Saturday, July 14, 2007

Surviving the MFA with Wrinkles

from a comment from L.

I'm also a non-trad .... Now that I'm back in school (just started two weeks ago) I feel so disoriented that out of place that I am actually afraid I've made the wrong decision. I'm so old! Everyone's so young! Plus I'm not really a drinker, which means that I have even less in common with my classmates. Crap... I'm just hoping that I'll find my balance here sometime soon. Have any advice for an old hag like me?

Hang in there, L! Those first few weeks back to school are really tough for lots of reasons, the least of which being you have a few more laugh lines than the young 'uns. The first piece of advice I have is—Relax! The more traditionally-aged students are just as disoriented as you are. If they seem more confident, it's only because they've been to school more recently so they have the game face that goes with it. They're looking at you thinking you look so calm and collected. Keep in mind what you have that they don't—life experience. You've already worked through all kinds of issues that they haven't even begun to imagine exist yet, so you're going to appear to be that wise, calm, organised classy non-trad who sails through the chaos of life. And of course you're right where you're supposed to be. You beat out dozens if not hundreds of applicants, so you're definitely doing something right!

Here's my experience of the first few weeks:
I started the MFA after almost (ahem) twenty years out in the work world. I spent orientation week freaking out. I felt so old and uncool, and had a poisonous spider bite to boot. All the "kids" were young, beautiful, fat-and-wrinkle free hipsters. They all seemed to have this-and-that fancy degree from some prestigious school AND world travel experience AND ten other super-talents besides writing, while I was just a boring, no-special-degree, no-extra-talent, old-and-fat lady. On the third day of orientation week I left the room in tears. The person teaching the class was going faster than my computer could go, yet it seemed like everyone around me understood what was going on and were "getting it." It turned out later that several other people were right behind me in the tears department and almost everyone felt frustrated, but for most of that day, I was pretty sure I was going to have to run away and join the circus. The fact is, even if they're younger than you are, this is all new to them too.

I spent several more weeks freaking out once classes started because everyone sounded so smart about the literature we were reading, and in their critiques for workshop. It took me about half the semester to get the "academic lingo" that everyone threw around in class, but eventually I realised that I knew enough, and when I didn't, I was there to learn it, right? I also learned I have a lot to contribute in workshop since, if nothing else, I've got almost two decades more time spent reading and living life. You'll soon realise you probably understand something deeper about writing that a few of them don't yet get simply because of your life experience.
I also saw that towards the end of the first semester, a lot of the traditionally-aged students were struggling the same as I was with getting oriented to school and teaching and writing. It turned out these prolific little writing geniuses had been turning in the stories they'd written in undergrad or for their applications. Some of them hadn't written anything new since they'd started the MFA, so I didn't have to feel so bad that I'd written only nine new pages from September to November. Once I realised that, I relaxed and gave myself a big, fat break and that helped me get a big chunk of writing done over the next two months. They were also breaking down in trying to balance classes and teaching, whereas I had a little bit of an edge in at least the organisation and herd management aspects of teaching because of my years working.

What I wish someone had said to me sooner:
Give yourself some credit for being in a brand new place, learning not only a new routine of classes and teaching and writing, but also just where each building on campus is, and even where the nearest green grocer and gas stations are. In a few weeks, you're going to be in the routine of school, and laughing at how disorienting it all seemed. Well, at least you'll know where the grocery store is and you can go buy chocolate to console yourself.

It takes the whole semester to get the basic orientation of a new place down, so try not to take on too much extra beyond classes, teaching, and writing, and setting up your basic routines. No need right now to try to send out ten stories for publication or to volunteer in the schools or take a few extra classes or find someone new to date or start a whole new exercise program or to party a whole bunch. You'll have plenty to do, and you'll get oriented and into the necessary routines faster if you're good to yourself. There's plenty of time to do all of those things later. Don't compare yourself or push yourself if someone else is doing all that and more faster and better. You'll always come out on the short end of that stick, and you probably aren't seeing that super-someone's flaws.

That party thing:
Get clear right now what you want out of the experience of school so that as situations come up, you'll keep your balance a little better with your goals in mind. I struggled a little at first because I'm here alone (ok, with the cat) and my nearest family is 700 miles away, so while I'm mainly here to write, the social aspect is also important. The challenge was that (as you're experiencing) this is a group of night-dwelling bar-goers, while I'm an "up at 5:30 am" kind of gal who doesn't drink much. I hate being around smoking, and I'm frankly not interested in the late night bar scene. I want to have a social network but I also want to get some writing done, which I can't do if I'm tired and hung-over from drinking and cigarette smoke.

In the beginning, it might not hurt to go out a few times with the group to "meet them where they are." Do a little bonding on their terms. Once school's in full swing, you can choose to do things like go only for the first two hours of a party, or go out to dinner with the group, but then head home before the serious drinking starts. Everyone here seems ok with that. Anytime there's "peer pressure" to stay late or drink something, you can say you have to write, and that's automatically respected (and if it's not, then they're not colleagues worth staying out late for anyway). Quite a few people here don't go out frequently, and they are still loved and welcomed in the group.

You can also try to organise things that are fun in daylight hours—a breakfast club, matinees, bowling, game night, etc.—to change things up from the bar scene. No need for everything to be a big party. Sometimes just a few people show up, but it's still always fun. I've hosted dinner at my house several times, where the invite specifically says "Dinner at 7, head down to the local drinking establishment at 10 pm" and that works nicely because it's a little group bonding time, we have fun, and then people can still go out if they desire and I can go to bed on time. They'll think you're the bomb for making a "home cooked" meal, even if it's not fancy, since some of them are still learning how to cook. You'll find soon enough that people will accept you for who you are, and you'll find people who are interested in the things you like to do. Even some of the young 'uns here aren't that into partying. Once you're into the workshops and classes together, they're going to get over you being older, and you'll get over them being younger, and you'll find some stuff in common.

