Tag Archives: MFA

Life Happens: The Post-MFA Blues and the Process of Learning, Forgetting, and Remembering Again

by
Matt Switliski PF W’11

While I was a student at Stonecoast, I was always excited to see alumni show up at the graduation ceremony and reception. For me, there was this unshakeable sense that, after my friends and I walked across the stage to receive our degrees, we wouldn’t see each other again. Life, I know, is far too unpredictable, filled with too many vagaries for me to make a pronouncement like that with any certainty. Still, it remained a definite possibility, one I dreaded. So to see these old friends and fellow writers appear again unexpectedly was a pleasure. In some small way, I needed them to confirm that life after Stonecoast would not be the bleak vision I had imagined.

When I spoke with these alumni, I had to ask, had to know: “Are you still writing?” While many people responded yes, I received far more no’s than I’d care to count. Most people looked sheepish about it. Some wanted a respite after two intense years of study. Others needed to arrange priorities now that they weren’t in school and paying for a degree. Yet, as often as not, they felt burnt out or—worse—wanted to write but felt incapable of doing so. The MFA had become an anchor, weighing them down.

I promised myself I wouldn’t let that happen. And, for a while, it didn’t: I set a writing goal for myself the year I graduated and, despite a few rough patches, reached it. I may not have been as productive as I’d have liked, but, once I’d proven to myself I could remain disciplined without external deadlines or being accountable to a mentor, I felt confident about setting my goal incrementally higher.

So went my rationale.

As 2011 wound down, my life started to unravel. I lost someone very important, I scrambled to finish my PhD applications at the last minute (for good reason, but that’s beside the point), and I was juggling three jobs, one of which was teaching a new course at a new school, with a curriculum unlike any I was familiar with. It’s little wonder that my writing fell by the wayside.

I wanted to keep writing, though. As paradoxical as it may seem, writing is how I stay connected with the world even as it takes me out of it. It’s how I process my thoughts and experiences, how I keep parts of my brain active that would otherwise atrophy. (As a teacher and a Scorpio, I don’t consider it a viable option to run on anything besides all cylinders.) To not be writing creatively was disorienting, to put it mildly. So, I made an effort to incorporate writing when I could and to not flog myself if I couldn’t always follow through. For about a week, I made progress. I’d been a few months out of practice, so the prose was rough, and my synapses fired more slowly than I’d grown used to. But I had words on the page, the beginnings of a story. Then life intervened again. It was another month before I returned to writing.

Click here for more graphics and gifs!Suddenly, I couldn’t do it anymore. I sat for hours by a blank notebook, trying in vain to put down even vaguely connected ideas. I assaulted myself with questions I’d learned to ask during Stonecoast. I worried about every sentence, every word. It was, as I’ve detailed in a personal journal post, the worst case of the centipede’s dilemma I’d ever had. I was afraid of writing badly, because I knew I was capable of better. Instead of having more confidence with the MFA, I had less; I was thinking too much, instead of trusting my normal process: Just write and worry about fixing all the problems later.

At the recent reunion, I discovered that graduates from all over the spectrum had encountered a similar problem. Some had worked through, but others were still figuring out how to lure the Muse back. How to simply write again.

Talking with Stonecoast students past and present shook loose a number of thoughts for me. One, I shouldn’t have been surprised that I came down with the post-MFA blues. Graduates of intensive workshops like Clarion and Odyssey, for example, often need some fallow time afterward, letting the learning sink in—or recuperating after six straight weeks of writing. Some stop writing altogether after those pressurized experiences. In my case, the blues set in later, after I had fewer things to occupy my time and attention. Thus, it was easy to obsess over my writing—so many questions and too few answers—in a way that hindered my productivity. Thinking too much in advance seems to be fatal to the work of a steer-by-the-headlights writer like me.

