Why I Started A Writing MFA After Retirement

October 29, 2018 § 21 Comments

5x7KathyBy Kathleen B. Jones

Awaken today in the lemon yellow-dove grey dawn. Blink several times. Close eyes again.  See sentences imprinted under my eyelids.

I get up, wash my face, brush my teeth, and sit down with my morning coffee. The sentences are gone.

I try cajoling them out of my brain again. Traces appear. I type these revenants onto the simulacrum of a page on my computer screen. Amazing how the body can remind the mind of what the mind forgot it already knew.

The memoirist Patricia Hampl once said she still gets shocked when she realizes she doesn’t write what she knows but writes in order to discover what she knows. This is how I think about my writing now: I write to discover what I know. And this is why, at the age of 69, I decided to go back to school for an M.F.A. in creative writing: I’m studying the craft to write in order to discover what I know.

I’m no novice writer. But, for most of my professional life, my writing conformed to the scholarly conventions of my academic field (political theory); I told what I knew. As a university professor, my job was to lead others into discovery. Now, I’m a student again. I have the opportunity to be led into discovery, along with a cohort of peers, by a core faculty of accomplished writers.

Figuring out how to shape a sentence so it sings, how to choose a metaphor so it means more than a clever coincidence between two things, how to invent the right diction for a narrator’s voice, how to create authentic dialogue and how to employ a panoply of related elements of style in aid of telling a story will consume the next year and a half of my life. You can learn a lot about those things through independent study or by attending short-term writing retreats. I’ve done both and they’ve helped. But I’ve wanted more.

I’ve wanted the discipline of an imposed structure, the support of a writing community, and the wisdom of expert teachers in a program with students of varied ages and diverse backgrounds and I’ve wanted all that on a more consistent basis than I’d find in a week or two-long retreat or could create for myself. So I thought, back to school, why not?

I used to ignore the pages and pages in Poets & Writers advertising M.F.A. programs. A year ago, I started paying attention. I eliminated all the residential programs with the exception of two in my area. One would have taken me four years to complete, so I crossed it off. The other required the GRE. I already had a Ph.D., I told the director. No exceptions to the rules allowed, she’d said. My list narrowed to a handful of low residency programs in different parts of the country and then narrowed to two, one on the east coast and the other on the west.

I dug into their web sites to learn about what they offered. I spoke to students and faculty at both schools. I read the faculty’s books. Because I wanted to concentrate on literary fiction—I’m writing an historical novel—I was especially interested in a program with strong fiction writers, but which also stressed cross-genre training. One granted a semester’s credit for previously published writing, which meant I could complete the M.F.A. in three semesters. My decision was made. The icing on the cake was learning, after I was admitted, about Brevity’s intention to affiliate with the program I’d chosen and that there was an opportunity to work with the magazine.

When I graduate from Fairfield University’s M.F.A. program in December 2019, I’ll be 70. Remember, 70 is the new 40, a friend of mine says. So, if anyone asks why I’m going back to school at this point in my life, I say it’s never too late to learn to write to discover what you know. You might be surprised by what you find, like I’m surprised every morning by those sentences under my eyelids.

Kathleen B. Jones taught Women’s Studies for twenty-four years at San Diego State University. She is the author of two memoirs, Living Between Danger and Love, and Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt. Her writing has appeared in Fiction International, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, The Briar Cliff Review, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. While completing an MFA in writing at Fairfield University, she is currently working on an historical novel about the 15th C writer, Christine de Pizan, and serves as Brevity‘s Associate Editor.


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§ 21 Responses to Why I Started A Writing MFA After Retirement

  • I also did a MA Creative Writing at a late age, 60, and I have never looked back. Love it. Currently doing a PhD (also a historical novel). It keeps the old brain cells ticking 🙂

  • equipsblog says:

    You are my role model.

  • kperrymn says:

    As you did when you were a university professor, you are still leading others to discovery. Thanks so much for this inspiring essay.

  • Debra Neumann says:

    Hi Kathy thank you for your post! I am 67 and have been on the fence about doing an MFA for a couple years. You articulate clearly why it has been an important, necessary step for you — to discover what you know and to gain the tools and space to do so. A very inspiring post for us elders!

  • ninagaby says:

    This is great. Also a quiet little fantasy of mine. Although not sure I want to take on that much debt at 68…but so wonderful to hear of others who are doing it. Thanks!

