It was late summer 2002. I had packed up my apartment in the Washington, DC, area, where I had just acquired my master’s degree in the field of politics, and was preparing for the cross-country drive to Washington state. I had been accepted into a Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing there and would be starting in just a few weeks. I was thrilled. Finally, creative writing was going to be not only one of my utmost loves but a “legitimate” responsibility as well.
I started writing when I was seven. By third grade I had a special notebook dedicated to the “book” I was penning. In my seventh and eighth grade years, I was chosen by my English teacher to attend an annual Young Writers’ Conference, for which I prepared and presented a short story each time. My parents seemed perfectly content to express appreciation and support for the interest I showed in writing creatively.
Even from a young age, though, I experienced a nagging internal voice that seemed skeptical of writing, solely, it seemed, because it was something I enjoyed and thus seemed like more of a leisure endeavor than something “responsible.” I frequently found Annoying Internal Voice saying things like, Have you finished all your homework? Is your room clean? Why are you writing right now? What else should you be doing instead? Why are you indulging like this in something you like to do? (I’m not sure how pleasant Annoying Internal Voice’s outlook on life was.)
When I was accepted into the MFA program, I was overjoyed by the prospect of having uninhibited writing time and the opportunity to focus on it as a primary responsibility. I also loved academia by this time, so the combination of it and creative writing really did seem like a perfect opportunity to me.
By my second semester in the MFA program, something wasn’t working like I had thought it would. On paper, it seemed fabulous. My academic responsibility now was to sit around writing, just like I’d always dreamed of feeling “allowed” to do.
But I wasn’t experiencing the MFA program (only) on paper. I had found, increasingly, that the understandably standardized environment of academia juxtaposed with what I found the irrevocably subjective nature of creativity and artistic expression did not resonate with me. I want to be very clear that I am not saying that I find the idea of MFA programs in general inappropriate or misguided. I am quite aware that for many people, including many of the lovely colleagues I met while I was there, they seem to work beautifully and be the fabulous opportunity I thought one would be for me.
For me, though, the intertwining pursuits of academia and writing creatively, a combination I had seen as so optimal, felt jarringly dissonant. So much so that eventually, I felt like my participating in the program was undermining the integrity of my love for both academia and writing. This feeling grew to seem almost intolerable.
I do not hold an MFA in creative writing today. Toward the end of the completion of the second semester of the (two-year) program, I began to entertain the consideration of leaving the program, an idea that initially seemed almost incomprehensible. But despite how excruciating taking such an action felt it would be, the discontent I was experiencing seemed to be proving impossible to ignore.
The act of going into the director’s office and explaining that I wanted to leave this program into which they had accepted me, of telling my loved ones that I was renouncing this graduate school I had just moved across the country to attend without getting a degree from it, of knowing I had no job and no idea what I was going to do for one upon exiting the program, felt…well, really shitty.
Sadly frequently, I had in the past relented to Annoying Internal Voice and even identified with it, absorbing the idea that indeed I shouldn’t be “indulging” in writing so much and should consistently ensure that I was completing whatever other responsibilities seemed more important to it. I knew that on some level, being accepted into and attending the MFA program had been a strategy to get Annoying Internal Voice to shut the fuck up. What ground would it have to stand on? Writing was going to be one of my primary responsibilities as an MFA candidate.
So when I left the program, I found myself plagued by a feeling that I was somehow “giving up” on writing, that I was forgoing an incredible opportunity to dedicate time and attention principally to it and thus showing that I didn’t really feel serious about it—even though that was not at all how I felt.
It seems to me what it really was was the opposite, which I think I knew somewhere inside even at the time. It is not up to an external structure to make writing seem serious for me, and to give me “permission” to engage in it however dedicatedly I want to. All of that is up to me. Not the automatic Annoying Internal Voice—which really can shove it—but a conscious me.
As has been mentioned by some of the regular bloggers here this week, in a way there doesn’t really seem to be a “square one.” Lisabet put it nicely, I felt, in a comment on Ashley’s post when she mentioned the dictum about never stepping in the same river twice. I don’t regret the experience of attending the MFA program at all. I met some beautiful people and received feedback on writing I did at the time that I feel was helpful and much appreciate.
If I was back at square one (or as Jude Mason said in the comments also after Ashley’s post, “square 1a”), I guess I turned in a different direction and embarked along a new line of numbers. Not long after I left the program, I started writing erotica. In which case it would seem, perhaps, that the return to square one actually took me closer to where I have gone, and have much appreciated going, since.
Which is here.