The Grit and Guilt of an MFA Life

When I was an undergraduate and then graduate student at UCF, I was very involved. Very. I was president of Cypress Dome Society, associate editor of The Cypress Dome, Florida Review Managing Editor, Writing Center consultant, and instructor of creative writing and English Composition. I served on the AWP Pedagogy Team, as well.

I spent hours in the tiny Florida Review office with fellow editors, and a common theme was that we were dancing as fast as we could, but our legs couldn’t keep up.

I had proudly defended an Honor’s thesis as an undergrad. When it came time to write the graduate thesis, I froze. I drank too much coffee. I watched too much People’s Court. I invested too much of myself in service to the university.

The experiences were valuable, and so were the friendships I forged. You know what wasn’t valuable? The worry. All that dancing. The fear of failure. The feeling that—let alone my writing—would never be good enough.

My advice to those in the progress of earning their MFAs is to pick one thing you care about in addition to writing and fling yourself into that thing. Love it, even. Knit it a sweater. And then go home. Crush a mint leaf between your teeth. Do push-ups in mud. Play the flute. Pet your cats. Hug your family members and laugh at stupid jokes.

I was in school with someone who had been to war. “Why are the grad students so worried all the time?” he asked. I was immediately offended—”Because these are our lives!”—but he had a point. He had perspective.

Without perspective, there is nothing to see. For me, if I don’t see, I can’t write.

I successfully defended my collection of essays in 2007. I landed a job teaching at a university. I had connections. I had aspirations.

And then I got sick.

I’m saving the details for my memoir, but suffice it to say that—cliché as it may be—everything changed. The world spun backward.

I’m not the best role model because I feel like I don’t write often enough. I have excuses, such as my illness. It’s hard to have perspective on the hurricane when you’re in the middle of it. I’m not ready to spill my illness onto the page.

For fun, I tried my hand at form poetry. I wrote twenty pantoums. I escaped for a while, and I enjoyed it.

I try to relieve myself of guilt when I am not writing. I am jealous of the MFA life I imagine others have, but I’m so glad to be relieved of the pressure. With the skills I learned in writing while living during the MFA program—should there really be a balance?— I have learned what freedom feels like.

Maybe one day I’ll be able to write my story. I desperately hope so, but hope doesn’t get me to the desk. I teach, which I love to do. (Teaching isn’t for everyone.) I jump onto the stage at poetry slams. I enjoy the company of other writers.

They inspire me. You, MFA students, inspire me. Just please promise me you’ll trade the feeling of worried computer keys beneath fingertips for the cool grit of dirt every now and then.

Written by: Catherine Carson

Photo and Bio Coming Soon


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