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).