It’s been about a year since I graduated from my Master of Fine Arts Program in Creative Writing at Florida International University. Life has taken unimaginable turns. So, last night, I started to think about where I was four years ago before I applied to MFA programs. Was I actually better off now with my degree?
Four years ago, I was living in Detroit, Michigan, substitute teaching in the Ferndale Public Schools and working at the front desk of a Royal Oak YMCA. While I was lucky to even have a paycheck back in the beginning of the Great Recession, especially in D-Town, the jobs were unfulfilling. So I told people I was going to be a writer. A famous writer. I believed if I started to say it, to own it, then my pride would never let me stop until I was a writer. So I wrote on breaks, scribbling down lines and ideas for stories.
Well, I had no idea how to write a story, let alone become a writer. Creating a novel seemed like an impossible journey. I had no idea what was next.
I started researching continuing my education, and I ran into a lot of writers and graduate students who raved about MFA programs. And I remembered my college poetry professor talking about MFA programs. So I started to apply, thinking I had nothing to lose.
Then the rejections started to roll in. I remember, one morning, after receiving two rejections in one day, staring into the washing machine at the YMCA. Part of my job was to wash the dirty gym towels. I remember the water swirling around the towels as I scooped in the detergent that stung my hands. I was measuring my future by the number of hampers full of dirty gym towels I would wash.
Finally, I was accepted into FIU. And after some polite begging, I was awarded a teaching assistantship, which meant I would receive a stipend and a tuition waiver. I was set free from Detroit. I packed up my books, my clothes, my dog, and my lady, and we moved to Miami.
I was so happy to be out of Detroit that I didn’t even think about the loans I took out for living expenses. I didn’t even think about the career opportunities that would be available after graduation. I didn’t even think of the probabilities of being successful as a writer. I only thought about my goal.
Three years have gone by, and my book is still unpublished. I don’t have some cozy teaching job at a private university where my students worship the ground I walk on. And I don’t have an agent ready to take my phone calls whenever I have an issue. So, was it worth it?
Yes! Without a doubt. Yes. Let me give you five reasons. Just five. Even though there are plenty more.
- Time. For three years, I had the time to write without interruption. I had the time to read poetry, psychology essays, stories, novels, novellas — any book I could get my hands on. I had the time to ride my bike through the streets of Miami, contemplating Theodore Roethke’s North American Sequences. I had the time to think about myself, write about myself, and figure out who I wanted to be. I had the time to write a novel, a collection of poetry, and songs. I had the time to try out the life I had always wanted to live, and I found that I loved it.
- Teachers. At FIU, I had the most amazing teachers. I used to arrive at the creative writing department office about three hours before my teachers, and I would sit in one of the empty rooms, writing and reading. Then I would sit by their offices about thirty minutes before they showed up to make sure I was the first in line. And I wouldn’t leave. I asked them every question I could imagine, and every single one of those questions were somehow related to—“How do I become a writer?” My teachers gave me their time, too. They listened to my ideas for stories; they encouraged me; they told me the truth no one else would tell; and they pushed me until I was a better writer. They taught me how to build stories and poems the way architects create plans for buildings.
- Work Ethic. During the first year at FIU when I sat down to write, I became overwhelmed with anxiety. What was I supposed to write about? Would anyone care? Is this a waste of my time? And in the beginning, I would walk away from my journal or computer, declaring that I just didn’t have it that day. Well, that thought is crap. I was in my own way. Writer’s block is a lie; a fiction created by the inner ego. To overcome this, my pedagogy professor introduced me to freewriting, and my writing teachers taught me how to work. I’ll never forget one of my teachers telling me he once stared at a computer for eight hours until he could write one sentence. Even that was work, because he wasn’t leaving the table. He wasn’t running from writing. He was tackling it head on. I have learned to sit and work, to fill up journals after journals, to write pages after pages, because I no longer work in fear. I write to discover, to understand, and to learn. I am comfortable with the struggle.
- Community. People have real problems — paying bills, relationships, cancer. Most of those people don’t want to hear that you can’t figure out your character’s want or what is missing in your plot. But other writers do. That’s why having people around you who are going through the same struggles is extremely important. During my MFA, I was a part of an open-mic night at the Luna Star Café. Once a month, we would gather together and have a new member of the program read. We would drink, play music, share stories and poems, and just simply be together. We were all wanna-be writers, and at least in numbers, it’s harder to feel lost and confused. There were people out there just like me with the same dreams and goals.
- Preparation for Reality. After I graduated in May, 2011, I packed up all my clothes, my books, and my menial possessions, and I moved to Southern California to live with my lady. I had no real prospects for a job when I left. I did, however, have opportunities around my school in Miami. But I took the chance to leave anyway. Several agents were reading the novel I wrote as my thesis, and I checked my e-mail every second, waiting for that glorious acceptance into the writing world. Well, that e-mail hasn’t arrived yet. Plus, it was difficult to find a job. At first, I blamed my degree. Who would want to hire an MFA? So I started to think outside the box. Finally, I found a job teaching and tutoring at a rehabilitation center. (That is a whole different story.) But here is the greatest lesson I learned from my MFA program. I learned how not to quit. I learned how to find internal motivation. I learned how to see every rejection as not a failure but as a chance to learn how to succeed. I’ll never forget saying goodbye to my teachers, my role models, my fellow classmates. It was truly an amazing chapter in my life. When I left, however, I was so convinced that my book was going to get published that I couldn’t see anything else. And when the rejections started to pour in, I was prepared. My thesis director had been prepping me for the real life of a writer, for the rejections, for the journey, and I didn’t even know it while she was teaching me. She told me that in this business, there are many ups and downs. You can never see what is coming. And the ones who last are the ones who never quit.
In the end, I have a higher degree, memories, and several stories and poems I send out every day. Plus, lessons from my teachers that are just starting to hit me. My thesis director told me the lesson of story takes time to sink in, even after the program. I’m starting to figure it out. And I’m grateful for the push my program gave me. Even if I’m not sure what direction that push is sending me.