Tag Archives: graduate school

I got my MFA, now what?

Yesterday I walked across the stage and got my diploma, and now I am part of an elite crowd, I’m an MFA grad. For the past four years, I worked with other wannabe writers, workshopping stories, reading other writers, and revising and tightening manuscripts. I was lucky in that I had some of the best teachers out there – Janet Wondra, Priscilla Perkins, Kyle Beachy, Suzanne Scanlon, Chrisian TeBordo. Each instructor made an important impact in my writing, by both challenging me when I was going in the wrong direction and encouraging me when I was going in the right direction.

The other students I worked with were better writers than I. They were talented writers who had to write. It was in them. Me? I’m not a naturally gifted writer. I’m not a great writer. I’m a solid-to-decent writer who can write a great piece once in a while after a ton of work. That’s not to say that the other writers in the program weren’t hard workers, they were, but they were starting with a stronger base. But that isn’t new for me. School has never come naturally to me. I’m lucky in that I love school, and I love being in school, so I don’t mind the extra work it takes to catch me up to the other students.

A few years back, in a class about arrealism, I was assigned to write a writer’s manifesto. It was an interesting assignment because I never thought about a writer’s manifesto. I thought about why I was writing. I thought about my writing heroes – David Sedaris, Bill Bryson, Tina Fey – and I tried to understand why they started to write. What inspired them?

As a reader, I was always drawn toward humor. I love comedy. When writing, I wanted to make my readers laugh in the same way that Sedaris does. When we presented our manifestos to the class, other students had high minded reasons for going into writing, and name checked some literary greats. My inspiration? Madeline Kahn and Teri Garr. I wanted people to enjoy themselves when reading my work. While my classmates cited Austerlitz as their inspiration, I said Erma Bombeck.

Getting my MFA is definitely a bittersweet experience for me. I feel a sense of accomplishment, because I was able to juggle full-time work, a part-time job teaching, and going to grad school part time. It was a lot of work at times, and there were many overnight sessions of reading and annotating. But I love all of this. I love studying and going to school.

So, it’s a bit bitter that I’m done with my MFA work because it’s probably the last time I’ll be in school. I’ve identified myself as a student for a long time. And now that part of my life is over. Now, I have to compete with the more-talented members of this MFA gang for spots in literary anthologies, journals, or chapbooks.

For MFA, I had to write a thesis – mine was a book-length collection of essays. This past Tuesday, I participated in a reading, in which I read an excerpt of a story about my dad’s recent battle with cancer. The reception was positive. The people in the audience laughed and reacted warmly to my story. Predictably, the other writers were better: Matt Styne, Phyllis Lodge, and Chicago-area writer Jessica Anne were brilliant, each reaching the kind of creative high I can only dream of attaining. They’re just better. I don’t say this as a self-deprecating thing. It’s just honesty.

Right now, I got a couple things bubbling away. I’m writing some film pieces and am looking at other calls for papers. I’m also continually working out on paper (yeah, I write on paper first – I got stacks of legal pads) how I feel about Europe, the EU, Brexit, and London. Stuff keeps changing over there, so I feel like I’m never done.

Something sticks with me from the reading on Tuesday. We were introduced by the professors, and Christian TeBordo introduced me, and called my work sophisticated, which is a very generous and kind compliment. I always wanted to be called sophisticated. When I think of the word sophisticated, I think of Oscar Wilde, Noël Coward, or Dorothy Parker. It’s nice company (I just realized that I inadvertently implied that Christian compared me to Wilde, Coward, and Parker – he didn’t, he’s not nuts).

So, now I’m hearing the faint dulcet tones of a PhD program calling me like a siren from a distance. I’m not naïve and know that a PhD can be an expensive albatross, and it isn’t a guarantee. But I like the idea of being a perpetual students (though I don’t like the idea of owning a perpetual student loan).

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Reading while in grad school

After a good summer, I’m back in school. I’m about halfway through my MFA studies, and am enjoying the process, so far. A good thing about summer is the chance to get through the stacks of books I’ve compiled throughout the school year (though honestly, my pile is perennially high).

A few weeks ago, I just finished re-reading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice for the millionth time (I’ve read it so many times, that I anticipate some of the sparkling dialogue). Since I’m on a Jane Austen kick of a bit, I’m currently working my way through Sense and Sensibility. It’s my third favorite of Austen’s works (Emma is my favorite – and I can’t wait to start on that).

During the summer I also read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, which was brilliant. Because it was reportedly based on James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, I picked up Baldwin’s work, as well just to draw the parallels. I was lucky enough to attend one of Coates’ talks about reparations and the Great Migration. Fantastic.

Anyways, back to reading when in grad school. I’m in two classes this term, a fiction writing workshop and an internship of a literary magazine. In the former, we’ve got a decent list of books on the syllabus, including Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, which is what was assigned first. I’m about halfway through the book – a collection of short stories. The reviews have been great, but so far, I’ve yet to become really involved and/or attached to Johnson’s work. The literary magazine has us reading 20 short stories, plus some publishing articles in the first week. Whew.

Given the work load, one would assume that I would put off reading other books for now, but I’m looking to start reading Sonia Manzano’s Becoming Maria as well as Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. But Jimmy Carter’s new book, A Full Life is also beckoning me.

I don’t know, sometimes I wish my mind was like that grid from the opening credits of The Brady Bunch. I’d love for each segregated section of my mind to be wholly independent from another, that way I could read 9 different books and not get confused.

On top of everything, I also make it a semi-official policy to read books by professors whose classes I’m taking. I just got a copy of my professor’s book last night, and am looking to read it as well.

For the past few weeks, I lost my Kindle, and just found it last night under my bed, underneath a pile of books. I had to clear the books out of my way, like rubble, to unearth the Kindle (the battery was depleted at that point). I was excited because a shit ton of books were stored, and I wanted to get to them.

I love to read – though it’s weird to say I’m well-read (it feels pretentious to stay so, especially since most of what I read is, well, crap). For many who aren’t English majors (or writing majors), they think that English majors are 24/7 happy because we do what we love all the time – after all, our homework is what we do for a hobby. I admit, I felt that way about theater students (until I took theater classes in a brief, misguided moment when I wanted to be a comedian). But I do a different kind of reading when I’m in “grad student mode,” versus just “me” mode. I admit that years of college has destroyed my ability of reading or watching anything without trying to deconstruct it in some way, but still, when I’m reading for myself, I stick with books and subjects that I know will appeal to me.

Jesus’ Son is a collection of stories, and so far they all feature strong violence and disaffected characters. Johnson’s writing is excellent and he’s a great story teller, but I’m drawn to writers who look at the world in a funny light. I’m going to have to read Jesus’ Son a few times so that I can participate in the discussions in class (a big part of my grade).

I’ll leave reviews of Sense and Sensibility as well as Jesus’ Son soon.

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