Why I Sold Out: From MFA to JD

I’m a traitor. Yes, my fellow Orlandoans, I hate to start us on such awful terms, but it’s true. I came to your city fresh out of college—full of Midwestern pride and armed with a serious resentment for the city that was taking me from Chicago. But, I fell in love. Quickly. I loved the way I learned to discern the minutiae of changes in temperature—how 88 degrees would leave me a drenched, sweaty mess the second I opened my car door, but 86 degrees had me remarking that it felt chilly when we’d get out of class at night. I loved how I didn’t have to feel guilty if I didn’t spend each nice day outside because there would always be another beautiful, warm day right after it. In Chicago, I’d shame myself into spending the whole day outside if I saw even a glimpse of sun because who knew when that would ever happen again?

I loved how the cool girl with the southern accent found my email through the class website’s roster and encouraged me to come to the MFA Welcome Back Barbecue, and how the professors cared about us all as writers and individuals. I loved the books I was reading, the way each assignment had me mulling over possibilities for my thesis, the way us students always managed to come together over good wine or craft beer and discuss our art, and the way those conversations made me feel like it all really meant something. Yes, I loved Orlando and my time in the MFA program. I loved it so much that the day after my thesis director/fairy godmother Terry Thaxton used the word “grace” to describe my writing and me as a person when she introduced me at my final graduate reading, I went and got that word tattooed on my arm.

And then I left. To go to law school. Law school! I know. I’m the ultimate sellout. I wavered between a law degree and a PhD in creative writing, but as the law school offers started to pour in, it became pretty clear I was going to jump ship.

“Are you sure?” Terry asked me over breakfast at my last AWP.

I was. I’d seen too many of my now close friends complete the MFA and burn themselves out with adjunct jobs that paid next to nothing and didn’t leave any time for writing, anyway. I knew myself well enough to know that no matter how badly I wished otherwise, the “starving artist” lifestyle wasn’t for me.

It wasn’t the first time I’d come right up against this decision. As an undergrad, I spent hours in my creative writing professor’s office torn between getting an MFA and going to law school. She’d earned her MFA and PhD at University of Iowa and studied with more accomplished writers than I could even name. And still, she told me she always wished she’d gone to law school. When I asked why, her response was simple:

“There are such great stories in law,” she said.

And she was right. During my first year, I read stranger-than-fiction cases about stolen Warhol paintings and roommates engaged in bow and arrow standoffs. My classmates also provide endless character inspiration—the guy I met during the first week of classes who told me I was lucky to have ended up in Atlanta because my lack of a proper Southern family name would cast me as a pariah in any other city in the South, or the girl who hid under a desk for an entire lecture to avoid being cold-called in her Contracts class.

Even though I’m surrounded with all this great writing material, there is no time to think about my writing during the school year. I don’t even have time to feel guilty about the thesis that rivals the size of some of my biggest law books, which sits on the floor in my bedroom and does little more than serve as a resting place for my cats.

I used to carry a small notebook with me to jot down images, quotes, and story ideas as I walked city streets, rode trains, and sat in classes. Now, it’s rare that I have to stop what I’m doing because the creative impulses just aren’t as frequent anymore. But in those rare stretches of time when I’m not completely overwhelmed by my courseload, I return to my writing with a ferocity and hunger that surprises me. Creativity is an impulse that can’t be stifled long and I find myself jotting ideas like I used to. I’ve learned to be productive in these spurts and I come back with fresh eyes each time. It’s not ideal, but it’s a comfort to know that I’ll always make time to write and that the time and distance alone will be invaluable to my perspective on the material.

