Sunday, July 05, 2009

How Studying Creative Writing Changed Everything: Part 3

The image above is the, that's not quite right...the proof of the fact that I indeed did spend a few years in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, earning my MFA degree in creative writing. And the fact that it's crooked seems appropriate. It was a rough process. Rough and wonderful and one of the best things I've ever done.

At first, I was sure I'd made a huge error in deciding on this particular program, because of its location, because of its location, and because of its location. As it turned out, the train that ran half-a-block from the apartment I shared with fellow student, Angela Jane Fountas, the way it shook our windows every hour or so, the pea-green sky during tornado season, the town and university thick with a history that was hard to stomach—all of these things wound their way into my poetry collection. (The fact that AJ rescued me from a roach-infested apartment across the way, inviting me to live in hers, is a testament to the sort of people that that program attracted...or maybe to Seattle where AJ had recently lived...or to the Greeks who are AJ's people...).

In any case, I could do a little commercial for University of Alabama's MFA program right here (the optional fourth year they offer, the so-cool-you-want-to-eat-it literary magazine the Black Warrior Review, their awesome reading series, the visiting writer's program, and the quality of the other students you are in workshop with), but I won't.

What happened to me at grad school could happen to anyone at any creative writing program;

1) I read novels for homework. And poetry collections. And I wrote papers. And stories. And poems. And essays. (I also got introduced to the work of some writers who changed the way I wrote. Too numerous to mention here in full, but here are a few that come to mind: Janet Kauffman, Alice Notley, Tomaz Salamun, and Larissa Szporluk, to name just a few.)

2) I got to be an editor in chief of a literary magazine (I mean, come on, CHIEF, in my title? It was a dream come true...).

3) I had TIME (this was KEY for me...just the time) to figure out what I liked and why I liked it, and then change my mind.

4) I got to experiment and write badly and even, mid-stream, change genres.

5) I met some people who I have been friends with since and are some of the most important people in my life.

6) I became a teacher!

7) I became a writer.

7a) Graced one semester with a fellowship, I was only required to teach one class, and, being finished with my class credits, I was able to just write. And I wrote daily. I'd never done that before. And I haven't done it since. Not like that. But that laid the foundation, and was the first time I really felt like a writer. First time I wasn't doing it for anyone else, that I wasn't just writing in my journal anymore. I was learning a craft. A craft! I started to enjoy how my mind worked—especially when I was sitting at my desk with my notebook. I started to think: maybe I can do this. For a long time. Maybe forever.

7b) I'm still doing it.

7c) There were some years after grad school that I didn't write at all, and wondered if I ever would. It was when I stopped worrying about being "literary" that I started to write the work that would make me the most proud. But I never would have written that stuff unless I'd had my experience in school to write against.

Self-discovery (the most non-literary word there is) is really what happened. Who I was, my values, my beliefs (about God, love, staying alive or not staying alive), the downfalls in my own character—these all became unseparate from the poetry i was writing. Writing wasn't a thing I was doing. It just was. And is. And ever. And I'm so glad.


Russ said...

Glad to know that all of this internal process went on in Tuscaloosa, along the banks of the Black Warrior River...

mariegauthier said...

I like lists, too, and this is a great one. Very glad to have met your blog!

(word verification: tines)

CLK said...

Found your blog through "She Writes." Thanks for discussing your MFA experiences. After a disastrous creative writing experience in college, I've been wary about taking classes again (cowardice on my part, I know). Your posts helped me think about this process in a much more constructive way. So, thanks!

Emily said...

Laura - Thank you so much for posting this three-part blog. Your experiences with CW classes ring very true for me, and your list of what you got from the MFA mirrors what I am hoping to get from mine.

And, also, it made me grin to see you mention Larissa Szporluk. She started teaching at Bowling Green toward the end of my time there, and although I never got to take a class with her, I've met her and heard her read more than once, and she is fantastic!

Anyway, thanks again for posting this!

isadora's-window said...

Hi Laura,
Great post about writing programs. I didn't write for a year after I graduated from mine...I turned to former creative work, knitting, making accessories. It was fun, not in the head, practical, too.
Now, I'm back to writing particularly enjoying blogging.

esbboston said...

I just finished Steven King's non-fic 'On Writing: Memoirs of the craft' - I highly recommend it.

I will have to send a note to my frog friend about frog pictures, she will get a kick out of them.

Thanks for sharing your MFA experience. I constantly experiment with a wide variety of writing, fic and non-fic, it is really just cool even to chronicle your own life and then spread your wings and cover the area of your family members then work and keep branching out. That is how I started writing 10 years ago mainly to one pen-pal who was actually a friend much longer ago from childhood. Writing just evolves. It helps me to constantly re-read my older material.