Welcome to the MFA
Dear Incoming MFA Student,
If you’re new to the program, chances are you’re at least fifteen years younger than I was when I started my MFA and your automatic response to my advice will be to toss it into the bottom drawer where you keep your parents’ pearls of wisdom: change the oil every 3,000 miles, save 10% of every paycheck, all that old people stuff.
If, however, this memo happens to find you in a teachable moment, listen to what I say that it may go well with you. By tucking away even a portion of the contents, maybe you’ll dodge some of the early MFA tar pits that sucked my boots off. After two years of being in the program—at the rate of one elective or workshop per semester—I am now in possession of wisdom that would have helped me navigate the early MFA gauntlet with a little more agility and grace. If I knew then . . .
I hearken back to the unsolicited advice of one community fiction workshop teacher, an author you may know. On the final night of the 12-week course, one year before the launch of a new MFA program I was considering applying to, he cornered me at the top of the stairs in the old, ivy-covered limestone English department building where the class met, and issued a warning. Towering over me, six-foot-five to my five-foot-six, he looked down into my face and said with portent, “Don’t do it.” I’m pretty sure his voice echoed down the stairwell, DO IT, Do It, do it.***CORRECTION BELOW*** This I took personally as a slight on my writing ability, that no way was I MFA material, which maybe I wasn’t. But his admonition made me want it even more, so I ignored him and, two years later, launched into the program by taking my first class, an elective taught by—of all people—him.
Upon completion of that first elective I met with Prof. Tall and Enigmatic for a standard one on one conference. From across a wide, wooden desk, in his dim, book-lined office, he sliced the thick silence with a question. In a tone of voice all “Would you like fries with that?” he said, “So what do you want to talk about?” I can’t remember what subject I fumbled to raise—something related to story, I suppose. I waited for him to offer gems of writerly guidance, but what he said was this: “Maybe this says more about me and my own stuff—and I know I said something to you a year or two ago about not being in the program—but why don’t you just take a Robert McKee Story seminar? I mean, why do you want an MFA?”
My husband tells me that if you try to convert to Judaism, which he did in a previous life in deference to his ex-wife’s Semitic heritage, the rabbi will deny you three times. Or maybe that was Peter on the night of Jesus’s betrayal, but the point is, if you want to convert you have to be willing to have the temple door slammed in your face your first few attempts.
So, while my deeply rooted neuroses make me interpret any hint of discouragement by a professor, or any authority, as personal—a shout through a bullhorn directly into my ear, insider to outsider, to “Get. Out!”—I tried to deflect his suggestion that I wasn’t where I belonged. Rather, I plowed ahead in the program with a commitment tethered to nothing more than a passion-fueled will to improve my own writing.
But the seed of doubt Prof. Tall and Enigmatic had planted germinated and took root. Oh, it was in there deep. My writer’s imagination convinced me that he was in alliance with all the other professors in the program, warning them of my abysmal writing. “Bates is a hack.” I pictured them sitting around a Gothic, candlelit parlor in one of their professorial, English Tudor homes, smoking pipes and cigars over brandy and book-talk, a cabal of powerful academics applying harsh ratings to me and my peers. Turns out I was wrong.
When the next semester rolled around I was still too wussy to take a workshop—scared to death of the imagined judgment—and futzed around instead with an undergraduate visiting writers course taught by a poetry professor, with one other MFA and ten undergrads young enough to be my children. But Visiting Writers ended up being alright, not in spite of, but due to the unique perspective of that poetry professor.
In fact, I recommend taking a class with a professor not in your side of the program: if you’re prose, submit yourself to a poetry prof, and vice versa. If you’re CNF, try F. It’ll stretch your skills and expose you to another discipline. Even though fear drove me away from a prose workshop to yet another elective, it was an enriching experience. I learned about enjambment and caesura, met Katie Ford, and got to have beers with CJ Hribal and lunch with Nick Flynn, whom I also got to chauffeur to his hotel. Great guy. Value added.
What I wish I had done—what I urge you to do—is jump into the program by taking a workshop right away. I’m telling you: defer electives, start with workshop, and get to work writing. Write hard and daily, till your eyes burn and your fingers fall off, and when it’s your turn to be workshopped, out of respect for your classmates, submit only your most polished work. Be ruthless with your own writing, but when it comes to the work of others—even if you hate it, be kind. One professor, whom we’ll call Prof. Kind and Brilliant, in response to my whiny request to switch into a different workshop with other, stronger writers I insisted would challenge me more than the batch of new students would, told me in so many words not to be a s#!$head.
This same professor, who is the smartest person I’ve ever shared air with, is sharp enough to justifiably act superior to anyone in his presence (but doesn’t) and leads his workshops with humility. With Prof. Kind and Brilliant, the Golden Rule rules, and the results are magical. So listen: be as patient, gentle, and honest with the other workshopees and their work as you expect them to be with you and your work.
1) Don’t do it!
2) Ignore the bastard who told you not to do it.
3) If you do it, don’t be such a wuss.
4) Start with a workshop.
5) Take a course outside your concentration.
6) Write until you bleed.
7) Do unto others…
8) Don’t be a s#!$head.
A Reformed Wussy Shithead MFA Veteran
p.s. Let me know if you ever want to go in on a group rate for a Robert McKee Story seminar.
***CORRECTION: Professor Tall and Enigmatic claims to have said, “Why don’t you wait a year?” instead of “Don’t do it,” insisting he never would have dissuaded a student in that way.***