Thursday, May 3, 2007

Almost Halfway Through the MFA: Meltdown Time

I had lunch the other day with the talented and generous writer who is my fabulous graduate school faculty mentor this semester. I was doing well, she said, working hard, even getting some pieces published in a few decent places. She had written me a solid mid-term evaluation. She knew I would be getting published in even better places in the not-so-distant future.

So why was I feeling so adrift and confused? Why did I feel that everything I thought was good about my writing, when I started this MFA program, last summer, suddenly now feel weak and trite? Why was I unsure of my direction? Where was my writing going and how would I reconcile the new strength I detected in my craft, with my huge frustration over structure? Why were my goals shifting each week?

I'm too old for this, I said. I can't re-invent everything about my writing at this point, even if it's tempting to try. I'd need five years or more to do that, I complained.

More or less, she said: Too bad. Basically, you only get these two years while you are in grad school, to sort things out, and that I can be really very grateful to be falling to pieces now. Once this MFA program ends, you are on your own, and all your shaking-out better be settled down for the most part by then. Besides, she assured me, this is what grad school -- especially a writing program -- is for. If you enter expecting to exit with just a brighter polish on the strengths you already had when you began, well, that's a big waste of time and money.

The whole idea is to shake yourself up. To shake up your style and invite yourself to question how you write and why you write that way and what else you might find out about the possibilities in your writing. To try new approaches and ideas. Work the process differently than what has always felt comfortable. In other words, to get over yourself and your inflated idea of how well you write....and really find out if you have anything to say, and how you want to say it.

And by the way, this wise novelist and insightful and well-published essayist mentioned, don't think that's all over when you graduate. Every writer goes through this, sometimes, several times in his or her career.

A call that night, from a friend about to graduate from the program, reassured me as well. Oh yeah, she said, when you get about halfway through the program, you kind of have a major meltdown. Oh.

I feel so much better now.

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