education, learning, mfa, money, teaching, writing

MFA Halfway Update

I am officially halfway done with my MFA creative writing program. It’s been a wild ride! I’m giving an update because I’ve blogged about MFA programs so much before (whether or not to get an MFA, how much it cost to apply, what’s up with MFA creative writing rankings, where to apply, update after first semester). I’m not sure where to start, however. Most people who want to read about MFAs are those considering pursuing one, and I have no clue whether or not pursuing an MFA is a good thing for any specific person. It’s such an individualized decision, I can’t say “do it” or “don’t do it.” I can, however, ruminate on the positives and negatives of my experience.

Positives

I’ve been teaching writing to undergraduates and I’ll be credentialed to teach college when I graduate. This is the biggest difference between doing what I’m doing within an MFA program and doing something similar with writing on my own. I am teaching and I love it. Before coming to USF, I didn’t really know if I had an interest in pursuing an academic career. I am still not 100% set on it, but I’m open to it and think it’d be fun, challenging, and a good fit for me.

I’ve found an amazing community. This will probably be the biggest benefit of the MFA program. Before coming here, I was attending a weekly workshop and I had friends and family who would read and critique my writing so I wasn’t community-less, but my network was nothing like what I have now. I’m surrounded by people who are as motivated by and interested in writing as I am. My hope is that we stay in touch and act as readers for each other for years after graduation.

Just being in this environment is enriching and encouraging–the people I’m surrounded by regularly introduce me to new things and challenge me as a writer. My professors have given me lit mag and author recommendations based on my writing style and I finally feel like I’m finding my niche in the writing world, largely because of their help. Also, there’s no way I would’ve started weirderary and First Draft if I hadn’t met TJ and Colleen.

I’ve learned a lot. I had almost no formal creative writing instruction prior to this aside from an entry-level undergrad class I took over a decade ago so I wasn’t sure what to expect from an MFA program. I’ve learned so much about writing craft and technique, and about pedagogy and teaching practice. I’ve also learned very practical things, such as how to create a good CV and what to put in a teaching philosophy statement.

I got to move to Florida. I grew up in Illinois and adore it (particularly Chicagoland), but for most of my adult life I secretly felt shitty about myself because I knew that I’d wanted to move away and had never done it. Finally, at age thirty-two, I followed my desire/faced my fears and moved to Denver. I think that played a big role in me gaining the confidence to apply to MFA programs all over the country. I don’t know if I’ll stay in Florida forever, but I like it a lot and regularly feel grateful to be here.

I trust that I am “all in” as a writer. I know getting an MFA is not necessary and I admire workaday writers who are able to view writing as their true love and passion even though it is not related to their day job. For me, however, having an unrelated (or, I guess, only somewhat related) day job led to me feeling all sorts of insecurities about myself as a writer. I worried that even if I wrote on a daily basis, writing would remain nothing more than a hobby in my life if I didn’t pursue it as my primary career. Quitting my job, moving across the country, and focusing on an MFA program full-time proved to me that I am “all in,” and it gave me confidence in myself as a writer. I no longer question my commitment to writing or worry that it’ll get sidelined in my life or become something I never pursued as fully as I wanted to.

Negatives

My writing practice has suffered. My novel progress has stalled. I had a completed draft (actually a third or fourth draft) of a novel manuscript before coming here. The single most difficult part of being in an MFA program is knowing that I probably would’ve had that manuscript all polished up and sent to agents by now if I hadn’t come here. At times, I’ve resented class assignments, knowing my time spent doing homework could’ve been spent revising my novel. I’ve had to remind myself that I am becoming a better writer during my time here and, although my novel is taking longer to complete, it should be of a higher quality when I’m actually finished with it.

I realize that this difficulty is partially due to how I work–it’s not that I never have a spare minute to write; it’s that I prefer longer blocks of time. When I worked 9-5, I could work on my novel for 3-4 hours on weeknights, and upwards of 10 hours on weekend days if I wanted.  Now, if I have only one hour free, I tend to use it on other things because it doesn’t feel like a long enough stretch of time to be able to dig into my novel and do substantial revising. I’m trying to work on this, though, and get used to revising in 30- and 60-minute bursts.

