Starting my MFA as a 44-year-old mother and teacher during a global pandemic has been a trip. Is there ever a right time to do anything? Or a wrong time? I suppose you never really know until you throw yourself in and see. So far, my decision to attend CSU has turned out to be one of the most life-giving choices I could have made.
I have been a writer for a long time, and I waffled about whether I needed an MFA or if I should just keep writing on my own. I read posts online that claimed you can DIY your MFA, and who doesn’t like a good DIY project? So that’s what I did, initially. I read widely, participated in a monthly writing workshop group, attended writing conferences like AWP, signed up for workshops at my local literary center, published some writing in literary journals, and squeezed writing into my life when I had time. I regularly met up with writer friends for coffee, beers, and long walks where we talked about books and in-progress essays and memoirs.
And I still wanted to earn an official MFA from a university, which was kind of hard to explain to people since I already had a satisfying writing life.
A quick search for “Should I get an MFA in Creative Writing” on the Internet will reveal that people have strong feelings about whether or not one needs an MFA or if it’s “worth it.” These arguments about the MFA heat up quickly, similar to those I read about breastfeeding my baby, or trying to figure out how to get him to go to sleep when he was tired—co-sleep or cry it out—or whether or not kids should have toy guns. (I dare you to post about these topics on a mommy blog, but brace yourself. The conversation will turn ugly.)
Nobody can tell you what is right for you, your baby, or your writing life. Those things are personal.
As for the MFA, I had a gut feeling that going back to school was right for me, and that was enough. The degree might (or might not) help my career. I decided not to focus on the outcome, since I couldn’t control it. I would pursue the MFA with some vague sense that it might create future opportunities, while also feeling okay if it didn’t lead to a promotion or book deal or increase my job mobility. I would commit to my writing and be part of a sustained community of serious writers. That was the only sure thing, and that is what I wanted.
The CSU MFA program, even after one semester, has offered many gifts. It’s hard to narrow it down to just a few, but here’s my attempt.
Top Five Gifts of the MFA Experience (So Far)
- You don’t have to home school yourself. I never realized how much energy I put into setting writing goals, seeking out accountability partners, finding workshops, hiring a writing coach, networking, searching for and applying for residencies or mentorship programs, and participating in writer-centered Facebook and Twitter banter. Even with all that effort, I still felt like I was missing something important.In the MFA program, I feel this strange sense of surrender. Maybe a better way to say that is I feel cared for. There’s a curriculum designed by ridiculously smart and successful writers. Every day, I follow them into the far corners of their minds. They introduce me to books, authors, and ideas that I hadn’t discovered on my own. I select the classes I want to take and can trust the professors to lead the way.
Even outside of class, the program has many structures in place to help students engage as members of the larger writing community including the Creative Writing Reading Series, small-group brown bags with the guest authors, funding for travel and conferences, pedagogy workshops, publishing internships, and mini-writing retreats. Students get the benefit of all of the university-wide programs and resources too like the library, campus clubs, mentorship programs, career resources, and additional funding. This wasn’t something I’d fully considered before applying.
- Ridiculously smart people are literally waiting to help right when you need it. It’s no big deal to ask for help. Professors have set office hours and wait for students to show up to talk about their work in progress. Better yet, these professors have started to get to know my work already, so I don’t have to start the conversation at the very beginning every time. They are kind and lovely people who give generous and honest feedback. They listen to me talk through my ideas and give advice on how to proceed.They talk me off the ledge when my grand ambition blocks my progress. In a conference this semester, one of my professors said, “You don’t have to do everything at once, Nicole.” I almost cried on Zoom because I was overwhelmed, and the statement affirmed the difficulty of what we were all doing—trying to make art during the 2020 election cycle, during the pandemic, while working from home full time, and while parenting a young kiddo. Instead, I focused on small steps toward the larger goal, and everything worked out just fine, just as she said it would.
- People tell the truth that nobody’s told you before. Let’s face it. We all have some habits that we need to break in our writing, but we sometimes don’t even know we have these habits (yet). The professors and peers in the MFA program help me kindly and gently see that I do this thing in my writing that pushes the reader away. They have the language and the experience to frame it and help me overcome it over time.
- Acceleration and Accountability. For me, the DIY approach to the MFA allowed me to avoid my writing whenever I wanted to, including when it was hard or scary or when I was not feeling inspired to write. There were no boundaries around my writing time. I could always do it later. This “flexibility” slowed my progress. I had folders and folders of half-finished work, workshop feedback that I never applied, and a shelf of half-read books. The MFA program has forced me to push through all of my self-loathing and get my butt in the chair, to finish what I start, believe in myself and my work, and to contribute to the community of writers.Maybe you’re someone who’s self-driven to the extreme, but I think most writers agree that deadlines help productivity. The regular deadlines have helped me develop good habits and stay connected to my work. Pardon the terrible sports metaphor, but the MFA has been like the two-a-day basketball practices at the beginning of a new basketball season or couch-to-marathon training. It’s a process. I have seen and felt some progress already. I have worked harder on my writing than ever before and pushed through the discomfort. This hard work has made me feel insanely proud of myself.
- Consistency and Sustained Community: At CSU, the smart people mentioned in #2, both professors and peers, will be following my work for three years. They will know my project and can send me resources about queer placemaking, Midwest queer cultural geographies, and LGBT civil rights movements in the U.S. I can help my peers in this same way. We have this structure in place—this promise of sustained support. It is a privilege to get to be an integral part of my peers’ book projects. I care about their work. It energizes and inspires me. They make me want to try harder.The people here at CSU say, “You’re brilliant. This is going to be a great book.” They mean it. And they are not afraid to keep reminding you. This is going to be a great book. This is going to be a great book. Before long, you start to believe it yourself.
So, even if starting an MFA during a pandemic sounds utterly ridiculous, it’s unequivocally been the right choice for me. I feel supported and cared for, and this gives me more energy to devote to the writing and learning that matters most to me. I’m happy to be here now, in this world, with these people, doing this work.
Nicole Piasecki is a first-year creative nonfiction candidate.