Hangover and Abandonment, Post MFA
February 24, 2021 § 3 Comments
By Meg McGovern
“You may feel a hangover. Abandonment,” Carol Ann Davis, Director of Fairfield University’s MFA Program, warned me and the forty exhausted students gathered together on Zoom for the closing remarks of our ten-day Residency, “but don’t forget the beautiful community we have built together.”
The hangover is not from alcohol, but rather the foggy feeling of being immersed in workshops, reading articles, essays, poems, attending seminars, completing several common reads, and holding discussions all day and into the night with other writers. The abandonment is the feeling students get when suddenly they must go back to their real lives and figure out how to manage writing, jobs, and family at the same time. When you are in a Residency, everything else is on hold.
I wrapped up my MFA a few weeks ago with a virtual celebration. The Hallelujah Cohort, as my graduating group called ourselves, dressed up in cap and gowns in front of our computers. Our emotions were mixed. We were high on the satisfaction of accomplishment that comes with completing four semesters which included craft papers, a third semester project, a 140-page Thesis, a graduate reading, and a graduate presentation, not to mention the pages and pages of reading, writing, revising, and editing work. At the same time, there was a sense of departure, abandonment, from the MFA community and the writing life established over the past few years.
No longer would we get regular emails from the director about deadlines.
No longer would we have semester assignments forcing us to sit at our desks for hours.
No longer would we choose a mentor and then meet every few weeks to discuss progress.
No longer would we spend ten days on an island or virtually immersed in writing.
It is now up to us to create our own writing lives and stay connected to our MFA community, to keep the momentum going and the friendships alive.
The day after graduation, I attended my last workshop then headed to the virtual closing. I had an unexpected wave of emotion, and tears welled up in my eyes as I left the Zoom gathering. What should I do now?
I had a million things to do; go over the comments on my writing from the Publishing & Editing workshop, read the few articles I hadn’t gotten to, read the pile of books I purchased during Residency that had already arrived, submit essays to literary journals, and write new essays brewing in my head. I needed to catch up on lesson plans for teaching my 6th graders the next day, do the laundry, pay bills, take down the holiday decorations—all the stuff I had neglected during Residency. Instead, I decided to lie down on the couch with my pup, Gia, at my feet. The brain fatigue—the hangover—hit, but thoughts churned through my head like butter and brought me back to a workshop about “Writing Life and Success.” I pondered on my own writing life. What should my writing life look like now? What are my successes?
Several professors from the MFA program spoke about their own writing life. One said she has kept track of her daily writing hours for thirty years. Another said, he doesn’t keep track, he just writes. In his memoir On Writing, A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King says to writers, “You need a room, you need a door, and you need the determination to shut the door. You need a concrete goal as well. The longer you keep to these basics, the easier the act of writing will become.” King suggests writing 1,000 words per day and staying in that room until your goal is complete.
I don’t keep track of my hours writing, and I don’t have a room with a desk and a door. I write whenever I can, wherever I can, usually on weekends and in the evenings after work, a swim or workout, and dinner. My writing space is in the living room. I put on my headphones, listen to music for studying, and write. Many of my ideas come when I swim, on my walks, in the middle of the night, and on weekends when I am not teaching. When ideas come, I jot them down anywhere I can. Every writer needs to establish a definition for their own “writing life.”
What I have learned is that success also has different definitions. Some write for money; others write to be heard. When my nonfiction book, We’re Good: The Power of Faith, Hope & Determination, about Chris O’Brien, an eighteen-year-old who became a quadriplegic after a diving accident, was published in October 2018, sales were great. Amazon listed it as #1 in Spinal Cord Injuries. Chris and I launched the book together with a 200-person event at a brewery, we spoke at high schools in our area, and we were interviewed on Connecticut’s Channel 8 News. After the initial launch, the momentum slowed, but success did not come just from sales. For me, success came from the impact on readers. While writing the book, I interviewed people who knew Chris and had been influenced by his positive mindset. A young man, a paraplegic, who Chris had met at Shephard Rehabilitation Center in Atlanta, told me he didn’t have determination like Chris despite being more physically capable. Accepting a new identify, from athlete to paraplegic, was unsurmountable. He died just as the book was being published and left a grieving family; his mother, father, and a sister who then reached out to me.