It’s really hard to be this busy. Moving forward, my workload should be a little lighter, but the last two semesters felt overwhelming. There was never a day where I didn’t have a long to do list (and never a day where I actually completed the list). I essentially spent two semesters feeling behind, stressed, and unprepared. I consistently completed work at the last minute and almost always felt as if there was too little time. I forced myself to continue to maintain a social life and do fun things alone such as watch movies. I realize this time could’ve been spent on school and maybe that would’ve helped me be less overwhelmed, but I refuse to live a life that has absolutely no leisure time.

I’m going to write a separate blog post about health in the near future, but I deal with fibromyalgia and other chronic health issues. One of my fears was that coming to grad school would trigger an illness flare-up. It did! I spent months running ragged, feeling awful, and on the brink of burnout and health disaster, which again is unique to me and I’m sure colors my view of the “negatives” of being in an MFA program.

It’s really hard to be this poor. I was/am also barely making it financially. This is difficult when being so strapped for time. I know I can do more outside work to help my financial situation, but that takes away from my writing and school work and adds to my busy-ness and stress. It also hurts my self-esteem and has caused me to question my decision to come here a few times. Many of my friends are in the getting-married-and-having-babies stage of life. I can’t afford to buy them nice gifts and that feels awful. I missed my cousin’s wedding because I couldn’t afford the flight, and was also unable to visit a close friend who suffered an injury because I couldn’t afford the flight. I knew going into an MFA program would involve financial sacrifice, but I guess I didn’t know the feeling of sacrifice would be so pronounced. It’s been a big challenge to focus on the positives when these types of things run through my mind on a daily basis.

I should note that this is also somewhat unique to my situation. I’ve never been great at managing money, and I entered into this MFA program even though I had a fair amount of debt and no savings. Because I already have a graduate degree, I am unable to take out student loans. I am not willing to make certain sacrifices I made last time I was in grad school, such as living with multiple roommates and going without a car. If I could do it over, I would’ve prepared savings in advance and paid much more attention to the financial side of programs when selecting which schools to apply to.

Sometimes I’ve felt like I’m doing this too late in life. I’m thirty-four years old. I already had a completed novel manuscript before coming here. I have a lot of “real world” work experience. While I’m not the oldest person in my program, I am often the oldest one who hangs out socially and most of my friends here are five to ten years younger than I am. Although I don’t place a lot of importance on age, I sometimes feel a little too old to be a poor grad student. I have to actively fight off that voice in society/my head that says I should be making more money by this age and that I should be heading up my own projects, not taking classes, at this age. The experience has been humbling and forced me to check my ego and cast aside society’s conventions about what someone “should” be doing in their 30s.

I’ve really had to embrace the “better late than never” adage. Sure, I wish that when I was twenty-five years old, worried I was in the wrong grad program, researching MFA creative writing programs online, that I had had the confidence and motivation to move past idle internet searches. I wish I had reached out to people in MFA programs and learned more and made the switch then, ten years ago, when I first wanted to do it. I wish that I had left Illinois then, when I wanted to do it. But I didn’t. That’s just not how my life happened. I guess it’s taken me longer than some to find my career path, to become aware of my desires and goals, and to muster up the courage to go for it. Instead of focusing on regret over not having done this sooner, I’m learning to focus on feeling grateful that I’m doing it now.

Conclusion

My biggest takeaway from reflecting on my MFA experience is that when you’re really living and you’re pursuing the things you want to pursue, life is going to be huge and hard and amazing no matter what. I think getting an MFA is like doing any other big, major life thing. Beforehand, it sounds great and you know you want it, but once you’re there, it’s hard and takes a lot of work and isn’t always fun, just like any challenging job, or marriage or parenthood, I’m sure. Still, I’m glad I’m doing it.

My biggest goals for the second half of my MFA are to enjoy it and feel grateful for it every day. In the first half of my MFA, I allowed my stress to take over more times than I’d like to admit and I often found myself wishing for time to pass, aka for the semester to end. I don’t want to live or think that way. Time is so limited; I never want to wish for it to pass more quickly. That’s insanity. That’s avoiding the present moment and literally wishing to be closer to death. My other major goal is to finish revising my novel, to stop wishing for the expanses of time I had when I worked 9-5, and to learn to jump in and take advantage of the small pockets that pop up at different times on different days.

