Speak, MFA

Posted by on Nov 25, 2015 in All, Personal, Quotidian, Writing | One Comment


There were so many blog posts* and other bits of writing I half-wrote in my head this year and the year before, as I went running in the morning or drove children to school or doctor or dentist appointments. Sometimes at times like that, my head is blissfully clear, and everything makes so much sense. A piece of writing shimmers in front of me, its logic so clear but in increasingly short snippets as I try not to get run over by a car (running) or to get into a car accident (schlepping). This way of organizing my thoughts has presented a problem for me as I try to write. Life may be what’s happening when you’re making other plans, but I really would like more of that life to include writing. So early in 2015, after much thought in 2014, I applied to graduate school for an MFA in writing. It was a big undertaking just to complete the applications — 20-page writing sample, application, letters of recommendation from teachers or coworkers or other writers. The last time I’d put together applications, it was for artists’ residencies a few years ago, long before I had another baby. I ended up feeling so sheepish asking for letters of recommendation that I sent everyone who wrote me one a copy of the enormously funny and good book Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher (check it out, especially if you’re a teacher or academic or other kind of person who often has to give recommendations; it was a finalist for the Thurber Prize for American Humor this year).

In the end, after serious consideration of UC Riverside, Vermont College of Fine Arts, and Bennington College, I went to Bennington for the low-residency MFA in creative nonfiction. A decade or so ago, when I had less writing experience, I’d applied to one low-residency that was located near my home and been rejected (okay I’ll tell you: it was Antioch). Being able to choose between a few great programs was wonderful, but as I am an anxious person who doesn’t live in the moment as much as I’d like, I fretted and didn’t enjoy the process of choosing at all.

Now that I’m one semester into the Bennington program, I’d like to say that I’ve made room in my life for writing. But that’s not exactly true. I’m immersed in literature. I’ve read 20 books so far since July and submitted short papers on them. I’ve revised parts of a manuscript that has been dogging me (by not finishing itself) for over a decade. I’ve received great feedback and feel like I’m part of a good writing community. But it feels like it’s not enough. One problem with reading as much and as deeply as I have been trying to do this semester is that the more I read, 1) the more I realize that there will never be enough time to read everything I want to read (I’m not even talking about new books — really just some version of the English major canon), 2) the more I suspect that my writing might suck a little and maybe always will (because what I’m reading is so masterful).

I’m trying not to let this bother me. One thing that I’ve figured out in my life as a parent is that process really is important. That’s something people always say they believe. Go to enough school open houses, and you will hear lots of business-world/TED talk chatter about “flow” and “mindset” and how we can train our kids to be more actualized than we are and somehow successful in a some imagined future career. But I really do think that routines and rituals are what help students learn. It’s only been since I started a regular habit of running (and other exercise) that I have become someone who writes on a regular basis; I don’t think that’s a coincidence. There’s an Annie Dillard quote that haunts and beguiles me as I continue to try to land on a good writing routing:

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

(Here’s a Brain Pickings article on Annie Dillard on writing, from her book The Writing Life. Which I should probably put on my reading list for next semester, as I need to re-read it.)

That quote is going up on my wall, where I hope it will inspire me in 2016.

* I should note that I’m only writing this blog post to avoid rewriting something else that’s due soon.

1 Comment

  1. Jennifer
    November 25, 2015

    Love this Sue! And it’s like you’re writing about me, I have read most of those books in your pile and they are wonderful! I have been also reading at a ferocious pace since the summer much like a reading addict…great closing line and congratulations on Bennington! Hugs from Singapore xxx


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