I wasn’t sure I’d learn much of anything. I figured that if nothing else, the MFA program would give me time to write: two years of fiction first and the real world second. However, I was a little ambivalent, for all of the usual reasons. But looking back I’m confident that I learned a lot here, and I figured I’ll burden you guys with just a few of these.
1) I learned that these things take time.
- I took Jayne Anne Phillips in my first semester, and she gave me the full, prepositional pat-down. Very quickly I began to try and curtail those line-editing sessions by pre-editing. But I did this to fly under the radar, and it was not until the next semester that I read Lark and Termite. This was not my first Jayne Anne book, but it was the first book of hers that I read after learning the way she views language. I could see all that clicking together in L&T. I started shaping my language pro-actively in my very next story—and that story was the first one that I included in my thesis.
2) An old piece of writing advice is “write what you know,” but I was rather afraid to write what I didn’t know, and that wasted my imagination.
- One of my biggest stumbling blocks was that I wrote stories which were metaphors for my own life. In the pursuit of writing me I was not able to create enough distance to truly free my imagination. The way I feel about life is going to come through in any writing project I undertake; I don’t need to work consciously towards it. I also realized that writing that non-fiction or semi-fictional material that I do know, or think I know, is extremely hard.
3) I’m leaving with a sense of accomplishment and clear ideas about what to work on.
- I thought Rigoberto via Saeed put it great when he said that everyone should leave this program with a sense of something accomplished and also something to work on. I was sitting with Alice recently when she gave me just this sort of challenge. Leaving the program, I have to learn to trust my own voice. I am still surprised by people’s responses to my work (and others) in workshop. But this doesn’t matter.
- In a piecemeal way, over lots of years, I could have learned this on my own. I will continue to solidify a lot of this in the next few years. Ran Prieur wrote that “getting free is not like walking through a magic doorway — it’s like growing a fruit tree.” He meant this about personal freedom, but it also applies to writing and to trusting yourself. People come into the program with different strengths and weaknesses, and the nice thing is that someone will point them out for you. You learn and then move on. In this program I saw my strengths and weaknesses; I’ve learned and now will move on.