Before I even graduated High School, I decided that I was going to do the six-year plan for college. This wasn’t six year track, like a pre-med program or anything like that; I just decided that college was where I wanted to be and I was digging my heels in and staying forever. Unfortunately, in my fifth year, they lowered the number of credits required to graduate, and even though I had reduced the number of credits I took each semester to just part-time, I still had enough to graduate. I had completed everything required for my major, and my general electives, so my last semester where I planned to take some silly but interesting classes to fulfill the general electives category of my graduate application, were dashed against the rocks.
When my advisor told me this, he acted as if he was giving me a tremendous gift, but I felt more like I was being punched slowly and repeatedly in the stomach. I was not ready to be a grown-up and get a real job. If I wasn’t a student, then working at Barnes & Noble would be the only thing I did. I would no longer get to tell myself that I was just working there to pay the bills while I worked on loftier (as yet undiscovered goals). I would be a girl, with an English degree, working at Barnes & Noble, which is the saddest girl one can be.
“What do I do?” I asked my advisor in a gulpy, terrified panic. “Can’t I just take one more semester to figure things out?”
“You could get an MFA.” he suggested.
MFA, grad school, that actually is something that people do forever. I hemmed and hawed for a while before deciding to take the plunge, and eventually convinced myself (actually, it was more like coming up with a story to please my parents) that I wanted to work in publishing after finishing this MFA, so the certificate in publishing that came with it was certainly something I needed; I wasn’t a very good editor, and this would allow me to hone my skills; and I would be forced to get more writing done because I could see any momentum I’d built up over the years fizzling away immediately after graduation.
So I did it, I graduated in December and began grad school three weeks later, still not 100% certain what I had gotten myself into. I’d been a bit cocky as an undergrad, gotten a lot of praise from both professors and fellow students, so I expected the MFA to be a bit more of the same. Instead, the program was full of people who were both more talented and more prolific than me, which made me work harder and stop being such a dumbass. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but left me with a high sense of accomplishment, and, after graduation, a crushing sense that I was even less prepared for real life than I had been before.
Added to that, was the fact that no one seemed to understand what this degree was. Every time I said MFA, people assumed I was a painter, or sculpter. Eventually I just started cramming it all together “I have an MFA in fiction and screenwriting with a certificate in publishing.” Usually, that stopped any confusion, except in the case of a former co-worker who seemed not to hear it and then kept mentioning art, artists, and other things of that ilk. I just smiled and nodded.
Then something strange happened, the MFA in writing started be the thing. Everyone wanted one and programs were cropping up all over the place. When I started working for Distance Learning at URI, I explained to my boss what my degree was, and he interrupted me in the middle of my long explanation to show me a higher education magazine that had ads for at least five MFA programs. “We’re actually trying to start one here at URI,” he told me, “Because they’re such a low-overhead moneymaker. You can consult on it.”
This did not make me feel very good, though the thought of being a consultant has always appealed to me.
On one hand, I’m glad that people now understand my degree, but on the other hand it feels quite demeaning. If there are tons of programs seeking out people willing to pay tuition, then there will tons of people out there who probably did not work nearly as hard as me or my fellow students did. I’m not special anymore. The romantic notion of it is appealing– taking time to write and find your voice, etc., but it’s actually incredibly grueling, and I never sat in “a room of my own” trying to find the perfect words, instead I holed up on the fourth floor of the library in the most uncomfortable chairs known to man ending up with a bruised spine, or plunked myself down on the couch listening to the Gilmore Girls and trying to figure out how to end my stories (I’m still terrible at that). My fellow students and I also drank–a lot.
Added to the demands of writing different creative works for different classes–Fiction, screenwriting or playwriting, sometimes YA fiction, sometimes creative non-fiction; you’d also have to read your fellow classmates work and offer insightful critique. That was usually 100 pages a week of first drafts where even the author wasn’t sure where the thing was going, or chapters of novels that you hadn’t read in a month and couldn’t keep the characters straight. In addition to that, I had three jobs.
So whenever I say that I have an MFA and people get a jealous, far-away look in their eyes, I want to grab them by the ears and scream “It was a lot of work, damnit!” I can easily say that finishing that degree was the hardest thing I’ve done to date, but was also completely worth it because even though it may never actually help me get a job, it forced me to grow up, actually let other people read stuff I’ve written, and take criticism.
In tribute to my master’s thesis, I have no idea how to end this blog. So there you go.