Tag Archives: MFA fiction writing

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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The Lunch Date – a short story


The Lunch Date

Maxwell Dwyer was so busy, that he often didn’t get a chance to read the names of his appointments until day of. He cursed this habit when he saw that he was meeting with the executive director of the L.A. Mission for the Homeless. Her name was Stacy Davis. At first the name meant nothing, but when his secretary presented him with research on Ms. Davis, he broke out in a nervous sweat. His secretary thoughtfully included Ms. Davis’ professional headshot in the bio she prepared.

He pulled up the agency’s Website to get a better look. It was her. Stacy. The flattering picture showed an attractive middle-aged woman, years away from the girl he fell in love with in high school. Though it’s been over 30 years, Stacy’s shadow loomed over every other relationship he’s had – including his fifteen year marriage to Laura. The marriage was hell on Max in the beginning, because for the first few years, without her knowing it, Laura would fall short each time he compared her with Stacy. Her looks, the way she walked, her fashion sense – all of it. Slowly, though, Stacy started to fade, and he was able to love Laura for who she was – and was able to push Stacy into a convenient corner of his mind – never completely gone, but not as dominant.

The breakup was excruciating – so rough, that his parents sent him to a series of doctors. He was inconsolable. The worst of it all was that Stacy broke up with Max in a letter. Suddenly, she just left, writing an affected letter that waxed poetic about their time together and about the passage of time. The letter was heavy with clichés about moving on and finding oneself. She was his first – and as such, he found her sudden withdrawal all the more hurtful.

Looking back, Max blushed slightly at his tragic behavior. At certain points, he had to admit, he reveled in the sadness, almost enjoyed it. He read Romeo and Juliet repeatedly, identifying with the young lovers, and would lament, “That’s me and Stacy,” to whoever’s sympathetic ear that might be near. He remembered the bad poetry and the song lyrics he wrote. He also remembered his aborted attempts at learning to play the guitar so that he could perform the songs he wrote – his paeans to Stacy and lost love.

Max shuddered at those thoughts – some still fresh. He then realized that Stacy was probably feeling the same way about him. Intrigued he started to imagine her, equally flustered and gutted, trying to figure out just how to get through their meeting with a modicum of professionalism.

He wanted to see Stacy, but at the same time he dreaded seeing Stacy. After the disaster of their breakup, Max was able to rebuild himself, and though he had bad and messy breakups afterwards, none took the same kind of toll. He was able to distance himself from that sensitive and swoony kid whose life fell apart because his first love left him.

On the cab ride to the restaurant, Max found himself rehearsing the kinds of things he could say to Stacy when he saw her. He could play up his family – his beautiful wife and his three great kids. He could crow about his job – after all, her agency is appealing to his company for donations. He’s traveled a lot, seen a lot, and met a lot of people. His thoughts started to steer into a rather uncharitable direction. He found himself hoping she’d regret ever leaving him. If he were honest, he also hoped that her life wasn’t as together as his. But he quickly admonished himself for any of these unkind impulses, and instead, focused on seeing Stacy again.

He thought of the picture of her on the agency’s Website. Obviously the picture is meant to be flattering, but still, he could see she was beautiful. She had the kind of beauty that would never be referred to in the past tense, no matter how many years have passed. He thought back to her when they were young – her strong shoulders, her long legs. She was always athletic – some people teased them that she could probably take him in a fight, and once when they were at the beach, Max stepped on some broken glass, Stacy managed to lift him and carry him a short distance. It was a short distance, but still, he remembered the awed stares of the other beachgoers, seeing a hot girl in a bathing suit, carrying her injured boyfriend.

When the cab pulled up to the restaurant, Max was at once relieved to be finally there, but at the same time annoyed that he didn’t have more time. He walked in, the dread and the anticipation clashing with each other. The hostess took him to a table and he finally saw Stacy.

She looked like her picture.

She stood up, and he saw she maintained her athletic build, which was slightly exaggerated by her power suit. The ensuing years after they stopped seeing each other etched fine lines throughout her face, but she was still stunning. “Max,” she finally said, breaking the spell a bit, “it’s so good to see you.” She took his hand and leaned over and kissed him on the cheek.

The two sat down, and the waiter took their drink orders and vanished. For what seemed like forever, all they could do was sit and stare at each other. Stacy noted that Max’s brown hair was threaded with specks of gray. Max spotted the wedding band on Stacy’s finger. They were sizing each other up, not sure when to speak.

“How’ve you been?” Max asked. “It’s been, I don’t know…”

“Thirty-one years. It’s been thirty-one years… How’ve I been?” She shrugged, not sure how to answer a question so huge, “I don’t know – good, bad, great, horrible, in between. All of it. You?”

