Wednesday, May 19, 2010

PMS: Post MFA Syndrome

I was reminded recently that 6200 people this year are graduating with an advanced degree in creative writing. (Actually I made that number up but it sounds right) Ten years ago, I was one of them. It was probably the most conflicted time of my life. I’m still convinced that there is little worse than being twenty-six years old and graduating with a master’s degree whose purpose, to me, remains elusive . In light of this, if you are graduating with your MFA or have graduated recently, or you know someone who will, I’ll recount the nebulous time after graduate school –that literary purgatory--- in hopes that you might take comfort.

I knew once I drafted my thesis exactly what loomed ahead of me. Hours and hours of nothingness. No job. No prospects. Nada. I never got a Stegner Fellowship, though I wanted one desperately. I didn’t get into Provincetown, or that one fellowship where you teach wealthy prep-schoolers in New Hampshire. Hell, I didn’t even get chosen to be a waitress at Breadloaf. In short, my writing couldn’t even carry a drink for a better writer. The truth stared me in the face. I was a good writer, an adequate writer, but I wasn’t great. I wasn’t doing anything revolutionary. I was and still am a funny writer who can’t spell.

We never had a formal graduation, only a public reading wherein we listened to our colleagues work that we’d begun to not so privately loathe. In turn, they listened to ours, while smiling fakely and applauding politely after its vulgar, surprising, wholly unsurprising, earned, inevitable, kind of O’Henryish denouement.

Meanwhile, my rejections from fellowships, residencies, literary magazines mounted in piles around my student-ghetto apartment. As everyone around me prepared for a writerly something in their future, I prepared for its antithesis. Fuck writing, I thought, resolutely. Just fuck it. After two years of point-of-views, irony, Chekhovian reversals, pithy and clever Lorrie Moore, despondent Katherine Mansfield, enthymemes, schematics, post-modern deconstruction, and two hour discussions featuring the em dash, I was done. Done.

After graduate school I went home. That’s right, I moved back in with my family and slept from June until September. Why not get a teaching job? Everyone seemed bent on asking several times a day. Why? Because I hate teaching, I answered. It sucks up all my time. I wind up dissecting their writing instead of mine. Well, what else can one do with a master's in fine art? Nothing, I screamed. I can sit here.
So I sat there.

We all know what happened on September 11th. Still unemployed, I was pulled from my childhood bed by my mother, who cautioned, “This is war.” Dropped in front of the TV I wondered if I had somehow woken up in hell. Like everyone I was shocked, and horrified. I had absolutely no desire to write about it. Even then I had no desire to write about anything.

However, I did have a desire to do something. Something drastic. Something unexpected and out of the ordinary. One month later, I signed up to be an Americorp volunteer and moved to New Mexico to initiate literacy centers. Evidently, I was done with sitting.

Ten years later I am still here, in Albuquerque, deeply involved with literacy. I was astonished to discover that I loved the work-- that I preferred discussing the letter B as opposed to symbolism in Bauderillard. I got married and had children. I never thought I’d write again.

Until I did. And man oh man, did it come back with a vengeance.
I’ve since learned that many MFA graduates “take a break” after graduate school. I didn’t write, but I continued to read. I read books that made me want to be a writer in the first place: Stephen King, Lois Lowry, Phillip Pullman, Neil Gaiman, Jack Kerouac, Judy Blume, Terry McMillan, Jamaica Kincaid. Students worked through the poems of Shel Silverstein and I listened.

Despite all signs pleading that I give up, throw in the towel, and move on with my non-writing life, I didn’t. I couldn’t. I am, at my deepest core, more than an educator, more than a wife or mother, a writer. And even writers need a break sometimes. So give yourself time to rediscover people, not characters. Rediscover books, not treatises or tomes. Let your writing self slip away for a while. It will be back. It always comes back. And you’ll be cowering with excitement and terror to rediscover it.

Jennifer Ruden has published stories and essays in Nerve, Word Riot, Puerto del Sol, Literary Mama, Amarillo Bay among other magazines. She recently won an Orlando award for creative nonfiction. The essay, oddly enough, is about writing.


Clarissa Draper said...

What a great look back. I really love to read the life story of other writers. I took me a long time to know that I need to write but now that I do, you're right, it comes with a vengeance.

Great post. Will be back.


Want Chyi said...

Barely one year out of my MFA program, I am still fighting to write. It is always a relief to know that when I can't, I am not behind, and I have not abandoned who I am. Thank you so much for this, Jennifer.