I know some other MFA students and some MFA hopefuls follow my blog–if you have any questions, feel free to ask in the comments and I will answer them.

Standard
education, events, live lit, readings, teaching

USF English Department’s Fall Colloquium 2014

jessica thompsonAfter updating you on three-month-old news, I realized I never updated you on one year and three-month-old news. My first semester in USF’s MFA program, I took part in the English Department’s Fall Colloquium. It was a formal yet relaxed event that included both academic and creative presentations connected by the loose theme of horror. (It was held in October.)

In my time slot, I put up a slideshow of mug shots of men who had been arrested for sexual violence in the area within the previous year. I went back and forth between reading portions of Joyce Carol Oates’ story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” (pdf here) and the mens’ names and alleged crimes. I had some people come up after and tell me it was creepy, which is what I was going for. My hope is that I’ll get a chance to mix fiction writing with non-fiction images again in the future for some presentation or another.

colloquium3

I was teaching Composition that semester and encouraged my students to present something at the colloquium, too. (By “encouraged,” I mean offered extra credit.) Four of them, as a panel, presented art and writing on creepy topics. It was a lot of fun to see them share their original creative work in front of a larger audience. They were nervous, but they did a great job and I felt proud. :)

 

Standard
death, education, internet, police, race, society, teaching, twitter

On Ferguson

Along with much of the country, I’ve followed the aftermath of police officer Darren Wilson’s killing of 18-year-old Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri for the past few months. Through this, I became more aware of institutionalized racism in the US, particularly where it overlaps with police brutality and the militarization of police forces. I was already aware of these issues to an extent, but really had no clue how often the injustices lead to death, specifically the death of Black men. The Guardian article comparing lynchings of years past to police killings today was one of many that opened my eyes.

As is usually true when I turn my attention toward death, I’ve felt helpless as I’ve watched the scene in Ferguson unfold and learned more about similar incidents happening all over the United States. I’ve wondered what I could do. Thanks to twitter, I found three concrete things:

1. Donate to the Ferguson Library.

I learned about the Ferguson Municipal Public Library fundraising effort via Ashley Ford. The Ferguson Library’s website has a donation button in the upper right corner of the front page. They received around $300,000 in donations last week, which exceeds their yearly budget. They might hire a second full-time librarian as a result. They stayed open when the local public schools closed as a result of unrest and they host many community events. Although I did not have very much money to give, I felt good supporting this community institution. I believe in the transformative power of reading and writing, and donating to a library is a way to translate that belief into action.

2. Talk about Ferguson in my classroom.

I learned about #FergusonSyllabus via David M. Perry, who wrote an article calling upon academics to use the lenses of their disciplines to analyze Ferguson-related texts such as Darren Wilson’s testimony in the classroom. Next semester I am teaching a composition course focused on rhetorical analysis of public campaigns so this will fit in perfectly. I originally wanted to use local social issues as examples in the class so I might choose a police brutality case from Florida to focus in on instead, but the conversation will be similar and I can easily relate it to the Mike Brown killing as well.

The challenge here will be approaching this as objectively as possible. Clearly I have strong opinions on police brutality in the US right now–I will not share them outright in the classroom and I don’t want them to become immediately obvious to my students through the structure of my lessons. The purpose will be for them to think critically about the rhetoric used by all of the involved parties, engage in dialogue about it, and draw their own conclusions, which could very well end up being different than my own. Maybe I will share what I come up with on this blog as I develop course objectives and create my lesson plans.

3. Start conversations with people. Write a blog post.

I follow many writers on twitter and several of them wrote about Ferguson. I am often awed by Roxane Gay’s writings on current events, and her response to Ferguson was no exception. She is consistently eloquent and moving, putting forth honest, raw emotion that only bolsters her often strong and logical arguments. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s article on Obama’s official response to the Darren Wilson non-indictment is another one that got me thinking more deeply about the issue.

At first I hesitated to write about Ferguson. It’s a blatantly racially-charged situation and I’m White. Also, I don’t have a journalism background or regularly write about current events. I worried I’d mess it all up and look both racist and stupid (or, perhaps worse, faux-enlightened and arrogant). Then I realized that allowing my self-conscious fears to determine my action (or inaction) would be the ultimate selfish, ego-driven act. This tragic event–one of many in a nationwide pattern of similar events–is not about me.