Over the next few years, when I’ll still have very limited time to devote to my writing life, the skills I learned during my MFA have been way more useful in law school than I would have expected. Below are some of the biggest ways in which the MFA prepared me:

The Importance of Time Management: Keeping up with reading a couple of books each week, completing pastiches or response papers, submitting pieces for workshop, providing thoughtful peer reviews, and accomplishing all of this while compiling a thesis in the span of two years definitely helped prepare me to juggle five reading-intensive courses with the hundreds of other things a law student is expected to accomplish at any given time. Each week, I map out the amount of reading I have for each course as well as my other obligations and block out the hours needed for each task on my calendar. While I was never that meticulous during grad school, the MFA taught me how to prioritize and juggle many conflicting obligations in a way that allowed me to stay afloat in an accelerated program.

Seeing Things from Different Perspectives: In my writing, I was always trying to imagine the motivations and thoughts of every character in a given scene. A lot of my essays focused on perception and the ways people present themselves publicly compared to their secrets and veiled insecurities. This practice of spending time in the mind of the other parties has been great in preparing for oral arguments or on exams where anticipating counterarguments will earn you big points. Many students are quick to form opinions and a one-sided argument, but are tripped up if an opponent asks a question about the other side of the argument. For me, taking the time to consider all possible motivations and perspectives and delving into character development during the MFA has made my ability to see both sides of the argument an instinctual response. Even the quick mention of an argument that the other side may raise is a sure way to add points to any exam.

Attention to Detail and Analysis: I couldn’t even estimate how many times I read through my thesis in the months before my defense, checking for errors and making sure each detail furthered the themes I had sought to explore. I spent each week in the program practicing a type of reading I had never been great at: analyzing each stylistic, tonal, structural choice of an author’s work. You live or die by analysis on law school exams, and misreading even the smallest detail (seriously… something as simple as missing a comma in the wording of a will changes the meaning entirely) can be disastrous. Training my eye on these details in the MFA has helped significantly.

Sheer Endurance: The weekend before my thesis was due, I locked myself in and didn’t move from my dining room table until I’d finished the five essays needed to complete the collection. During my first year of law school, I logged more twelve-hour days in the library than I could’ve ever anticipated. Most of my exams are four-hour writing sprees that determine your entire grade in the course. The ability to organize my thoughts quickly and coherently as well as write for long stretches of time has given me a huge upper hand in terms of how much I can accomplish in the same finite period of time as my peers. In fact, my friends have made a game at the completion of each final by guessing how many more pages of analysis I was able to type than them, and many of them refuse to sit by me in the exam room because I begin typing too soon and too furiously compared to those around me.

Maybe I like to torture myself, or maybe it’s that damn creative impulse that won’t go away, but my hope is to work in house for a publisher to consult authors on potential legal issues in their manuscripts, so I haven’t forgotten about all of you beautiful, creative people. The great thing about the law is that it’s such an expansive field; there’s surely a way to unite your creative and academic interests into a rewarding career, which is what I hope to do.

I know that I won’t be able to give my writing the attention it deserves until I’m finished with school and settled into a career, but I have hope that the time I’m devoting to challenging myself in different avenues and the perspective I’ll have on the events I tackled in my thesis will only make my writing stronger. I’ll continue to make time to write when I can, but in the meantime I’ll read books and the works of fellow talented MFAers and always find the beauty in Creative Writing. So if you’re like me and can’t hack the writing lifestyle (which, seriously, those of you who do, I so admire and envy your dedication), just know that the skills you acquire during your MFA will be useful no matter what and that creative fire that pushed you to pursue this crazy path in the first place will never burn out.

image1Ashlee Bowcott is a rising 2L at Georgia State University College of Law where she teaches first year legal writing as a Graduate Research Assistant, which is totally not as exciting as teaching creative writing. Originally from Chicago, she moved to Orlando and completed an MFA from University of Central Florida in 2015. Her nonfiction appears in Catfish Creek and the anthology How Long Will I Cry?: Voices of Youth Violence. Ashlee is a baseball enthusiast and has been known to bring her homework to games. She currently lives in Atlanta, but looks forward to returning to the waterfront as soon as she’s done with school, whether it be Lake Michigan in Chicago or the Gulf in Florida.

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