Tuesday, June 17, 2008

After the MFA: T minus 25 days. Or, what was I thinking?

The countdown has begun.

Twenty-five days until the MFA is completed. And today I'm in that I can't wait till it's over / I never want it to end stage

Meanwhile, freelance writer Daisha Cassel interviewed me for a piece in
today's Wall Street Journal online about attending graduate school in midlife. As usual with short newsy pieces, there wasn't room for but one quote, so I took a look back at the answers I gave to Daisha a few weeks ago. Her asking me what I was thinking about before the MFA, gave me a chance to begin the process of preparing for after the MFA.

Here's an edited outtake:

On whether the MFA was something I had thought about for a awhile, or a sudden decision….

I thought about graduate school in my late 20s and again in my 30s -- business school or journalism. Then later I toyed with the idea of an MFA degree for five years before doing anything about it. When I turned 45, it suddenly became urgent.

On whether I was planning a career change…

I worked as a freelance equestrian sports journalist, and then in public relations agencies and as a freelance feature and business writer. By the time I was in my early 40s, I was doing part time research and limited freelance writing while raising young children, and looking ahead and wondering what my next move could be.

I think I knew from the outset that an MFA in creative nonfiction is a somewhat indulgent degree; it won't exclusively get one hired for anything other than an academic job and while I'm considering teaching, I'm probably most interested in magazines, literary journalism and publishing.
The MFA was more for the development of my writing muscle. I wanted a big, dramatic new challenge.

On the financial impact a degree may have on a career….

I am counting on earning an income by writing, which is more or less what I've always done. But no one needs an MFA degree for that. Still, I found the experience of working through a tough program to be good training for developing the mindset for a second career at this stage of life. Speaking strictly financially, I could earn more by returning to pubic relations rather than writing.

On full- vs. part-time vs. low-residency and how to juggle…..

I did the low-residency
Stonecoast program at the University of Southern Maine. Two weeks on campus, five times over two years; then one-on-one faculty mentoring, with deadlines every few weeks for writing, reading and annotations.

I continued to freelance, but found that the program took more of my mental energy and time than I anticipated, so I scaled back on work, though I think it's fair to say I got a bit over-invested. I decided early on that I would dive in 110 percent and make it a priority; not everyone is emotionally, logistically or financially able to do this and so I know I was very lucky.

I kept thinking, if I want this program to help effect a huge change in my life, I had better give myself over to it completely, and so I did and it's paid off – both in pushing my work to the point that it has been published in some good places (the New York Times, literary journals and anthologies) and in completely
revamping how I think of myself -- as a writer, not just someone who happens to write and get paid for it.

On combining grad school with family obligations….

When I was gone for residencies, my husband ran the house, cut short many work days, and took the boys along with him when necessary. Several of my friends pitched in too.

During the two years I was in grad school, we had a running refrain in our house, "Mom's doing schoolwork…" followed by: make your own lunch, help your brother, find a ride, figure it out yourself! I think it's been a good experience for my sons to see that education can happen at any age, and that one can change.

On balance….

As for "balance," I'm not a huge fan of that word. I doubt it's truly possible. I think at times in your life, especially when you've made a choice to pursue something, other stuff simply has to get jettisoned. I concentrated fairly singlemindedly on school for two years. It's ideal if the people around you support that; my family did, but I think they will all be slightly relieved when it ends.

On the differences this time around compared to the undergraduate degree…

Maturity is wonderful in any situation that requires prioritizing, and grad school is a fine example of that. It helps to be good at pushing aside distractions. Also, when I went to college (Syracuse University, B.S. in journalism), I never saw a bill. So student loans are new for me. The financial realities were also a factor in how aggressively I attacked the program – I wanted to get every dollar's worth.

On age (mine and other students)……

I think in general in low residency MFA programs, the average age is close to, or sometimes even over 40, and in my particular program, I was pretty close to average age. That's actually one reason I steered away from the "brick and mortar" grad school program I was admitted to, because when I visited it seemed populated by people in their 20s or early 30s.

On the challenges of a low residency program in terms of motivation, faculty involvement and participation…

A low residency program requires a self-motivated, self-disciplined student. I had already worked independently from a home office for 16 years. But it does require that you make much more of an effort to stay connected to faculty and other students; you must begin to grow and nurture your own colleague network while in the program and it's important to establish and maintain good relations with faculty members beyond what is required. It's not for everyone.

Finally, advice for returning adult students…

I wouldn't put it off for some future "better time." Life will keep unfolding no matter what. My father died during my first semester, my mother became ill during my final semester, and my sons kept growing and needing things all along – breaking bones, choosing a high school, you name it. But we all got through.

don't let age discourage. You are going to be two, four or six years older one day anyway; why not be two, four or six years older AND have a degree?

So, 25 days from now, I'll have that degree. I'm a better writer than I was when I entered the program. But the degree doesn't make it so. The experience of working on that degree – that's what's priceless.

When people (who don't write) ask me what jobs – other than teaching -- the degree will qualify me for, I've said honestly, "Not much. It's a really indulgent degree, sort of like a honeymoon I decided to take after I fell in love with writing again."

The honeymoon will soon be over. Like all wedding-related hoopla, I guess it's what happens next that will determine if, after all the expense, drama, time and energy, the day-to-day reality lives up to the honeymoon -- kind of like marriage, only this time, the relationship is between myself and my craft.

Stay tuned.


Anonymous said...

Lisa - thanks for sharing this. I'm about to start my MFA (Queens College, full-res) and you've confirmed what I thought about how it would go, what I'll likely get out of it, etc.

You're absolutely right about the age thing. I had that same argument with myself - am I too old to start this now? Then I realized exactly what you're saying - I'll just be older with no MFA if I don't do it, and I also thought if I can do this, why shouldn't I? There's no negative impact other than to my savings account, and that can be rebuilt. (She says with forced optimism. Ha.)

So congratulations in advance. You must be so satisfied with the progress you've made, though I'm sure your family will be happy to have you back full time!

Erika D. said...

Lisa, thank you for this wonderful post, full of insightful reflection. And Deonne, you're going to be at Queens College of CUNY? That's terrific! Maybe we'll meet sometime. Check out this page, which I help maintain.

Anonymous said...

Erika: Yep, Queens College of CUNY. I didn't know you worked with them - it would be great to meet you one of these days. Do you live in NYC? I was thinking you'd moved to Boston, or am I making that up?

Lisa Romeo said...

Hey, Erika and Deonne - glad you two are connecting (or is it re-connecting?) via this post!

Thanks Deonne and I am wishing you much success in your MFA program. Such an exciting (and as I recall, anxiety-riddled!) time.

Erika, thanks for the wonderful words and link from your blog today.

Ok, back to final residency prep for me; I was able to "forget" it for a few days as my kids wrapped up school years, but the countdown is on, so back to work!

Maggie May said...

what a great post, and a great story! i relate so well, although i am not in a program, i am a mother trying to attend school at night, work and write my book and edit my other book and ... !!

it's wonderful to read your assertion that life stays messy and it's our decision to DO that makes it get done, not a path cleared or a voice from the sky saying 'now! now!'

Anonymous said...

This post is great. That you took up pursuit of a degree not as potential financial enhancer, but to hone your craft, is encouraging. Also encouraging is seeing your confidence in the ability to earn a living by writing. I share this dream, though I'm having a hard time achieving it.