-sized sweater, I closed the lid of my laptop, feeling numb. I would never know what it felt like to walk down an aisle as my name was called with cap, hood, and gown. I stuffed everything I’d ever written into boxes and decided to call that dream awash. And for two years, I didn’t write.

The only thing that kept me from forgetting about writing was my writing community. A handful of students from my MFA program who met regularly to do writing sprints and I acted as the moderator for the community. Since I had been one of the ones to start it, I felt a responsibility to be there every time we met but as everyone turned to heads down writing, I sat and stared at a blank screen with the words of my last mentor ringing in my head. However, the creativity and loving support of my writing group slowly healed my bruised ego to the point that I started writing again and I haven’t stopped.

Now, when I look back at my MFA, I’m proud of the work I did. There were so many wonderful memories and incredible insight I learned from the program. The only thing I wish I could have done differently was to stand up for myself. The mentor I had was unfair. She had a personal vendetta against my writing and her feedback was worthless. But one person doesn’t have the right to diminish the merits of the whole. The MFA helped my writing grow, it connected me to my literal lifeline connection I have with my writing family, and I had three wonderful mentors who saw what I could do, taking me seriously as a writer.

If you are reading this as a way to decide whether or not to go to grad school, my advice is to make sure you have the right motivation for it. And if you do decide to go to grad school, make sure you find the right program for your life-style and for you but to also take from my story and do not be afraid to advocate for yourself. You are paying a lot of money for this degree and deserve to have a good experience with it.

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