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Friday, December 3, 2021

All the Best Writer’s Have an MFA

I actively avoided getting an MFA for years. An MFA is one of the degrees that people tell you not to get while likely having one. I had considered it many times, but I didn’t really see the point. Most of the time, if you go read the consensus on getting an MFA, the answer is an affirmative “no” from a number of people who incidentally all have MFAs and seem to be working in the field. I bought The Pocket MFA and felt like I got all the information that I needed. However, it became obvious to me that if I wanted to survive within this field in the modern environment, that I needed a credential. So began my journey to getting an MFA.

Cameron Goes to School (again)

I began researching schools in my local area. I wanted to avoid having to travel to do a residency, and I preferred not to stop my life to teach. Low-residency was the model I was after. A few quick google searches left me with a couple of options. A school in Oregon (too far), the University of Washington (geared to English majors) and Goddard College. I decided to apply to Goddard. They seem geared toward the working person, had a low-residency, and as a bonus, it was local and self-directed. Seemed to check all the boxes. I began my application.

Why are you getting a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing?

The blank area of the application stared me right in the face. Fortunately, I was certain. I wanted to teach, and I wanted to do some big residencies. I knew that if I wanted to do this full-time and access grants and other money to fund my work, having an MFA would make that easier. But you can’t exactly put that on your application. So, I pulled some thoughts from my artist statement.

Why is this program right for you?

Insert more thoughts about why I chose Goddard. The reality was that I liked the fact the program was fairly elite and local to me. But I made it sound better than that. I worked on my text some more. I composed my application into a PDF. Not only that, but I designed it. I was pulling images off image sites and I looked at the themes, colors, and the experience of the application that I wanted to create. I wanted it to say, “This person is a writer, he belongs.”

I got my acceptance call and letter a few weeks later. I did go to an informational session which was fascinating, especially over Zoom in these pandemic times. I went into the program feeling confident.

First residency jitters

My first two residencies were online, so instead of making the trek down to Port Townsend, I logged onto zoom. We started with student orientation, which was fairly straightforward. This isn’t my first rodeo: it’s my third. Then we started to get into the workshops to learn how to handle the material in the program. The work seemed fairly straightforward on the website and in the informational sessions, but after going through my first workshops, I realized that I had signed up for much more than I bargained. I took a deep breath and began to figure out how I was going to fit all of this into my life. I was overwhelmed but eager to dive into it.

By the end of the first week of residency, I was asking myself: Why am I here? What is the real point of this program? I found a passion among the fellow students of my program that I did not find within myself. People in my advising group were all in their final semester, and they seemed to have a passion for reading, books, and their work that I’ve never had. I strongly considered dropping out. I didn’t see how I fit into the program or anything going on around me. This was a whole new world and I didn’t see myself fitting in.

Reading and Thinking Like a Writer

A big part of most MFA programs is doing critical work. One of the early challenges was learning how to think like a writer. I don’t find this particularly helpful or necessary. How is one to say how a writer thinks? While I’m trying to figure out how to think like a writer, I’m confronted with a new challenge: how to think like a writer. The point of reading like a writer is to not just take in information, but to see how that information was constructed that told a story. This was a challenge for my brain. It usually takes the ideas of others for me to see how others read the text. I tend to just take in information without critiquing it. I’m very neutral about information. This was a stretch for my brain to think about the words and the story, but also what it all actually meant from a critical perspective.

As if this wasn’t enough, I then had to think about: what was the effect on the reader? As someone who is not emotionally affected by things, this always strikes me as odd. It is hard for me to think about this. Because it involves trying to extrapolate how other people feel about things or what their feelings might be. This continues to be difficult for me and requires a great deal of guess work.

Creative pages, critical work, and critical papers continued apace. As I write this, I’m about to wrap up my 2nd semester as an MFA student. Every packet is a struggle for me, but it is getting easier. I have a better advisor, and we are working together well, which was a change from my first semester where things did not gel as well. You can read my other posts about the program here and here.

What Is an MFA Really?

This question continues to plague me. I think about what this whole MFA thing is all about. I’m at the halfway point. It seems silly to quit now. I’m wrapping up my teaching practicum, which is my last big project for the program. From now on, it’s all creative pages and critical work. My papers are all done. It seems foolish to throw away all that work. But I’m still bothered by the interpersonal conflicts I’ve had with others and just the whole idea.

Is an MFA a way to quantify the thing I just do naturally? I’m a native storyteller. I’ve been telling stories all my life. I never gave much thought as to how I did it. I just did. I just made up a story. My mind does it naturally. It’s like breathing. Anything that happens, I come up with a story about it. I like telling stories and I like hearing them. My head is like a never-ending movie projector, or perhaps the ultimate streaming service. It all starts with a scenario. I just think of scenarios. I write those scenarios and try to turn them into a story.

Doing an MFA is much harder than I anticipated, and it is much harder than my master’s in diplomacy. The residencies are intense and leave me drained of energy. Between advisor meetings, workshops, and required stuff, it’s simply exhausting. On top of that, the packet work during the semester is intense. There are 4 packets plus a virtual meeting. It’s much to take on. I read 16-18 books a semester and by the end I’m running on fumes at best. An MFA program is no joke, and if you’re working at other things or even just have a family to take care of, it can be overwhelming. There’s always that all-star person who manages to make it work, but for most of us, it is a struggle.

For me, I’m plugging away. I’m struggling along. I’m trying my best to put it all together. I’m doing my best to get through the program and lay aside doubt, but that is no easy thing for me. But I’m here, I’m doing it, and I’m going to do my best to make it to February 2023.

Cameron Cowanhttps://www.cameronjournal.com/
Cameron Cowan is a writer, thinker, and human being navigating the streets of Seattle.

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