“The same.” He then added, “I’m married now.”  He then dug in his pocket for his phone and turned it on to Laura’s smiling face. “See – her name is Laura. She’s a music teacher at a private school.” He then swiped the phone and pulled up a picture of three teens – “And these are my kids, Matthew, Felix, and Kerri.” He then set the phone down. “They’re in high school.”

Stacy nodded, “They’re beautiful. She’s beautiful.”

“Your last name is Davis, but,” he said, his voice trailing as he gestured toward her ring.

“I’m married, but I kept my name.” She didn’t offer to show him a picture of her husband or her kids.

“So, wow, Stacy,” Max said, “You look fantastic.”

Stacy smiled, but still felt tense. “It’s a weird coincidence – the two of us meeting like this. I almost canceled the meeting.”

“Why didn’t you?”

“Well, aside from the fact that our agency could really use your money, I wanted to see you. I was curious. I also wanted to know why you didn’t cancel, either.”

Max almost admitted that he didn’t know he was seeing her until earlier that morning, but decided not to tell her. “Yeah, I wanted to see you, too. I was curious.”

“So, when your secretary confirmed our meeting – I even double checked with him, making sure that it was you and not a colleague coming, I thought I had to come.”

“I’m glad you did….I have a lot of questions.”

“I’m sure you do,” Stacy said, switching to a professional guise, and pulling out a large leather attaché case. “I have a proposal our grant writer put together, and I was hoping we could go over some of the services we provide for the city’s homeless population.

Max laughed a little, “No, no, I don’t mean about that – I mean, we’ll get to that, but I had questions about us. About what happened. About how it ended.”

Stacy set the attaché case back on the empty seat next to her. She visibly deflated a bit. “I was hoping we could, sort-of, work around that.”

Max’s face contorted in skepticism, “You thought we could work around the fact that we were madly in love and you suddenly disappeared? I’m sorry, but I have to know some things.”

She nodded, resigned, “I know, I’m sure you have a lot of questions. Lots of anger – and I owe you some explanation, but you didn’t know everything that was going on – and I didn’t want to burden you with all of that.”

“I wish you opened up to me – told me why you had to run away. I thought I did something to push you away.”

“I never wanted you to feel that way – it wasn’t you. And it was you.” She shook her head.

“What happened?”

“Max, I got pregnant.”

Max sat back, stunned. “Wait, what?”

“I got pregnant. It was scary and I didn’t what to do. So, I told my folks, who thought it best that I move away to visit my aunt in Peoria.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“My parents told me not to – they didn’t want anyone knowing. They just wanted me to have the baby, give it up and then forget about it. And so I did what they wanted. All of it. Almost all of it.”

“What part didn’t you do?”

“The forgetting.”

“So, I have a thirty-year old kid somewhere out there?”

Stacy nodded, “A girl.”

“What’s her name?”

Stacy shrugged, “I don’t know. We didn’t have much time to bond. To be honest, I never wanted to know more than that.”

“You’re not curious about where she is and what she’s up to? If she’s safe? If she’s sick? Happy?” Max could hear that his voice tipped into hectoring, but all of this was too much.

“I was curious, but I,” she chose her words carefully, “but I willed myself not to be curious. I had to Max, otherwise, I would’ve driven myself crazy wondering. It was no way to live.”

“So what happened afterwards?”

“Afterwards, I stayed in Peoria for a bit longer, then went east to live with some family friends, and went to college. My parents and I became somewhat estranged after this experience. We’ve become better, but it’s something that sort of, hangs out there. Whenever things get too still or too quiet, we always run the risk of mentioning it.”

Max’s head was crashing with all kinds of thoughts and questions – he felt as if someone had picked his brain up and shook it like a snow globe, and watched the thoughts flutter down in a mixed up mess. “I don’t know what do with all this,” he finally said.

“I know, maybe I shouldn’t have told you, but I didn’t want you to think that I left because I didn’t love you.”

“So you still loved me.”

“Of course I did…I don’t know, I still do, in a way. You never get over what we had, what we went through – it just sort of stays with you. I love my husband very much, and I would do anything for Chuck, but you’re still there.”

Max nodded grimly, “You, too. With Laura – I found myself comparing the two of you a lot.”

“Why’s that?”

Max was stumped for a second, but then he laughed, “I guess it’s because she’s the only other person in my life I loved as much as you. All the other women in my life between you and Laura, were great, but never measured up – but Laura’s different. And you were different. And I guess that’s why, at first at least, I always compared how I felt about Laura with how I felt about you. When we first made love, I tried remembering what I felt after we first made love. When we first went away on vacation, again, I thought about when we went to Yellowstone on our first vacation together.”

