Thoughts upon graduation

NYUToday is pretty much my official graduation from NYU’s Creative Writing MFA program. There’s a reading and a party to celebrate tonight, and some various other parties. I have one more class after graduation because of scheduling conflicts. I need to track down some signatures for my thesis. But basically, this is it. I’m done. I’m not doing any of the official NYU graduation events. Been there, did that from undergrad. Found them mildly tedious then, am glad of the opportunity not to do them this time.

I’m glad I’m done, so I will get my reading and writing time back, but a Creative Writing MFA is much more about the process, than the outcome. It’s not a degree that leads to jobs and prestige.

When I was in the process of applying to MFA programs (and I applied to 12, I think), I dreamed that I got into NYU and woke up thinking, “Nah, that will never happen. It is my first choice.” But I did get in, and went, and I’m glad I did. My reasons for doing an MFA were:

1. To make a commitment to writing. As Jonathan Safran Foer said in one of our classes, “Writing is the only job where you wake up every day and wonder if you’re going to do it today.” Doing an MFA is a good way to make that commitment serious.

2. To meet other committed writers. I took several classes in NYC, which has a lot of more casual programs for adult students, but I wanted to be with people who were maybe grappling with bigger writing challenges than those in some of my classes, who had mastered the basics.

3. To expand my reading. I read a lot, and fairly broadly, but I knew there were whole areas I’d neglected. NYU exposed me to the Creative Writing canon, which overlaps with the English Lit canon, but not a ton.

4. To teach Creative Writing. Which I did, and which was highly enjoyable. I’d love to do it again someday.

5. To take classes with giants in the literary world, and I did. I will be thinking about what I read with Rick Moody and Zadie Smith for the rest of my life.

6. To write things I might not otherwise try writing, and I did that as well, especially in my first year, when I wrote short stories, and in Rick Moody’s class, where we had weekly writing assignments based on our readings.

I also discovered some things I did not expect, but probably should have:

1. More or less, an MFA is about ART. I’ve always viewed writing more as a craft, and art, if it exists, comes by grace, which cannot be taught, but many professors made attempts to look at the books we read and our fellow students’ work as art. I’m still not sure how good I am at looking at writing like this, or whether I think art can be taught, but it was an interesting way of looking at writing.

2. In pop culture, it may be the age of the SFF nerd, but whether non-literary genre is acceptable or not is still very much a debate in the MFA world. One of the reasons I wanted to go to NYU is I knew they were interested in students who wrote in all kinds of genres, and I did find that, but people who do not write contemporary literary fiction are still outliers in MFA programs. Even historical fiction is a bit outre.

3. I’m wasn’t very qualified to read certain kinds of experimental fiction, but I could be taught. I love stories, with plots and characters. A traditional plot arc with hooks and stakes, with pages I love to turn, is my favorite kind of story. But I was exposed to W. G. Sebald, Jenny Erpenbeck, Thomas Bernardt, Teju Cole and many others, who expanded my idea of what a novel can be and what it can do.

4. The thing that teaches you the most about writing is writing. The next thing is reading. Far down the line after that are other teachers you may have. Not that they weren’t great, but I’ve learned more simply by writing, throwing things away, and trying again, over the last ten years, than I did from any teacher. I think writing teaching is a lot like athletic coaching. You say the right things, the platitudes, the shop-worn wisdom. You give specific suggestions when you think of them. But they only sink in and make a difference when the student has worked herself to a place where she’s ready to hear it. The reason we have so many platitudes, and repeat them so many times is that you never know when will be the right time for someone to hear them, or which combination of words, which mean almost the exact same thing as another combination of words, will be the thing that clicks with someone.

So. I’m glad I did it. I’m glad I’m done. Nothing is going to change very much in my day to day life, except fewer classes, and choosing what I want to read more. And that’s as it should be. It was my 2 year launch into prioritizing the writing life above all other commitments.

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  1. I especially love your comparing the teaching of writing to coaching. You are right on there. Those of us with the best chance to REACH our potential are the ones who coach ourselves, sometimes with the words and voices of our coaches ringing in our ears.

    1. Thank you! When I was teaching, I felt much more like a coach than a teacher of an academic subject–especially since the goal is to help people reach their potential.

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