Lessons in Community, Rejection, and Doggedness: What I’m Actually Learning in an MFA Writing Program Now That I’ve Finally Gotten Around to It
March 16, 2015 § 19 Comments
A guest post from Samantha Claire Updegrave:
I’ve been chewing on Ryan Boudinot’s essay “Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One” that ran in my (Seattle’s) local weekly, The Stranger, at the end of last month. Perhaps especially so, since I wonder (worry?) he’s trashing people like me: a late-blooming writer in her late thirties who struggles with imposter syndrome and is pursuing a low-residency MFA anyway, works an extracting full-time office day job, and is raising a five-year-old who requires health insurance, time and attention, and regular feedings.
But I’m in a split camp.
Boudinot’s piece is funny, in the way satire is funny; I get the tongue-in-cheek humor. There are points where I agree – talent is a real thing, you must actually write, writers need to be readers, it doesn’t matter if people think you are smart, and you must, absolutely, woodshed. But satire is barbed.
* * *
As an undergraduate, I studied urban planning. There’s a video of me at a governance meeting: I’m standing between my chair and the table spewing a ruthless litany against a fellow student’s proposal. I’m shredding it, and in that wake, I discredit any merit, thought, intention, or work that went into its creation. Afterward, people slapped me on the shoulder, thanked me for saying what they couldn’t (wouldn’t) say. There were a lot of high fives.
When my friend played me the tape, what I saw was mortifying, and it filled me with shame.
I was an asshole.
And I knew it then, as sure as I know it now, I never wanted to be that person in that video ever again.
* * *
The idea of the real deal, that some (a few) people are and therefore some (most) people are not, has plagued just about every endeavor that’s caught my interest. This creates a complicated relationship between talent and work/study/practice of the thing. It goes like this: if you were worth anything, you would’ve known by age 5, and you’d already be great.
When I was younger, this often had the power to stop me from working hard and learning. My fear of failure was tied to the possibility of discovering the real problem was that I had no talent. It was a possibility I wasn’t willing to face, and so a rejection of study and rules, was a way to save face, at least with myself. It made me shy about my voice and value. A strange envy of people who were doing the work grew into a monsterish comparison game where one person’s success only highlighted my inabilities. I can’t even call them failure, because to fail one needs to risk trying, and somewhere along the way I stopped.
COMMUNITIES are the places we live, work, and play. The MFA writing program creates spaces where writers learn and grow, push at their edges, engage with others.
Life can have a way of catapulting us great distances only to bring us back home, bedraggled and, hopefully humbled and ready to be our true selves. After life as an adult led me through a stint in the Air Force, college, marriage, having a baby, divorce, losing my job and house in the economic collapse – I finally got clear. Writing was more than a hobby and I couldn’t, or no longer wanted to, ignore its pull. But I still wasn’t comfortable calling myself a writer. I only knew that I was a better person when I was writing than when I wasn’t writing and so I committed to get down to the work of it and focus on craft and signed up for a continuing education program. I was a terrible student. My assignments were always late and incomplete, served with an essay about why my essay was incomplete and terrible. My teacher held the faith I couldn’t. And in that time, I broke free, took risks, failed, succeeded, failed again, kept going. That’s when I decided to attend a low residency MFA. Within a month of my acceptance, I was rehired at my old job, with a promotion, and decided to continue to pursue my MFA, but at a slower pace.
I’m 37 year old and 3rd year in: I still have another sixteen months to go, and at least another 25,000 to finish my thesis, which I have come to call “my book.”
Because real deal or not, I am writing a book. Something I didn’t ever think I could do, despite being an early and a big reader. (Maybe I figured I couldn’t do it because I truly hated The Great Gatsby. To this day, I haven’t been able to finish it, but don’t tell my HS English teacher – I’m pretty sure I wrote a paper on it as if I had read it when really I took stellar notes during class).
Community makes that possible: it provides the framework and structure, support, and makes the impossible seem possible, within reach.
The alumni reading I went to my first semester made my skin break into goose bumps. They were so good! The old me would have leapt into discouragement; this truer version of myself I was discovering smiled. Damn. I’m going to write that well some day.
I was home. This was the community where I could open to learning, playing, to risk and failure. To be a part of other writers’ processes, to see their fledgling ideas turn and dive and surface in new places, is a thrill. I don’t like every piece I encounter, but I understand more about the subject and author and human expression because of them. Nor is every piece I present received favorably. In my first workshop one student threw up her hands and flat out said she didn’t get it. And that honesty was welcomed. I don’t want to paint too rosy of a picture, but it does seem to me that not everyone is there to be the real deal. Many of us there because we love learning. We love to study and know and try. And to have a place to do so is important.