My words had helped them heal from their loss.
Their words were my success.
Meg McGovern teaches middle school Language Arts and is the author of We’re Good: The Power of Faith, Hope & Determination. Meg is an Assistant Editor for Brevity and has also written for their blog. Meg holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing from Fairfield University in Connecticut.
Books I Brought to My MFA
June 19, 2019 § 12 Comments
By Amelia Morand
The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien
The night before I move to Montana, an online forum tells me that the trailer I’ve rented will void my car insurance and possibly kill my engine. The next morning, I buy a discount rooftop cargo box and consolidate my life into sixteen cubic feet. I leave behind: the King bed and dining room table I got in the breakup, my Crock-Pot and large and small food processors, half of my shoes, and most of my books. I bring: four pairs of SmartWool socks, three forks, rain boots I will never wear, and two drugged dogs.
The Drama of the Gifted Child, Alice Miller
Reading the very first round of submissions, I realize that we were all the star writers in our undergraduate workshops. Our teacher tells us that if we let it, the jealousy will consume us, and we write this down, desperate for his approval. Each week our cramped classroom will hold our egos and impostor complexes, shifting rivalries and alliances, layers of flannel and down, the smell of spoiled milk growing more urgent and distinctive as the weather gets colder.
Just As Long As We’re Together, Judy Blume
Early on, one of my new friends tells her partner, “I’ve found my tribe.” We nickname our program The Bubble, and our old lives feel far away. It’s too hard to explain to everyone back home what we’re doing here. The three of us often end the night holding hands above the console as the engine idles for an hour, gossiping about the cohort, complaining about our students, laughing again and again over the same stupid joke. I always forget to turn off my headlights, and we watch deer making their way across the lawns.
When You are Engulfed in Flames, David Sedaris
I spend my first term failing to do the following: teach my students how to write a strong thesis statement; understand or even finish Ulysses; talk to a human every day; write a story I’m proud of.
Capital Volume I, Karl Marx
I’m lucky enough to receive a tuition waiver and a stipend, which puts me a little more than six thousand dollars below the poverty line. At first I feel guilty for applying for SNAP, for using my EBT to buy organic chicken, for using it to buy ice cream. I majored in economics as an undergrad, as I make sure to tell everyone, but my Marxism is theoretical, not personal. The choice to study creative writing instead of inequality seems so stupid, so selfish, I feel I don’t deserve any assistance, let alone the public’s. Still, after a few months, I will go just about anywhere if the food is free.
Blue Nights, Joan Didion
I think that the world will probably end soon, and also that I never had any talent to begin with, and I’m not sure which depresses me more, and this ambiguity is another reason I lie awake and anxious from two to five, sleep until nine or ten, spend the day groggy and ashamed. The third time I tell my doctor I want to go back on Wellbutrin she gets it, and while this doesn’t change how I feel about climate or my writing, I now feel able to teach, and read, and walk my dogs. Some days I even write.
Preparation for the Next Life, Atticus Lish
I don’t register the rejections most of the time, though sometimes they’re a little nicer, and I feel optimistic, and sometimes they all come the same week, and I think I’ll quit. The schools all started hiring months ago, and the restaurant in Santa Fe would be glad to have me back. My friend asks if I’ll be home for her wedding in September. “It’s complicated,” I say.
And Then We Came to the End, Joshua Ferris
The theses were read last weekend, a thousand pictures taken by parents and partners (none mine). I skipped the last two parties and with them several goodbyes, and I’ve spent most of this cold and sunny day staring out the window, slowly revising my final few assignments. In fact, I did not bring this book to Missoula, but when it shows up on a syllabus in my final term, I remember exactly which box it’s in beneath the framing table, wedged between half-empty journals and my high school yearbooks, taking up space, she reminds me, in my mother’s garage.