We currently live in a society where White police kill Black citizens once every few days and face few or no repercussions. It isn’t okay. It is systemic, institutionalized violence and murder. To recognize that and remain silent is to assent to this system of injustice. Although my initial responses to Ferguson were sadness and helplessness, I will not allow those to lead to complacency or inaction. The three things I’m doing about this issue might be small, but they are the actions available to me.

Standard
education, learning, mfa, teaching, writing

MFA Update

pink heart yellow star emojishooting star emojipurple heart emojired heart emojikiss emoji

 

Hi, friends! A few days ago, a lovely (I’m assuming) man emailed me saying he’s found my MFA blog posts useful. Then, yesterday, Tony Pierce–the Blogfather himself–contacted me to say hi. Coincidence? No way. Direct message from [insert your fav deity] encouraging me to blog again.

It’s been a while, but I will not apologize. I’m busy. I’m in the thick of it. Half-way through the semester. It’s going good. It’s going well. It’s going great. I LIKE IT. The above emojis adequately represent how I feel on a consistent basis.

When I originally searched for MFA program information online, I found many blog posts about the application process, but not many posts from students currently in programs. I understand why–I’m busy, and writing about school just isn’t on my mind. Still, I want to hit you with an update.

What I’m doing, as a first-year MFA creative writing fiction student:

  • taking three courses: Craft of Fiction, Intro to Grad Studies, and Practice in Teaching Composition
  • teaching one course: First Year Composition
  • consulting in the Writing Studio ten hours per week

The amount of happiness I feel about all of this astounds me. I thought the giddiness of being here would wear off after the first week or so, but I literally walk around unable to hide a shit-eating grin the majority of the time I’m on campus. Craft of Fiction is my favorite class, which makes sense since I’m here to study fiction, but I also like the other two classes. That turned out to be a surprise, honestly. I thought they’d be boring requirements I’d want to rush through, but I’m learning a lot in each.

The in-class lectures from Intro to Grad Studies combined with our textbook readings have helped me gain awareness of why I am here, what I want to get from the experience, and where I hope to go next. The graduate program I was in years ago did not have a class like that. I wish it had; I probably would’ve realized the program wasn’t a good use of my time and the associated opportunity cost when it hit me that I lacked a clear plan.

The Practice in Teaching Composition course is for Graduate Assistants teaching Freshman Composition. In class, we discuss exercises and assignments the week before we carry them out in our own classes. We also read and discuss various pedagogies (teaching methods/theories). Although I am not able to implement it this semester, I am particularly interested in the community engaged pedagogy and hope to use it in my teaching beginning January. Community engaged pedagogy is essentially the method of teaching students through experiences with a community partner, which should also benefit the partner. I see community engagement as the link connecting my previous educational experiences with my current one.

Overall, my entire MFA experience is fantastic thus far. My classmates are all friendly and kind and already true friends. My professors are helpful and kind and interesting. The Writing Studio is fun and I’m grateful I received that opportunity. I hope to keep my Writing Studio appointment all three years. Florida’s nice. There are lizards everywhere. I do many of my readings while lying next to the pool.

Being in grad school isn’t easy, but I’m not drowning in readings, which is something I worried about after hearing MFA horror stories. My workload is manageable. I only exercise about once a week (compared to every other day before moving here) so that’s something I need to work on, but aside from that, I am not neglecting other aspects of my life outside of school. I sleep eight hours per night. I maintain a social life. I’m still revising my novel (albeit, more slowly). Still, it is graduate school. I don’t think an MFA is a good choice for someone with romantic notions of sitting around writing all day instead of working a day job. It’s a good choice for someone who likes school.

Since I am only half of a semester in, I don’t know that there is too much else for me to write about the MFA program at this time. If there is anything you think I should blog about–MFA-related or not MFA-related–let me know in the comments.

P.S. If MFA information is what you’re looking for, know that one of my classmates, Carmella, blogs regularly about her experiences as an MFA student at The Restless Writer. Also, MFA students who I (virtually) met through the Facebook MFA Draft group last year blog about their school-related experiences at The MFA Years blog.

Standard