Stacy smiled at that memory. “I hated Yellowstone.”

Max smiled, “I know it. You hated camping, but said you were okay to go, and then when we got there, you couldn’t stand any of it.”

She laughed, “I thought it was dirty and uncomfortable, and it got cold at night. I never was much for camping.”

“Right, and you know, I loved camping. And I remember thinking, ‘God, what is this weekend going to be like if she’s hating it the whole time?’”

“Well, I was with you, so that part was nice.”

“Oh, I know – and I remember that even though you agreed to go, you never made an effort to make pretend that you were enjoying yourself.”

“I didn’t want to lie to you….I also was scared that if I pretended to like camping, you’d take me again…. And that was not happening.”

“So when Laura and I went on vacation for the first time, I thought about us – because that time in Yellowstone was the first time when were together for the whole day, 24/7, you know? There were no classes, no going back home, no meeting friends, it was just the two of us. And I knew were meant for each other?”

Stacy was surprised. “Really? Because if I remember that trip correctly, I kind of bitched the entire week, and refused to sleep in the tent at night.”

“Yeah, but I still wanted to be with you. I mean, at times, it was annoying as hell when you were crapping on the trip – especially since I was trying my best to make it nice, but I remember thinking at night, when we were asleep, that this was all okay. That it was going to be okay. That even if you hate camping, I didn’t care.”

“That sounds lovely. And Laura? Did she like Yellowstone?”

“Oh, I never took her to Yellowstone….our first trip together was to Boston. But we have gone camping since.”


Max smiled again, “And she loves it.” The two then slipped into silence as they started to drift into thought. Max then asked, “Does your husband know?”

Stacy thought for a second. “Yes.” Max raised his eyebrows. “I didn’t want a secret that important or that huge between us.” She then added, “So yes, my husband knew of your daughter before you did – it’s cruel, and I’m sorry about that.”

“How did he take it?”

“Uh, it was rough at first. It was early enough in our relationship that he could accuse me of harboring yeas of betrayal. But it was rough. He still finds it difficult to believe that I could live knowing that my adult daughter is somewhere in the world, a stranger to me.”

“I know what he means.”

“But we worked through it. I guess. I hate to speak for him, but I just have to assume Chuck is fine with it.”

“Did you have any more children?”

“No.” Max as surprised. “You see, children were never part of my plans. That’s another reason I left because I knew that you would’ve wanted to keep it.”

“I would’ve dropped out of school, got a job, I promise.”

“I know you would. And I would have to drop out of school. Forget college. And do whatever to get by with our kid. And I never wanted that. For myself or for you. After college, and after I started to work, I realized that I didn’t want kids. I like being able to just pick up and leave if I wanted to. The guy who had my job before me had a choice of meeting the President of the United States at a summit in DC or going to his kid’s graduation. Guess which one he picked?” Max shook his head. “He went to the graduation, and sent me instead. And I live off of that experience, and you know what? My old boss doesn’t regret his choice at all. I know that my parents – my mom especially – would’ve liked to have done more with their lives, but they were tied down with me.”

“That’s a cynical view of parenthood, Stacy,” Max said. “I mean, I understand what you mean about making sacrifices, and yeah, I do get resentful sometimes, too. But still, I love my kids, and if I’m being gun-to-my-head honest, I have to say, it’s worth all of it.”

Stacy smiled a wan smile and gestured, “So now you see why I did what I had to do.”

“You know, I was hoping I would dazzle you with my life now and that you’d regret doing what you did,” Max admitted.

“I don’t regret what I did, but I do regret the way I did it. But it was the only way I knew how. Besides, I was young and scared, and at the time, it seemed like the best way.”

Max almost asked if she had a chance to do it all again, would she do something different, but decided not to. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to know. Their drinks were empty. Max noticed with a start they never ordered and they never discussed their business. It felt almost anti-climactic at this point to even start. Stacy must’ve felt the same way because she cleared her throat and said, “What’s say we reschedule, only this time, we include some other folks in the meeting. It may make it more productive.”

Stacy paid the bill, and Max got up and pulled her chair out for her. They stood very close for a few seconds and then walked out of the restaurant together. Max always felt slightly decadent being in an expensive restaurant in the afternoon. In his mind, fancy places were for the evenings, in black tie. The conversation also left him unsettled and yet, weirdly satisfied. He scratched one itch, but there was another one, just out of reach.

Before they parted ways, they embraced. It was a nice, warm embrace. When they broke apart, Max asked, “Are you glad you came?”

Stacy thought for a second and nodded, “Yeah, I am.”



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