  • Mary Susan McCarthy says:

    Thank you for this wonderful piece. I’m doing the exact same thing and at the exact same age. Like you, I have published in the past but want to study craft, work in a community of writers and with wonderful teachers and build in some structure. So excited to begin in one month. Good luck to us both!

  • Thank you for this. It is a smart reasoning, useful and true. I promised myself an MFA when I was in my 20s and becoming a mother: “After the children graduate from college.” That is what I did. (Though I’s planned to continue in visual arts and there I was studying fiction!) A lifetime of frugality allowed me to pay my way, and my mother, who had never helped with tuition when I was young contributed most of one term’s tuition.

    It was a great education, and I would do it over again. I found what I knew and also the enormous gaps in what I should have known. There is still so much . . .

  • loc2017lmm says:

    Thanks for your article, Kathleen. I, too, had a Ph.D. when I began working on my MFA in Creative Writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I was 67 when I graduated this past January and have absolutely no regrets. Loved the program. Love writing. Love the people at VCFA. Thanks for being that kindred soul out there!!!

  • Fabulous article! Very inspiring. Best of luck with your MFA program.

  • Darlene Mueller Morse says:

    Congratulations on taking this step and also for the amount of research you put in. Forty years after getting a degree in Technical Journalism, I went back to college full time as an English major. Those five semesters taught me both how to use what I already knew plus introduced me to so many great poets and writers past and present. I’m 67 now and am still basking in the contacts I made while in school and the writing opportunities I now have.

  • I appreciated reading your post. I am also a university professor with a PhD and spend my time writing in the field of public health. I decided to go back to get my MFA and will be starting this winter at VCFA. I too started with workshops and retreats but wanted more. I am in my 40s but it still feels like starting over. Thanks for the inspiration and reminder that I have made the right choice!

  • Karen says:

    At 59, still working, I fantasize about this! Inspiring to read of your process and also the comments.

  • Sondra Kline says:

    Thank you for your post, Kathleen. I am 71 years old and half-way through my own MFA program, which I started shortly before retirement. I have never been happier, felt more alive, and been so fulfilled as after entering the program. And, I am meeting a number of classmates my age. To anyone out there who is hesitating, go for it. You won’t be sorry.

    • foglejunk says:

      Definitely a cool post, Kathleen. I love that idea of writing to discover what you know. And Sondra Kline, if you are the one who wrote “Blood & Whiskey,” know that I’ve taught it to my high schoolers for at least a good 3-4 years.

      • SONDRA KLINE says:

        I did write “Blood and Whiskey.” I’m so pleased (and flattered) you found it useful in your classroom! Thank you for letting me know.

      • foglejunk says:

        So glad you finally get to know of kids reading it, Sondra, and it’s really one of my personal all-time favorite pieces of short cnf. If you’re open to any questions the kids might have in the future, let me know at afogle@albany.edu

  • Joyce says:

    I enjoyed reading this. Have toyed with the idea for several years but still work full time. I have other masters degrees and know the discipline of an academic program works for me.

  • Margaret says:

    This also struck a chord with me as I’ve been secretly thinking about doing this when I retire in a couple of years. My issue is that I wonder if enrolling in yet another degree is just an excuse for not sitting down and doing some actual hard work (as opposed to daydreaming).
    I think in my case its just a diversionary tactic to avoid laying my feelings bare in a memoir.
    I really applaud the step you’ve taken, it’s very inspiring and wonderful. When I used to teach adults a few years ago some of them said that they were reluctant to start degrees because they would be 50, 60 or 70 when they finished. I used to tell them that they were going to be 50 anyway, so they might as well spend the time getting a degree (if that’s what they really wanted to do). I don’t think it matters how old you are when you start (or finish) anything, just that you keep on learning and stretching yourself.

  • VictoriaJoDean says:

    I finished my Creative Writing MFA just weeks before my 68th birthday – it’s a great time of life to be learning! And expanding life and opening the mind and heart to new vistas…after all…age is just a number.

  • debhale says:

    This piece inspired me to consider an MFA program. I am 68 and a journalist. I’m not retired, so this goal won’t be easy, but it’s s worthy one. Thank you.

  • Like many of those who’ve already responded, I’m also planning on pursuing an MFA in creative writing after I retire (about 3 months from now). I would love it if you shared more of your experiences at Fairfield University as it is one of the programs I am considering. PS I also write historical fiction. I self-published my first historical novel a little over two years ago and it’s been an amazing experience.

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