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.

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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. :)

 

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death, fear, Florida, health, personal growth, places, writing

When Tony Pierce tells you to blog, you do it.

florida foliageIf you don’t know who Tony Pierce is, click this link, look around, and come back. I’ll wait.

The other day Tony, or as I like to call him, “The Blogfather,” pointed out that entering an MFA program has slowed down my blogging. Where do I start?

Tony, you remember my old blog posts from 10 years ago? Five years ago? You were there, you read them. You know I used to (figuratively) cut myself open, reveal everything. It was cathartic. It was terrifying. It probably helped some readers, and it definitely helped me. Writing as therapy.

It was also the reason I deleted my old blogs–I didn’t want to be indefinitely raw and exposed like that. I didn’t like finding out friends, family, and acquaintances read about the most personal parts of my life and gossipped. I didn’t like suspecting that guys who were super into me then suddenly not might’ve changed their minds after realizing how much I put online.

To me, personal blogging has always been similar to when a close friend pulls you aside and says, “C’mon, it’s me. Tell me what’s really going on.” When I open up a draft post on my personal blog, I want to let it all out. So yeah Tony, school has kept me busy, but it hasn’t slowed down my blogging. The reason I haven’t blogged is because I know what I’d want to tell you if I started writing.

mushrooms

I’d want to tell you that, while I don’t regret moving from Illinois to Florida or entering an MFA program, it has been very difficult. First, one of my parents needed treatment for a brain tumor and I felt awful being away during that. So awful. Then my grandfather got sick. I missed my opportunity to see him before he died because I was here, in Florida, writing and studying. I don’t know that it was worth it. Right now, my other parent is dealing with a rare and dangerous blood and spine infection. It is improving, but again it’s hard for me to be across the country, unable to help.

Sometimes being in Florida to study and practice writing feels really dumb and selfish of me, and if I were going to give it to you straight, I’d end up telling you that.

I’d also want to tell you that eight people I know in Illinois (not including my grandfather) have died of various causes since I left and that it weighs on me. The deaths are unconnected, but it feels so strange–why so many, in such a short amount of time? Is that just part of getting older–each month someone else you knew dies? These are eight people I wasn’t terribly close with–old friends I lost touch with after moving, acquaintances I used to see around at shows, former classmates, close friends’ family members I’d met a few times.

bougainvilleaI’d want to tell you I feel sad about these deaths and think of them often. I’d want to tell you I also feel guilty about feeling sad, as if I didn’t know the deceased well enough to deserve to grieve. I’d want to tell you I feel shitty for blogging about them right now, that I don’t want to make other people’s tragedies about me.

I’d want to tell you that I’m dealing with health issues. That the symptoms feel like a moving target. That I’m doing my best to stay calm and optimistic while I try to yet again figure out what the fuck my body is doing. I’d want to tell you that I’m suffering and afraid. I’d want to tell you that I feel very alone in my pain and fear.

I’d want to tell you that I found out I can’t take out any more student loans because I already have a masters degree–it turns out the federal government will only help pay for the first one. I’d want to tell you that this means I have no clue how I’m going to get through the next two years. Despite being thirty-four years old, I do not have significant savings. I’d want to explain that a “funded” graduate program isn’t really, not unless you can live off of about $1,000/month. My expenses exceed that and I do not yet know what is going to make up the difference.

palm trees

I’d want to tell you that I’m becoming disillusioned with academia. That while I’m grateful for all I’m learning, I’m realizing the system is deeply unfair. I’d want to tell you about the day I saw a flyer at Aldi and realized that grocery store assistant managers make more money than many full-time college instructors.

I’d want to tell you that promoting beer pays me twice as much as teaching undergraduate writing courses pays me. I’d want to point out that college sports coaches are the highest paid public officials in many states. I’d want to write potentially melodramatic things such as, “What is wrong with America?”

I’d want to assure you that, despite all of my woes and worries, life isn’t all bad. I’d want to show you photos of Florida foliage and tell you even a short walk resets my mood, leaves me marvelling at nature.

I’d want to tell you that I love instagram, and even though that sounds cheesy or basic or whatever, it has become a bright part of my day. I’d want to tell you that I’ve decided to, for real this time, buy a nice DSLR camera whenever I can afford it. That even though I can’t afford it now, my iphone is a substitute and I enjoy taking photos and thinking about photos I will take in the future.

