Tag Archives: MFA

The MFA: I’m running like our cat

We have a sweet and wonderful cat, a stray who lived near my old writing studio. I gathered her up one chilly November day several years ago  — she was sweet and affectionate even when she was skinny and shivering — and brought her home to join the chaos. She has a loud purr and will nip your calves when her dish has been too empty for too long. And she loves to sit in and on suitcases. Packing for a trip? Plan an extra ten minutes to vacuum the fur off the bag. Returning from a trip? If you don’t close the suitcase after emptying it, she will sleep in it all day long.

And this cat loves to snuggle up next to my husband when we do our daily meditation sit. Ok, it’s not every day, but we try. The 17 y.o. sits in the big yellow chair, the 14 y.o. & I settle on the couch and hubby sits on a zabuton cushion and the cat, no matter where she is in the house, curls up next to him. She purrs and purrs and purrs and purrs.

Meditating kitty.

Meditating kitty. And hubby.

But last night there was an open suitcase in the foyer. She had leapt into it, settled and purred and fallen asleep. Well, we said, no cat on the zabuton tonight. We all sat down and we set the timer and … there was a gentle kerthump as the cat jumped from the suitcase and then ran — sprinted — to sit with my husband. Seriously.

Please indulge me as I now sally forth into extended-metaphor-land.  In this metaphor, I am the cat, my life is the suitcase and the snuggling-while-meditating is my writing. I like my life. It has comfy places to sit and I like to sit and write. And when the Warren Wilson low-residency MFA program offered me a place in their program I of course happily accepted.

And here’s what surprised me: I had no idea I would want to sprint to an MFA program. I love writing and my application obviously was an indicator that I’d want to enter the program. But when I began listening to some of Warren Wilson’s downloadable craft lectures, I shifted from “this will be good,” to “this is what I have wanted to do and didn’t even know it holy cow I can’t wait!” An entire hour of lecture about the semicolon! An hour and a half on internal versus external turning points in fiction and poetry! When I described the bliss I experienced while listening to these lectures, the 14 y.o. said, “You’re kidding, right?” and I squealed, “No! No! I am not kidding. I get to study this stuff for TWO WHOLE YEARS!” He was aghast. I was giddy.

It’s a bit weird that our cat runs to sit with us during meditation. Loving to think about and talk about semicolons is a bit weird. (OK, maybe a lot weird.) But I am looking forward, with an almost animalistic delight, to immersion in this new-to-me writing community. Long live the weird!

May you find and run to your (little bit weird) delight today, too.

Mama’s mocha

Bollo's!

Bollo’s!

It is no secret that my favorite coffeeshop is Bollo’s. It’s my favorite for lots of different reasons: its long, narrow floor plan (I can hide at a back table for productivity, or sit up front for socializing — half the town, the interesting half, comes into Bollo’s). It’s my favorite because of their oat fudge bars, and the music (staff-chosen and thus never-the-same, and never canned), and the scattering of magazines (Food and Wine, Good Housekeeping, Gourmet, Traveler) and the long church pews that run down the western wall, and the exposed brick and the fragrance that floats from the back, of baking bread and Thursday there’s danish and Friday’s  cinnamon rolls are the size of a toddler’s head. Mostly it’s my favorite because the mocha is a teensy bit different, every time I order it.

Starbucks and other chains pride themselves on providing customers the same experience no matter where they are. A Starbucks mocha in Middlebury should be the same as a Starbucks mocha in Miami. And for the most part, it is. And I love all my mocha brethren, hallelujah.

But in Bollo’s, depending on who’s behind the counter pulling espresso shots, I know I’ll get a subtly different drink. When it’s Yasmin, it’s perfectly bittersweet. When it’s Felicia, it’s perfectly balanced. When it’s Renee, it’s perfectly hot. Each of their mochas is perfectly perfect.

Tea, magazines ...

Tea, magazines …

Mochas are on my mind because the latest Poets & Writers has all sorts of information about MFA programs, and in my brief perusal of its articles and advertisements, I found myself thinking: the vocabulary used to market these programs could be the basis for an excellent drinking game. How many pages before we see the word deepen? Or inspired, supportive, strengthen, world-renowned, community, or distinguished? We’ll be tipsy before we get past the table of contents, and buying total strangers a morning-after mocha by page 33. It strikes me that creative writing degrees — or at least the marketing for them  — are like a Starbucks mocha: excellent basic product but the same product, everywhere.

I have a nagging suspicion that the marketing is, in part, aimed at people who write but don’t feel they can claim the title of writer because they lack an MFA. And/or because they’re not published. And/or because they have no desire to be published [gasp] — they’re writing for themselves or their families, so they’re not “really” writers. The list of reasons these folks aren’t writers is pretty long. If they have published but they aren’t famous, they’re not writers. If they have published but they don’t make any money at it, they’re not writers. If they don’t want to publish, it’s just a little thing I dabble with …. If they “just” keep a journal, they’re not writers.

But what else to call someone who writes, who writes for their own reasons, who writes to discern their reasons, to name, to mourn, to celebrate, to untangle?

A writer is someone who writes.

In many ways, it doesn’t matter what brings us to the page or empty screen, or who will read those words. If we lay our words down across that blank expanse, whether we leave a faint trail of our selves, or a swath of trampled ferns, we’re claiming our place in the world, giving shape to our lives as writers.

Now, if we want your words to resonate with an audience beyond ourselves or our families, we’ll probably have to work on the craft of writing — and there’s lots of good books for that, and non-MFA-affiliated groups. And MFA programs. Steve Almond has a lot to say about why MFA programs are a good thing.

Writing is not a Starbucks mocha. It’s a personality-infused, slightly-different-every-time-but-perfect-every-time mocha. It’s what we make of it, not what anyone else tells us we should make of it.

back of bollo'sWrite if you love to write. Do with it what you want.

Make your very own mocha.