Monday, April 18, 2011

Unfunded in the MFA

I haven't posted in a long, long time. In fact, I haven't written a single post since I've actually been in my MFA program. Why? In the beginning, it was because I was so busy trying to get my footing that I never had a moment to post. The first few months were a dream: I met so many new and enthralling writers (both my peers, professors, and writers from outside the Mason community), I took engaging and wonderful classes, I wrote 79 poems in one semester for my "79 Works" class (no big deal), and I felt like I was in the right place.

Then, winter hit. November, December, the dark months. In the flurry of getting ready for the semester end, I started thinking about what was coming ahead. I had to prepare for another difficult process. Having come to George Mason unfunded, I knew that a long-and-hard battle for funding was coming up.

George Mason invites it's continuing students the chance to apply for a teaching assistantship in their second year. For those of us who are unfunded, we know it's going to be a painful, uphill battle. Dissatisfaction sets in. Fear sets in. We start to panic and wonder whether we'll be able to stay in the program for two more years without funding. Back-up plans are made. I started hoarding all my money, trying not to go out as much. I stopped buying unnecessary books, clothing, food, etc. I started to think about getting a full-time job and going to school part time. This process does terrible things to a person. I started to think about leaving, moving back home, starting over again.

And then the TA officially process began. In a desperate bid for an unknowable number of spots, about a dozen of us applied. We interviewed, we worried, we got ulcers, we had panic attacks. We cried about it, we wrote about it, we drank about it. And now, finally, after weeks of waiting, we know.

I was offered my TA position over two weeks ago, and since that fateful Thursday afternoon, I have existed in a state of sun-drenched relief. Next year, I'll be tutoring in the Writing Center and preparing to teach Composition and Literature in my third year. I am delighted. And for once I am free from the worries that come with finances, the insecurity that comes with not knowing how I'm going to continue on this path. I will no longer have to work roughly thirty hours a week on top of my class load. Starting in the fall, I'll be a fully-funded MFAer. I can't believe it.

In accepting my TA position, I exchanged several emails with the program director. In one, he thanked me for my "great bravery" in coming into the program unfunded. I know that right now there are many students about to enter MFA programs without funding. Some people would call that decision stupidity, but I agree that's it's bravery. We can go on and on about how MFAs should be funded, how this degree should cost nothing. And yes, holding out for funding is an option. But for so many others, accepting an unfunded spot can be the RIGHT CHOICE. If I hadn't taken the spot I did, I'd be miserably unemployed in a state (Michigan) whose education system is failing and whose economy is still degenerating. But instead, I'm in a vibrant place with several jobs I love, and the job I've always wanted starting in the fall. And I'm getting the time and support I need to write. For those of us who decide to take the leap, financial consequences be damned, this is an act of bravery, an act of faith. We are making an investment in our lives, our selves, and our futures. There is value in that.

I'll admit, it's easier to say all this from the position of financial security. It's easier to believe it. But that doesn't mean it's any less true. I felt like someone needs to talk about being unfunded: not about the struggle (although it is one) or the stress (lots of that, too), but about the benefits of taking the leap. You're welcome to disagree with me, many do, but for those of you who are out there and unfunded, know that it can one of the best decisions you've made.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Ending poems

First off, congratulations to all the people making decisions now, and especially to the people who have already made their decisions, and joined us on The MFA Chronicles.

I'd like to take advantage of the heightened site traffic to pose a hypothetical question or two about poems. Someone asked me this question that I'd like to pretend I have an answer to, but also find myself asking: When do you end a poem? (By this meaning when do you know a poem is finished, but in the generative sense of it being done on the page more than in the sense that you've made your last revision.) In other words, where do you stop discovering?

I use a couple strategies to tell when a poem is finished. The first is just stopping when it feels done, then taking a break from it and coming back when I can look at it with fresh eyes. Usually when I look at it again, something new needs to happen.

There's also working until discovering what the poem knew that I didn't, and then revising with that discovery in mind.

Another useful strategy is to ask, at the end of a poem, "and then?" If that's a legitimate question, the poem's probably not over yet.

I guess the poem should be understandable in terms of emotional purpose/narrative or meditation making sense/argument being finished/that feeling of being punched in the gut by the end, but what I'm really looking for, above all those other things, is surprising myself.

If I'm being super hard on myself though, I might ask, "Can/should a genuinely potential reader say 'so what?' to these poems?" What I really mean by that is if the poem was in my first book, would I not want the reader (trying to decide whether to buy my book) to open my book to that poem?

What do you all think? How do you know when you've reached the end of the line with the poem on the page?

