Why I Started A Writing MFA After Retirement

October 29, 2018 § 18 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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