I’d want to tell you that I go to the gym every day now and it’s become a surprising source of strength and calm for me. I’d want to admit that for the first thirty minutes or so after walking in the door I feel anxious, want to leave, and think some variation of “I don’t belong here and everyone can tell.”

pink puff ball flower

I’d want to tell you that I notice those thoughts and feelings, keep exercising anyway, and feel amazing by the time I’m done. I’d want to try and make that into some sort of metaphor for life. I’d want to express hope that if I just keep on moving through difficult times and do not waver in my commitments that I will ultimately be rewarded with feelings of security and peace.

I’d want to tell you that I’ve made two really great friends down here, and that we’ve started a lit mag and a live lit event. I’d want to tell you that I have crazy, incredible daydreams in which I can eschew an academic career by growing one or both of these two things into a business.

I’d want to tell you that I’m still working on my novel, and that it’s horrible, but that’s okay. I’m plugging away and still telling myself I’ll finish it this summer. I’d want to tell you that I’m equal parts proud and embarrassed of it. I’d want to tell you that writing it might be the most challenging and exciting thing I’ve done in my life.

I’d want to tell you that I have over fifteen finished pieces of shorter writing and that I am submitting like crazy. I’d want to tell you that even though I’ve only received rejections so far, I don’t plan on stopping. After years of not believing in my writing ability, I finally have faith in myself.

brussels griffon

I’d want to tell you that my dog is awesome and that I’m not embarrassed to say he’s my best friend.

I’d want to tell you that music is a beautiful panacea. I might try to get you to listen to Surf, if you haven’t already. I’d want to remind you that the right Apocalypse Hoboken song can help when dealing with unpleasant emotions.

I’d want to talk about TV and say I get it now, I’m sorry I was an “I-don’t-watch-TV” type of snob a few years ago. That Bojack Horseman and Broad City and Inside Amy Schumer and Orange Is The New Black make my life feel richer.

I’d want to tell you that while things don’t always feel okay, I know that they will be, or that they already are, even when they aren’t. I’d want you to know that I’d know I was mostly writing that for myself.

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mfa, writing

“Should I get an MFA in Creative Writing?”

“Should I get an MFA in Creative Writing?” is a phrase I’ve searched before, maybe dozens of times over the years, as if Google were a magic eight ball that could instantly dictate my major life choices.

I don’t know whether or not you should get an MFA in Creative Writing, if you are considering it. To MFA or not to MFA is a personal decision entirely dependent on your values, situation, and goals. Last fall I decided to go for it and applied for MFA Creative Writing programs in fiction. I’m sharing how I came to this decision in hopes it’ll help someone who is interested in the MFA, but dealing with uncertainty.

It’ll improve my writing. This is the number one reason I am getting an MFA. For years I doubted the benefit of an MFA because it seemed as if everywhere I turned great writers were spouting off about how creative writing can’t be taught. In the fall of 2013 I took a writing course at Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver. In the first two weeks I made more progress on my novel than I had in the entire past year. Maybe the classroom/workshop setting doesn’t work for some people, but it is amazingly effective for me.

My MFA desires stood the test of time. In 2005 I entered a Master of Urban Planning and Policy program. Almost immediately I felt frustrated because it left me no free time to read poetry and fiction and write creatively. I began researching MFA programs online, but the idea of dropping out of one  Master program to apply to another felt totally insane. I’d already had people in my life act like I was flaky for pursuing public policy after studying psychology as an undergrad. I bought into the idea that I needed to just stick with something and stop jumping around. When I was still interested in MFA programs in 2013–eight years later–it became obvious that my desire was real and not just a phase or flight of fancy.

I know I’m not trying to avoid “the real world.” There are many twenty-somethings who go to grad school not because they’re really passionate or driven in their field, but because grad school is less awful than having to work a 9 – 5 day job. That might’ve been part of why I went to grad school the first time around. Since then I’ve spent several years in “the real world” and have figured out how to make it work for me (I find doing varied work from home is best). This time I am certain I am going to grad school in order to pursue something I love rather than to avoid something I hate.

I believe it’ll help my career. I write “I believe” because it is definitely a faith. Google the phrase “MFA Creative Writing useless” (minus the quotes) and 723,000 results come up in .35 seconds. Unlike other graduate degrees that prepare students for specific careers, the MFA in Creative Writing does not. Yes, it technically qualifies you to teach at the college level, but I recently read the dismal statistic that <1% of MFA Creative Writing graduates land full-time teaching positions. Maybe I am arrogant and delusional, but I believe that if I really want to be part of that <1%, I eventually will be. (Arrogance and delusion can turn into self-fulfilling prophecy, right?) The way to get a decent teaching gig as an MFA is to publish a book, and I’m already working on that. If I decide I don’t want to be in academia, I’ll still want to do something reading- and writing-related, and having an MFA can only help me be qualified and make the connections to bring that into reality.

