Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Almost-Finished-the-MFA Slump: Truth in Nonfiction

Now that I am about halfway through my final semester of an MFA program in nonfiction, I've hit that infamous slump my already-graduated friends warned me about. Mine is an icky grey funk with symptoms that include alternating bouts of buyer's remorse, a quiet panic, ebbing confidence, debt anxiety – and the overwhelmingly discomfiting sense of reaching the end of something which I want to last forever, and also can't wait to finish.

How on earth did I get here?

No, I won't take you down the pitted and not-so-unusual path of why and how I decided on the MFA. Or even tell you about how, on the first day of the first workshop, I agonized for hours about how to tell my husband I had made a big mistake and how to get my money back. I won't go into the details of how, over the course of that first week, I came to realize I was in the right place after all.

A place where things end.

An end to thinking I was a pretty fair writer – and the beginning of the realization that my writing needed a whole lot of work. An end to the unarticulated fuzzy sense that this MFA thing could be a sort of part-time writing exercise, rather than a major commitment of time, work, and mental energy to dismantle all of my notions about what I was actually capable of writing.

I wasn't really looking for surprises. I simply wanted to progress in a smooth line, picking up ways to polish my prose and along the way figure out how to rejuvenate a motherhood-stalled career, while making some grown-up friends who loved books and reading as much as my two kids.

What's that saying about life laying waste to one's plans?

Trained in journalism, experienced but rusty as a freelance writer, established as a public relations specialist, I was stunned and frankly a little annoyed when I discovered – because of faculty who pushed and insisted that inside my "B" game was an "A" game too – that I could write outside my comfort zone. Literary essays? Wow, didn't know I could do that. Memoir-type narrative nonfiction? Didn't see that one coming. Then there was poetry, humor, criticism, and…well, the point is that sometimes finding out you can do something you never thought you could is not only exhilarating, but frankly – scary.

Now what?

That once-envisioned line was not smooth and at the moment I am both intrigued and terrified of where it's leading. To graduation, yes. But beyond that?

It's still four months off, yet thinking about "after the MFA" occupies far too much of my time. If I were one of my kids, I'd tell myself, in my best mom-speak, "Let's not worry about that yet. There is a lot to do in the meantime…."

….like finish the thesis manuscript, plan that seminar graduating students must teach, and make those revisions to an essay I need to hand in. But that's not how funks work. They grab hold and obliterate everything else one should be focusing on. However, if I'm lucky – and I think this is already starting – a really good funk, one that seems like an ending, will catapult me to...well, who knows, but certainly the beginning of something.

So…as I agonize about not having a book-length manuscript ready to shop to agents the day after the MFA graduation, and not knowing what exactly I want to do writing-wise from there on, or the holes I'm beginning to see still exist in my literary education, I just have to keep reminding myself of what one of my sons said recently: "Wow, Mom, you're going to graduate. Cool."

Stay tuned.

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