Hello, and welcome to MFA Confidential! I’m really excited to spend the school year blogging about my experiences as a third year MFA student at Columbia College, Chicago. Thank you to Writer’s Digest for giving me this opportunity!
Let me start by telling you a little bit about myself and why I went back to school in the first place. MFA students are often asked why they enrolled in a writing program, and while a love of writing is the obvious reason, there is often quite a bit more that goes into such a decision. For me, before I enrolled at Columbia, writing was always an impulse I’d rather keep secret. For reasons that now seem strange to me, I treated my passion as something sneaky and vaguely criminal. I’d spend hours in front of the computer, and then refuse to show my work to anyone. It was sort of like when you quit smoking but give in to a craving, guiltily flushing the butt down the toilet, walking around the apartment maniacally waving an incense stick, downing Altoids by the fistful: I did it because I had to, it felt too good not to, but there was no way I was going to let anyone find out about it.
I reasoned that the whole concept of writing fiction is sort of freakish: you sit by yourself in front of a glowing screen, often late into the night, and you obsess over people who are nothing more than products of your own invention. When the writing is going well, you almost forget they aren’t real. In fact, the further away you drift from the limitations of the real world, the better your writing is bound to be. In any other context, these facts would add up to the sad reality that you are either deeply psychotic or incurably senile.
So it took me awhile to summon the courage to apply to an MFA program. Not only would I be admitting my habit to the world, but, if accepted, I would be embarking on a program where I met other people who, like me, enjoyed spending time with people who didn’t actually exist. I feared (but also hoped) it was going to be like what happens when you put a small-time thief in jail, and he comes out thoroughly corrupted because of the time he’s spent with other criminals.
And yet I was becoming increasingly aware that of all the dreams I’d had for myself, becoming a writer was the one enduring dream, and the impulse was only growing stronger as it aged. I loved my job as a high school English teacher, but there was still a part of me that felt unsatisfied. So when I received my letter of acceptance to Columbia, I enrolled as a part-time student. I kept my teaching job and began attending classes at night.
On the very first day of class, my professor, Joe Meno, gave us a simple prompt: write the story of your first kiss. We were now faced with the task of writing and sharing our scribbled pieces about the very first intimate moment of our lives to a roomful of people we had known for five minutes.
By the time I walked out of that first class, I’d learned that it isn’t our willingness to spend time with made-up people that makes writers different. It’s that willingness to risk exposing our inner selves to strangers, with all the inevitable judgment that entails. When you’re writing something you care about—even if it’s pure fiction--you’re acknowledging an essential truth about yourself. You’re revealing some of the deepest-down things within you, and exposing your own raw heart.
I think I spent most of my first semester at Columbia coming to grips with that risk. And if I didn’t have a cohort of incredibly supportive classmates and teachers right alongside me in that struggle, I’m quite sure I’d still be sneaking those pages under my bed, treating my writing like some illicit drug.
In the world of MFA, there’s a great deal of talk about finding your voice. But what I learned during my first semester was that sometimes it’s not so much about finding your voice, but silencing that other voice within you: the one that’s telling you it’s frivolous, that it’s silly, that you’re not good enough. If you’re able to do that, an MFA program will soon help you to discover a new type of silence: the silence in a room when people are listening—really listening—to the sound of your words being read aloud. And that kind of silence is addictive.
I look forward to hearing your comments and sharing my experiences for the next year. Thanks for reading!