REJECTION is plentiful in the writing life.
The daily grind is tough. I choose a low residency MFA so I could continue to work and support my kiddo, stay within proximity to the family and friends who are pillars of the support structures needed to raise up a small person. I work full-time in urban planning, and do all the morning stuff – make breakfast, pack lunches, take my son to school on the METRO bus, walk downtown to work, then reverse it at night. (Luckily my partner cooks dinner, or we’d all starve.) I’ve started to teach one night a week, and try to make it out for a couple of times a month for readings, big or small.
Six days a week, I wake up at 4:45 am, and write for an hour and half before my son gets up. Most of what I write no one will ever see, and these are the best of me because they are me at work, figuring and crafting and discovering the words. When I do send my work out into the world – I pitch big and small. I pitch to email addresses garnered through contacts and through Submittable and apply for residencies. It’s grueling and solitary.
In the month of January, I received 13 rejections.
I’m learning the rejection is literal and not personal. It’s still hard to weather, and I’m grateful for my community where we celebrate each other’s success and rejections.
DOGGEDNESS, I’ve been told, is essential to survive and thrive.
In the month of January, I had one acceptance and one piece published. February, another two acceptances and two pieces published. Two more pieces are slated to run in April. I’m waiting to hear back on 10 pitches and submissions. Their chances are slim. Yet, I pick up my pen every day and write on.
I am learning to be dogged. How to do the work and keep doing it. I could have given up on the spot when I first came back to writing; I was raw and afraid and had only a few tablespoons of faith left in myself. I was met with a willing guide. In the MFA, I have a community that recharges my reserves and opens me to the different ways we are all in and of the world. It gives me people to show up for; we keep each other going.
* * *
Ultimately, I’m left with plain old disappointment. Uninspired. Even Christopher Frizzelle’s follow up “An Interview with Ryan Boudinot About His MFA Piece That Blew Up the Internet” serves up more of the same: Boudinot irritated “legions of lazy aspiring writers” and that the people who are glad he’s no longer teaching represent “certain corners of the Internet who struggle with reading comprehension.”
Both pieces read like satire, but Boudinot’s words (and to a lesser extent Frizzelle’s) are salt in tender and well-cultivated wounds. And they’re not some water cooler steam venting session; these are published. It makes me wonder: do I want entry into this clubhouse?
I don’t begrudge Boudinot, or think his tasteless joke about “suffering” in the context of sexual abuse are grounds for dethroning him from the Seattle City of Literature work. And shaming him just seems more of the same old same old that’s become commonplace in Internet culture. But I’m reminded of that video. I’ve worked hard to transform myself from the asshole in that video to the person I wanted to be and knew I was. I’ve learned that it’s important to stand up and voice a different view, to counter the barrage of discouragement and shame that articles like Boudinot’s put out into the world.
* * *
With so much on my plate, I’m stalled. I thought all the morning writing was building the scaffolding I needed to jump back in after taking a couple of months off from my book to adjust to a new work schedule and job, start teaching, and deal with health issues. Turns out, it isn’t as sound as I’d imagined. So I emailed my mentor about the two chapters I was supposed to turn in that day.
“I didn’t get far this weekend in restarting…. I wasn’t worried before, but now I am a little worried. I couldn’t find my way back in. Any suggestions or tips?”
It wasn’t until after I hit send that I remembered Boudinot’s essay; I paused. Momentarily worried about how my 21st Century work and parenting and teaching life got in the way and how I was stuck mid-chapter 7. Then I remembered the man on the receiving end, how kind and encouraging he is, and his voracious curiosity. He responded within the hour.
“What’s the episode or narrative point at which you’re trying to restart? Tell me about it.”
Samantha Claire Updegrave writes creative nonfiction, profiles, book reviews, and poetry. Her work has been rejected by notable places such as The New York Times, Jezebel, Ploughshares, and Brevity. But you can still find her work in The Rumpus, High Country News, Bitch, Crosscut, Literary Mama, and Hip Mama. She teaches prose writing at the Hugo House and is a nonfiction editor at Soundings Review. By day, she is an urban planner, and lives in Seattle, Washington, with her partner, young son, and (sadly just one) cat. You can connect with her on Twitter @scupdegrave.