Friday, April 1, 2011

Malibu Barbie vs. Hawaiian Fun Skipper

The last few years have been spent with two goals mind: 1) Finish my book, 2) Get into a MFA program. I’ve run through every emotion that I’m sure all of you have. I’ve been at the bottom of the ravine, looking up and thinking: what the eff? I’ve hemmed and I’ve hawed. I’ve retreated, backpedaled, swam through the rivers of self-doubt, charged feebly through the walls of rejection and in the end when the dust settled, I found myself a tiny bit closer to the light at the end of the tunnel. All this to say that I’ve been accepted to several programs and now face the task of making the right choice.

Lately I’ve been rather content to sweat over the change I see in the distance. The MFA application process is so self-involved and so obnoxious in its ability to wrap even the most calm psyche up into fever that I don’t believe many of us are able to comprehend that life goes on after the results are in. I’ve weighed the possibilities of faculty, area and time. I’ve even panicked over funding, which I had never even considered crying over until various blogs commanded I do so. Now I'm waking up from my hibernation in a daze, like wha? Last year I held onto one waitlist that strung me along by nose all the way through July. This year, I’m writing this from the Southwest terminal of LaGuardia airport at 5am, currently on my way to Chicago to visit the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. I’m somewhere between alive and asleep. Not just because it’s 5:08am in the friggin’ morning, but because I've come to realize that if and when I take one of my offers, I will be starting the next phase of my life which for the past two years has been nothing but some semblance of a dream.

The point being, life never turns out the way you planned it. I wish I could give you a bullet point list to illustrate my reasoning, but my mind is a body of water that strains bridges and dams. If you’re as spiritual as I like to believe I am then hopefully you’ve realized that God has one hell of a sick and twisted sense of humor. My remedial understanding of blessings is that the lord will always deliver, but never on your time, and it’s never the exact package you asked for. You want Malibu Barbie? The Lord brings you Hawaiian Fun Skipper. Well gee thanks, God. Hawaiian Fun Skipper is cool and all, but I wanted the pink convertible and you gave me a pink scooter. There’s some deeper meaning in this, right? Some lesson I will come to realize ten years from now that’ll make me go: Ooooooh...well now I've gotta get on my knees and pray.

For me, my Malibu Barbie was Columbia University. Yes, yes, boo and hiss, wah-wah funding and all that jazz, but I felt that program was perfect for me. I have a life here in New York that I never wanted to give up. I would have sacrificed a few lambs and slapped my momma silly to figure out the finances, but it was worth staying here and continuing the life I'm comfortable with. Alas, I found Hawaiian Fun Skipper under my Christmas tree. Believe me, there was no sadness. Just a quick pause then the happy-bunny-hoppity-hop dance commenced. Now the novelty of it all is wearing off and I’m examining Skipper, I’m noticing the differences between her and Barbie and I’m realizing the warm and fuzzy vision I had in my head is not my reality. Is my vision better than my reality? I don't think so, but I think visions allow us to have our cake and eat it too. My reality is asking me to lose some weight. It requires a lot more courage than the comfy dream I had set out for myself.

I’m currently in the midst of visiting schools: Colorado Boulder, The School of the Art Institute in Chicago and the University of New Orleans. I thought all my choices were in, until last week when I received a phone call from Goldsmiths College, University of London. So once again, my situation has changed and every time I think about it, my brain explodes. Do I study at a MFA program or study at a MA program? I’ve been doing my research and have found pros and cons to both. There are plenty of authors doing quite well with a MA (Hello, Kazuo Ishiguro!) But I already had it in my mind that I’d spend two years in a MFA program, teaching undergraduates and finishing up my novel. What can I possibly accomplish in a yearlong MA program? Meet a hot British guy and make him my husband.

MA degrees are generally less practice based, although my interview with Professor Stephen Knight claims otherwise. I’ll be subjected to more theory and the study of literature, which I’m always fascinated by. I won’t be able to gather any adequate teaching experience in a year. However, if I chose a MA, I could be out of school in half the time and from there reapply to MFA programs right afterwards.

But do I want to be in various schools for that long? Well, if I’m funded why not? If I go to Colorado Boulder, I’ll be in school for 3 years. If I go to London and attend another program afterwards, I could wrack up twice as many degrees in the same amount of time. Plus I’ll be able to live abroad for at least one of those three years. Then again if I already know that I’ll still covet a MFA even after receiving my MA, am I wasting my time? Maybe I should just accept one of my MFA offers and get it over with already. I mean, Jesus, I’m not getting any younger. My facebook is filled with friends getting married and popping out babies. Even my mother, who is practically the face of women who work on their careers before settling down with a husband to start a family, has reverted into a 1950s nosey neighbor: When you gonna get married and give your poor momma some grandkids?

The point is: great, I’ve got direction so…what do I do now? And the only reply I have for myself is: I love my Hawaiian Fun Skipper, so, so freaking much!

I will blog about adventures in the Windy City soon! :D
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