Another thing is that, even though graduation meant a change in the dynamic of the Stonecoast community for me, that didn’t mean it had to end. Yes, I wouldn’t see my friends for ten days every six months to talk writing, but these conversations can—should—happen in other ways. Texting, phone calls, Skype, or even old-fashioned letters can maintain the bonds created over the past few years. Doing so can be essential for many writers. I know that’s true for me. I had an amazing support network of fellow writers during my undergrad years. But as that network became more far-flung and more tenuous, my output slowed (but didn’t stop completely, thankfully). At Stonecoast, I found the support I’d been lacking and hadn’t known I craved. It’s not that I need encouragement, however much I value it. I need solidarity. People to commiserate with when the writing goes slowly or not at all, people to share victories with, people to test ideas on, to listen to. Writing often feels like a solitary endeavor, and it can be maddening if you don’t have someone—a patient spouse, a writing partner, sympathetic co-workers—who understands you and this vocation.

If I’m going to accomplish anything, I need to forget what I learned. Or at least let that learning inform the work I do without being self-conscious about it. I’ve read plenty of great stories that break some of the sacred “rules” of writing. Know the rules before you break them; I get that. I spent the past two years learning, to say nothing of the time I invested prior to starting my MFA. I know the rules, more or less. Now, I need to use them without giving the process too much thought. The centipede didn’t get on its feet again by concentrating on the act of walking.

What I can’t forget is the community I became part of at Stonecoast. They’re out there in the world, doing great things, ready to help each other. Willing to listen, share experiences, offer insights. It may not always seem like it, but we writers are all in this together. Sometimes we need to remember that.

***

Have you ever struggled with the post-MFA blues? How did it affect you and your writing? What did you do to work through it?

***

Matt Switliski (Popular Fiction, Winter ’11) is a tutor and teacher at several colleges in the Philadelphia area. His publication credits include poetry, short fiction, book reviews, and news articles. In the fall of 2012, he will start a PhD in Composition at the University of New Hampshire. He keeps a blog on writing, books, and other topics at iamrazorwing.livejournal.com.

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The Post MFA World: Alumni Thoughts on Success and Graduation

By Erin Underwood PF S’09

When I attended my MFA program at Stonecoast, I looked at each of the 10-day long residencies as my opportunity to learn and immerse myself in the writing life I desired. And while I was a student, that’s exactly what they were, but now the semi-annual residencies have evolved into something much more for me.

During my first semester, I was so involved with settling into the program that I was barely aware of the 20+ students who were graduating. As a result, I decided not to attend the graduation ceremony because I didn’t see that as part of my experience. A poor decision to be sure! Instead, I stayed at the dorm and hung out with the other first semester students who were also haunting the halls of Stonecoast.

When I returned to Maine for my second residency, I hadn’t planned to attend graduation, but by the time the ceremony rolled around I decided that I wanted to be there to see my new friends graduate. The joy of watching the graduating students walk across the stage to give Annie a hug and to receive their diploma from Robin was the least of what I experienced. Sitting around me was almost everyone from the popular fiction classes who were ahead of me in the program as well as many local alumni who were able to attend. When I looked around the theater, I noticed a similar pattern of attendance for the other genres: creative nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. I was even pleasantly surprised to see a few new students in the audience.

Each time I returned to Maine for one of my residencies, I sat in the theater to cheer on the graduating students and to feel the support of my classmates as we held onto every moment that we could share together. With each new class, and each new group of friends who joined us at Stonecoast, we watched an older class and an existing group of friends leave. Each graduation became more poignant than the last until I found myself walking across the theater’s stage to give Annie a hug and to receive my diploma from Robin.

My last residency found me dreading my own graduation and the inevitability that I too would be leaving behind this wonderful group of friends that I had come to hold so dear. We may not always have agreed on whether a piece of fiction was well written, a character properly conflicted, or a plot successfully executed. However, we all agreed that it was one of the most significant experiences of our lives. While we were sad to leave Stonecoast, we were also growing excited to step out into the Post MFA World to see what successes were in store for us. We were ready to conquer the world!