Yes! Yes! Yes! You have said it. Power, grit, and that say-your-mind-without-being-an-asshole skill—all attributes the later-in-life writer.
This is the best response to the Boudinot piece that I’ve read yet. I have no skin in the game, since I took an MFA off my list years ago, but all this blathering about talent and possessing it almost right out of the womb is irritating. I like the balance and thoughtfulness in this piece. Thank you.
I agree with Michelle; this thoughtful, well-written article is an excellent response to the Boudinot piece. Shouldn’t a writing program be, after all, a place where people can learn how to write well in the same way that an art program is a place to learn how to communicate in the language of art? Not everyone is a born artist, but there are plenty of would-be artists whose skills have blossomed under gentle and positive mentorship.
In most instances, I refrain from responding to thoughts expressed among the BREVITY stuff. However, what compelled me to steal time away from a busy schedule to generate a response is the thought process relative to Samantha Claire Updegrave’s expressions. First, is the poetry in her name (what a truly beautiful name). Second, is the sense of the life process in the presentation.
Seems to me there is a strong equivalency to what most of us encounter in living our lives. In this piece, there is a beginning, a middle part, an on-going activity, and a concluding point. Life activities seem to align with those elements, at least within a broad spectrum. My perception is that those elements are a simple truism, which apply to all of us.
Creative writers should not be so judgmental or harsh in their self-critiques. Life is a joyful interlude and we should relish the diversity of the up and down fluctuations in the same way, that swimming in the surf is pure fun. The turbulence tosses you about. There is sand in your ears, water in your eyes, you are sputtering to breathe. In a single exhilarating moment, you arrive at the surf’s edge, awash in foaming spume and spindrift, but thoroughly refreshed from engagement with life.
In her piece, Samantha Claire Updegrave arrived at that determination and described the concept that life, in general, is good. That is a good thing. Kind good wishes that we all arrive at that determination – sooner than later.
No pithy comments or smarmy retorts from me. Only thank you. Well done.
This is an excellent piece about the issue! I appreciate the compassion with which the author, the writing body, the writer, gives writing as a gesture to this dialogue. We all have the capacity, and I certainly have acted as one in the past, to be that asshole. I see the point of her writing as perception. I love the writer’s focus on the work and the details of her journey towards her MFA. And what is really important about being in the clubhouse, the writing. Thank you!
Reblogged this on EAT ME and commented:
More on the MFA student trashing issue…
Love the bio.
I don’t have an MFA, nor do I plan on trying to achieve one. I’ve not read any of the back and forths of this discussion (that you allude to), and I have no say in that arena. I just wanted to say that this spoke to me on a level outside of all of that, as a “late-blooming” writer who is near 40 and just now stepping into the wonderful world of writing. It’s quite the pep talk, I think, and I’m grateful for it.
I enjoyed this piece very much. Thank you, Samantha Updegrave,for writing it!
Great piece. The REAL THING comes in many guises, including you.
That’s my dazzling, articulate feedback. Just
Reblogged this on Esse Diem and commented:
On becoming a writer and a better person: “Life can have a way of catapulting us great distances only to bring us back home, bedraggled and, hopefully humbled and ready to be our true selves.”
Thanks, Samantha. Well said.
Samantha, your response to Ryan B’s piece is honest, searching, balanced, candid, courageous, and moving! Thank you for contributing this piece to the conversation–the best response to it that I have read! I’m honored and proud to be one of your teachers in that very supportive low-residency MFA program in which you are completing your degree and that first book! KEEP WRITING (you know, and WE know, you will)!!
Thank you. I can’t tell you how incredibly helpful this was… you articulated something I have always felt. Well done.
Really nice piece, thank you.
thanks so much! breathless and brilliant reflection. I enjoy how your writing gets me thinking and discovering with you.
It’s all very good to hear that low-residency M.F.A. programs are nurturing and comforting. But I wonder whether M.F.A.s have now become a license for writers in the same way a medical degree is for a doctor. And I shudder to think whether editors and judges care for an M.F.A. in a writer’s bio when deciding the worth of a submission. The M.F.A. is essentially a late 20th-century American invention. Did Chekhov have an M.F.A.? Hemingway? More and more it seems to me that if one doesn’t have an M.F.A., one doesn’t belong to the club of the American literary establishment. If you check out the bios of those being published, most of them feature an M.F.A. Is this trend a coincidence or an indication that more M.F.A.s than others submit to lit mags?