The time is right. I’m not married. I don’t have kids. I don’t own property. My health is good. There’s nothing tying me down to any specific geographic area. I used to think I never wanted to get married, have kids, or buy a house, but recently I’ve begun to reconsider. I still don’t know for sure, but I might want some of those things five or ten years from now. Sure, you can get an MFA while married or after having kids, but I bet it’s much more difficult. I want to pursue an MFA now, while I can devote all of my time and energy to it without having outside responsibilities.

It is in line with my values. Getting an MFA in Creative Writing is not a wise financial decision. Because the degree does not guarantee any sort of career, it can’t be viewed as an investment that will pay off monetarily. Even if you get a “fully funded” offer, you’ll probably have to use some outside funds to get by. Your tuition is waived, but there are still fees, books, and living expenses. The living stipend is generally <$15,000. I had to think long and hard about this reality before making my decision. I realized I value taking risks and pursuing my dreams more than I value being financially secure.

I’d like to point out that I have not yet started an MFA program. It’ll be interesting to come back to this post in three or four years and see if my decision was on point.

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mfa, writing

How much it cost me to apply to MFA Creative Writing programs

I recently applied to MFA Creative Writing programs in fiction for the fall of 2014. Before entering the application process, I really had no clue how much it would cost. Whoops. I’m writing this post in hopes that it’ll help prospective MFA students. I applied to seventeen schools, three of which had no application fee. Today I did the math and found out it cost me $1,416.60 $1,550 or more. (Probably more.)

Check it out:

MFA Creative Writing Application Costs

MFA Creative Writing application costs

Okay! Let’s dig in.

Application fees: The mean application fee (not including the three schools with no fee) was $46.07. If you’re low on cash and want to apply to schools with no fee, know that there are four main high-residency, mostly funded options: McNeese, University of Arkansas, University of Mississippi Oxford, and Vanderbilt.

GRE testing: The GRE cost $185 to take and GRE score reports are $25 a pop. I spent $385 on testing and score reports. I didn’t buy any study materials. Ten of the schools I applied to required GRE scores and seven did not. ETS allows you to send four score reports for free immediately after taking the test. I accidentally sent two of my four “free” reports to schools that don’t require the GRE, which cost me $50. Bummer.

Transcripts: I am very lucky on the transcript front–my undergraduate school will send out transcripts for free as long as they are requested via postal mail. That saved me anywhere from $80 – $275 compared to others. My graduate school’s transcripts were $5 each if requested by postal mail and $10 if requested online so requesting them in advance via postal mail saved me about $50. I also had to request super expensive $12 transcripts from University of Florida, a school whose campus I’ve never set foot on, because they co-sponsored a study abroad I once did. A few schools claimed not to receive transcripts so I had to order some extras. All in all, I estimate I spent $319 on transcripts.

Postage: I think four schools required me to mail my application in a big packet instead of submitting it online. (I didn’t keep records or my USPS receipts, unfortunately.) I also paid postage in the form of addressing and stamping envelopes that I sent to my letter writers to use for the schools that accepted letters of recommendation via postal mail. I’m pretty sure I’m way underestimating this one at $67.60. More realistically I spent $100+ on mailing items when you factor in envelopes, paper, ink, and what not.

Why did I apply to so many schools? When I did research I found that it is not uncommon for fiction applicants–qualified applicants, even–who apply to fewer than ten schools to be rejected from all of them. This is because funded MFA Creative Writing programs are more selective than Ivy League med and law schools–lots of people want help writing the next great American novel, apparently. Yes, a good writing sample matters, but it’s also a numbers game. I applied to as many schools as I could afford to reduce the chance I’d have to wait a year and go through the process again. It cost me ~$1,500, but it worked!

Stay tuned for more posts on various aspects of the MFA application process.

UPDATE: I almost forgot–I paid Rachel Weaver of Sandstone Editing (highly recommended) to provide feedback on one of the pieces I included in my portfolio. It cost $113.75. Also, I had to pay about $10 for parking when I took the GRE. This makes the total ~$1,600.

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