I Don’t Regret My MFA (Just My Student Loan)

I sometimes call the friends I made during my time in grad school my $30,000 friends. Because that’s how much I took out in loans to get my MFA. And also, the writing community I found there really is quite valuable to me. But is community really worth so much debt?

Probably not. (Still love you, friends!)

I loved my time in the low-residency MFA program at Lesley University.  The people were wonderful, the mentors were nurturing & brilliant, and the program, on the whole, was phenomenal. I grew as a writer in both skill and confidence. I have only rave reviews of my time and experience there.

And yet. When people ask me if I think they should pursue an MFA, I usually tell them no.

Not unless you can get into one of those full-time, fully-funded programs and have the kind of life where you can drop everything and move. Or you can get your work to pay for it. Or you are independently wealthy. Or you don’t mind shouldering thousands of dollars of debt over the next few decades as you try to balance your creative endeavors with the realities of student loan repayment and the cost of living.

As much as I loved my MFA program, the literal cost has just been too high. Of course, I wasn’t thinking of that when I applied. Back then, I was isolated in a small town, at home with two toddlers, desperate for some kind of writing life. Even if someone had given me this advice at the time, I probably wouldn’t have listened.

In her wonderful book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, Elizabeth Gilbert doesn’t hold back skepticism for pricey MFA programs. In an interview with the Miami Herald about the book, she summarizes by saying, “I think any system that tells you that you need to spend an enormous amount of money to be legitimized as a creative human being is a racket. If you want to do something because you love it and want to engage with it, and you want to dance and play with it, go do it! You don’t need a permission slip. You don’t need an MFA.”

Some people really want to teach. In which case, you probably need at least a masters in a related field. But still, my advice for this instance remains the same. I can tell you from experience: the cobbling together of adjunct teaching jobs does not exactly generate a cushy income.

In retrospect, I think I could have found the kind of support I was looking for by patching together attendance in workshops and conferences over several years. And while these gatherings can sometimes be pricey (my dream workshop in Positano, Italy (where incidentally Elizabeth Gilbert is the visiting writer this year), is a whopping $4600), nothing is quite so costly and creatively soul-sucking as trailing around a relentless debt for a few decades.

 

Daycare is My Superpower

Lauren Groff’s new story collection, Florida, is a finalist for the Kirkus Prize in Fiction. Good for her. It was an excellent book (though her favorite of mine remains Arcadia). There was a delightful clip of an interview she gave to the Harvard Gazette when her new book came out that made its way around the internet, where she was asked to “talk about [her] process and how [she] manage[d] work and family?”

Groff responded: “I understand that this is a question of vital importance to many people, particularly to other mothers who are artists trying to get their work done, and know that I feel for everyone in the struggle. But until I see a male writer asked this question, I’m going to respectfully decline to answer it.”

Interview answers do not get more badass than this.

But still, inquiring minds want to know.

Fortunately for us, and maybe because she wasn’t asked directly, Groff does more or less answer the question in an interview for Poets & Writers Magazine (July/August 2018 Issue), which struck a profound chord in me and which you should rush out to buy and read. Alas, the article is available in print only.

Groff asserts that “American parenting remains a sexist enterprise.” As as a parent myself, I agree with her. But while we tend to assume that women will do the heavy lifting of parenting, we also tend to assume that writing isn’t “real” work.

No one would think to ask a female dentist: How did you manage to extract so many teeth this year AND have three kids at home? The answer is obvious: Someone else was watching her kids.

And (spoiler alert) that’s basically what Groff says in the P&W article: someone else–her husband–is acting as the primary parent. If you want to be a professional–to pull teeth or write novels (and aren’t the two things often one and the same?)–then you’re going to have to get someone to watch your kids. That’s it. That’s the secret.

That was the mystery I was so desperate to crack back when I was in a low-residency MFA program, staying home with a three-year-old and a one-year-old and finding it extremely difficult to get any writing done. Then, one day in the car, I heard an interview with Myla Goldberg on The Diane Rehm show (Does anyone else desperately miss Diane Rehm?). Diane asked her this very same question: With two young children at home, how do you do it? How do you write?

I leaned in, hungry for the secret.

“Well,” Goldberg said, “my oldest is in school and my three-year-old is in daycare. That’s how I do it.”

It seemed a very anti-climactic answer. And it blew my mind in the best way.

I eventually found a sitter for my kids a few days a week and got through grad school.

The secret isn’t staying up late or waking up early or writing with your toddlers in your lap, as well-intentioned people often tell me Toni Morrison did (though one of my mentors who knows her personally says this is a myth. That Toni Morrison lived with her mother and her mother watched her children while she wrote.) The answer is the same for writers as it is for dentists or Walmart employees. The mystery to getting so many customers through the check out line is simple: you don’t bring your babies to work with you.

The answer, in other words, is daycare. A stay-at-home husband. A Toni-Morrison-style live-in grandma. You are then able to, in the words of Seth Godin, put on your smock and get to work like a professional.

 

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