That first semester after I graduated was exhausting. I found myself suffering from post-MFA syndrome, not caused by recovering from the intensive writing within the program, but instead caused by the disconnect that I felt from my new family of writers. When the next residency came around there was no doubt I would be returning to Stonecoast to visit with my friends and to attend graduation…not to mention I was looking forward to enjoying whatever residual effects I could glean from the residency given my new status as an alumna.

While the experience of attending the residency was wonderful, the dark edges of my subconscious kept poking through and asking me “What have you done since graduation?” That question was echoed by just about everyone that I saw. What have you been up to? Have you sold anything? Are you teaching? What are you writing? What are you working on now?

Those answers were easy to give, but not necessarily satisfying. I started feeling like I hadn’t measured up to my personal standard of success. After graduating, I had immediately been elected as President of the Stonecoast Alumni Association. I was  active in the alumni community, which was only modestly present at the residencies–except for the graduation. I had also finished a screenplay that wouldn’t sell and I had also been working on a few short stories that weren’t getting any action. As a result, I felt like I hadn’t accomplished anything significant since graduating and my idea of being a successful writer was growing ever thinner and more fragile.

For one reason or another, I found myself returning to Stonecoast either to meet with someone, to help with an event, or to attend graduation. However, each time I visited, I found I knew fewer and fewer people until only familiar faces belonged to the staff and faculty–with a few exceptions. I began feeling like a stranger in a strange land who had graduated from my MFA program and over stayed my visit. I still had not scored that movie deal or made the amazing book deal that I had been sure was waiting for me after graduation.

During the Summer 2011 residency, I finally realized two things that completely changed how I felt about returning to Stonecoast as an alumna. The first thing was that I needed to change my experiential expectations and to embrace the alumni related events when I returned to Maine. Sadly, there weren’t many events other than the faculty and student reading that were geared toward alumni. However, we did have the Graduating Student and Alumni Reception. This one event was the key to realizing that alumni needed a better way to engage with Stonecoast through more alumni centric events. We needed a reunion. Yes, that’s when the real work of organizing the July 2012 reunion began. No matter how our first major reunion turns out, the one thing I know is that I will not be haunting the halls of Stonecoast as a returning alumna, I will be actively engaging with a community of writers from Stonecoast who have been going through similar experiences, doubts, and successes.

There is that word again. Success.

This brings me to the second thing that changed how I felt about returning to Stonecoast as an alumna. When I graduated, I gauged my success on what I thought being successful meant after earning an MFA. Since then, I have continued to work full-time, I experienced the deaths of loved ones, I had personal victories and defeats, I published fiction and nonfiction, I started a blog that was extremely well received, and I was happy. I have come to realize that success is one of those things that morph over time. What is important to me today may not even be on my radar a year from now. When I look back at my graduation and forward toward my future, I can truly say I have been and will continue to be successful because I have found peace with my expectations and my personal achievements in my Post MFA World.

In a few days, I will return to Maine to attend the graduation ceremony for the next set of students who will be heading out into the Post MFA World. I’ll also be staying over night to attend the alumni meeting that will be held on the final day of the residency. For the first time since graduating, I feel like I am finally returning to Maine and to Stonecoast on my own terms. While I may feel some of the residual effects of the residency experience, I will be building upon my own alumni experiences, glad to be a part of this extremely special community of writers that include my fellow alumni, the Stonecoast faculty and staff, the current students, and the new students who will be so involved with settling into their MFA that they are barely aware that a group of 20+ students who are graduating from the program. However, in two years, I look forward to seeing them up on that stage, giving Annie a hug and receiving their diploma from Robin.

The student experience is only one small, but very important, part of becoming a Stonecoaster. Our community is strong, our community is vibrant, and our community will–in its own special way–conquer the world.

I look forward to seeing you at the graduation ceremony.

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