I have nothing to write about. I have no idea where to start. I have nothing to say and I’m not sure it matters anyway. Any of it.
These are your thoughts when you’re in an MFA program. Almost daily. After you’ve decided to uproot your life and take the not-so-easy route in life by “chasing your dreams,” as they say. But what happens when your dreams don’t really go the way that you intended them to go? It’s not that this is just a common thread among writers, I think it exists for most people. And those that don’t experience it, well, I hate you. But for the rest of the normal world, what happens when you sacrifice money and time and oftentimes emotional wellbeing to pursue an art that essentially guarantees you nothing in return? It’s like being John Cusack in Say Anything and holding that stereo over your head and making the grand gesture, only to have the girl turn you down and then post pictures of your vulnerability on social media mocking you. It sucks. Most days it sucks.
And then there are days when it sucks less. When you talk to other like-minded people, people who care about writing and reading and helping others and growing intellectually and contributing to the social conversation, moments that make you realize it’s going to pan out. Somehow. I guess the most important thing in adulthood is learning to live with the fact that these moments can be few and far between and you have to survive on the buzz that exists from each one of them until the next happens.
Master’s programs have a strange word they use for classmates, “cohorts.” I did not know this when I began. I heard it used a few times and just thought it was a coincidence, but it was used in a frequency that I realized must be purposeful. So we have these cohorts. It seems like a friendly term, but all it really means is a group of people with something in common. Okay, yes, we have a common plan to pursue something that we believe we are good at, yet is statistically unlikely to offer us a way of life. Perfect. But what do you do when your cohorts directly influence your craft and your growth? Because that’s what happens in a workshop setting. There is not a more popular (better) way to hone good writing than the workshop method, which means you write (on deadline) and submit it to your small group of peers (cohorts) and they respond (criticize).
This is great in theory. But as a group, just like in life, there are those that don’t see the world the same way that you do, or really see the world at all. How do you reconcile reading and responding to their work when it is clear that writing a journal (diary) would serve them (the world) just as well? And more than that, how do you take their critique seriously? Let me be clear, I am not complaining about dislike of workshop pieces or the quality of submitted work. I am sincerely questioning how a cohort that is working toward the same goal, while coming from such vastly different places of growth, can possibly work together. I want to know. I want to do this right. I don’t want to doubt every single choice that I make. I don’t want to write uninspired. I don’t want to read uninspired. I want things to mean something. That’s all I’ve ever wanted, and I think most writers do, too.
But there’s a disconnect. Somewhere. Somewhere between the excitement of taking a chance on something and the real world practice of taking a chance on something, the disdain hangs in the balance. And yet, people do it and succeed.
There has been a lot of conversation about the value and place in the literary community of MFA programs as of late. Ryan Boudinot wrote a piece that received a lot of passionate feedback about his time teaching at an MFA. While his points may be a touch reductive and harsh at times, what he says is essentially advice for society as a whole: It is what you make it. You get out what you put in. This gives the writer control that you can’t take lightly. Which is why I continue to question the experience and the best way to pursue the value of the education. You read. You write. You read more. You write more. And (hopefully) you become a better citizen of art and of life.
Chicago is a great city for writers. Maybe the best (sorry, New York). But especially for small presses and supporting new writers, this city very literally gets behind any writer that has attended an MFA in the city or publishes with our many small presses. There are readings every night, everywhere just trying to applaud as many writers as we can. But there can’t be enough. And by that I mean, I wonder every day what my voice can add when there are talented writers all around me, all around the world. What will my voice add to the conversation? What stories even matter? Even if these writers are experiencing some modicum of success, even if I get published in The New Yorker, even if Random House pays me a million dollar advance for my novel idea, does it matter? Am I to believe we’re all just producing art for art’s sake, or am I just jaded?
If this experience is truly reliant upon what I make of it, then perhaps the cohort’s responsibility is one that doesn’t involve a cohort at all, but a singular responsibility of each member. If we each continue to strive toward our own meaning, finding it in various ways, then we can each be of value in our own right. Maybe more nights of simultaneously discussing the literary meaning and merit of Kiese Laymon’s How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America and David Markson’s Vanishing Point will push the conversation into a relevant dissection of where we each fit into the literary conversation. Maybe the buzz from those moments with the fellow readers and writers of the world is just fading. If that’s the case, I’ll have another, please, just keep them coming.