So relax a little and know that things will begin to fall into place soon.
Happy writing.
Daryll Lynne


Tamiko said...

Thanks so much for this post! I'm applying to MFA programs this fall, after a decade of being out of school. I hadn't really thought of some of these issues, so it was good to read your advice now, before I started freaking out.

I'm looking for programs that specifically have a diverse student body - I was thinking about race and queerness, but now I'll be adding age to that as well.

Are there programs that are particularly well known for having a mix of age & experiences?

Unknown said...

Thanks, DL. That sounds like great advice. I definitely need to relax--seems I've been working nonstop for a year trying to line this up. Plus it was a complicated long-distance move; I'm kind of exhausted and need some rest in order to gear up for writing in the fall. This teaching thing has got me nervous; being alone in a new city doesn't help, either. But at least I know I'm in good company. Sounds like you went through similar shakes at the start of your program and are still around to tell the tale. Thanks again.

Abby QH said...

Hi Tamiko,

You might want to check out the new MFA program at Rutgers-Newark (its motto is "Real Lives, Real Stories"). Last year I was at a reading given by one of its faculty members, Tayari Jones, and she emphasized that the program is committed to having a diverse student body, especially in racial and socio-economic terms. (The program is also structured in a way that allows students to go to school *and* have a job, or raise a family, etc.)

Sonia Quinones said...

Finally! I blogger who talks my language! Yes.

I'll be applying to MFA programs this year and am in the same boat--I graduated HS over 20 years ago. (though I only just, finally, received my BA in creative writing).

I've been trying not to stress over the age difference, since it's inevitable, but you had some wonderful advice about handling the socializing aspects. I'll keep them in mind.

Tamiko said...

thanks, Abby! I checked out their website and was impressed. I hadn't heard about this program before. Do you know how new it is? In general, I wonder how to evaluate brand new programs.

Sonia Quinones said...


I believe the Rutgers program just opened it's doors to its very first MFA class.

I remember looking at it as a strong possibility because I'm very interested in a program with an emphasis on ethnic diversity & global lit. (I'm originally from NYC and moved to Tampa 4 years ago....I miss ethnic diversity, big time).

But I'm not too sure about a program that so squeaky new. I'm still thinking about it.

Sonia Quinones said...


On a different topic, I'm been researching fellowships that are open to me now, with just a BA in creative writing. And those applications are definitely zingers, especially writing artist statements.

Wasn't sure after reading your introductory bio if you've applied to any yet. If yes, any advice you can share?

Bolivia Red said...

Hi Sonia.
I admit I haven't done much beyond look up a few deadlines of the bigger ones, and haven't even begun to look at what's required. I am imagining it's a little like the process of applying for MFAs was, so I'm hopeful that at least that won't seem so daunting.

With the MFA personal statements, what they are mainly interested in for your statement is--are you an interesting person and do you have a coherent vision for your project and maybe a sense of what you want to do with your writing as a career (what's your big picture project for your writing?).

I'm in the last two weeks of teaching of a summer course, and then I'll be digging into the fellowship applications. I'll keep you posted. Let us know about what you find on your end.

Sonia Quinones said...

Thanks for the feedback!

I actually just finished applying to a fellowship specifically for Latino/a artists/writers. Won't hear back for months.

But the interesting thing about completing the grant app was how the process forced me to a different level of awareness of why I write, who I am as a writer, and what my goals are. Writing the artist statement was tough, but it sounds like what you mentioned reviewers are looking for in the MFA personal statement.

Even completing the detailed budget request was really useful, as is anything that helps you really focus on actual vs. perceived needs.

So whether or not I get the grant, the experience of applying was worth it. And in doing one fellowship app, I feel more prepared to try again.

polly said...

Darryl Lynne -

Thanks for speaking up for all us us repeat offenders of a certain age. One of the things I have found marvelous in my MFA writing program at City College of New York is seeking out and getting together outside of class with the other people my own age who are getting into writing for the sake of writing for the first time -- and enjoying the amount of other academic and life expeience they already have. There are plenty of them, and you'll find them as your tally of workshops unfolds.

Unknown said...

I have to say that I related with this post a lot. I entered my MFA at the age of 31, and I was the second oldest student in the program. At first, the intergenerational aspect was really cool, but after awhile, I felt like I saw unmistakable signs of ageism, immaturity, high school drama + popularity contests that frankly didn't interest me at all. My response, wasn't necessarily the best: I just spent more time doing my own thing, writing my ass off. But the upswing was that I won all the big writing prizes + internships precisely because I think I worked harder than many of my classmates. It's not that they weren't talented, but they just wanted to go out and get fucked up way more than I did. And frankly, sometimes it showed in workshop.

I'm not suggesting MFA students can't be talented, young and also like to party. Instead, I'm trying to suggest that older writers bring a commitment to writing that usually elevates the workshop. Also, having more life experience gives older writers more arsenal for writing. Not a technical advantage at all, but a deeper bank of ideas to draw from. Also, I found that teachers really appreciate the balance that older students bring to workshop: more maturity + seriousness, less pretension + vitriol. Generally, I found older students are more comfortable in their skin, which changes the psychodynamics of workshop hardcore.

So, for me, the point is, if you're older, you know what a privilege it is to be given 2-3 years to write, and you will in all likelihood bring it in workshop, which can only be good thing. You may not be the most popular, but you will probably be respected for your dedication to writing + the perspective you bring.

--Jackson Bliss