Originally from Santa Fe, Amelia Morand now lives in Missoula, where she serves as a Fiction editor for CutBank and has just finished her MFA. Her writing is featured or forthcoming with apt, Hobart, Pithead Chapel, and Lunch Ticket.
The Hybrid Writer’s Life (Post-MFA)
December 5, 2016 § 21 Comments
By Paige Sullivan
A newly-enrolled MFA student, my job as an assistant editor at my program’s top-tier, in-house literary journal was what you’d expect: reading the slush pile. The journal accepted both paper and online submissions, meaning each week I’d work through a stack of submission packets colorfully paper clipped together in addition to sifting through the online queue.
While the work was sometimes dull, it was crucial to sharpening my reading skills, and it afforded me an invaluable understanding of the spectrum of talent and skill that exists out there. Truly, we got it all: exceptional work, promising work, and strange poems that tried to compare love to meatball marinara.
My favorite part of reading the paper submissions were the more personal touches of the printed and hand-signed cover letters, which were sometimes accompanied by a business card. For me, these submissions became fascinating character studies. Yes, there were writers like me: MFA students or graduates who neatly listed 3-4 italicized publications, any accolades, and where they lived and worked. Others were less conventional and thus more interesting.
One woman included a business card that read, “Poet….Hairdresser.” There was more than one letter from an attorney who wrote poems when they weren’t practicing law. One writer mentioned that in addition to their day job and their writing, they were active in the competitive breeding and show rabbit circuit. Incredible.
As I soon came to the conclusion that the academic career path was not the career path for me, I became more and more fascinated with these kinds of writers: the ones who had other interests and obligations outside the typical gamut of writing/literature/ composition/teaching/adjuncting. The lawyers and hairdressers and rabbit enthusiasts who found room in their lives to make art, too.
While I was not discouraged from pursuing a non-academic career path, I can’t say there was a wealth of structured support within my department. I thus figured out a great deal on my own, cobbling together myriad experiences in freelance writing and editing, writing random articles on ethical travel habits and Best Vegetarian Restaurants in Atlanta between grading papers and preparing poems for workshop.
There are ways in which writers self-soothe:
Well, Robert Frost didn’t publish his first book until late in life, so I’m doing pretty ok.
Well, Wallace Stevens wasn’t an academic. He worked in insurance and turned out pretty ok.
Hey, William Carlos Williams was a doctor! Surely if I don’t become a professor I’m not dooming myself.
I’m sure I’m not the only poet who read O.T. Marod’s essay “Poet at Work” in a recent issue of The Point and felt both the rush and deflation of recognition. Writers are no strangers to the complex paradoxes of their identities–the delicious, almost flippant valor that comes with simply responding, “I’m a writer” when someone asks what you do, tethered to the falter in your confidence when the person lobs back an “Oh, huh.” or “Really?”
Then again, maybe more confident writers don’t feel the need to qualify their pronouncements. On good days, I don’t. Other days, it feels almost blase to flash my poet moniker without the self-conscious need to defend and protect it.
Perhaps we can agree with Marod’s essential points: that poets and writers commonly struggle with a profound crises of role and identity, and that many of us live a dashed or hyphenated identity, as his allegorical poet/tutor does, to make both art and a living.
But is that really so bad?
Yes, in a perfect world, poets would have a salary commensurate with experience and a nice benefits package. But our art isn’t (always) for hire, and I can’t say that that really bothers me.
On the contrary, I think the hybridity of identities and skills working writers claim can be mutually fruitful. I think good writers should likely be passionate about the world around them to remain passionate about art.
And while there’s comfort and prestige and familiar structures that come with academia, preaching the gospel of the tenure-track faculty position isn’t sustainable or realistic–but that doesn’t have to mean something dire.
I am hungry for an expanded conversation of hybrid writers, MFAs With Day Jobs–whatever you want to call them–beyond the perfunctory Well, Philip Larkin was a librarian, so…. exception to the rule anecdote. I want to talk more about people who have a life on the other side of the dash that is just as interesting and enriching and challenging as the life of a poet….and of a rabbit breeder.