One of the things that most separates my MFA experience from the workshops I’ve taken before, from undergraduate to conferences to private classes at literary centers or what have you, is voice. At all of the places but the MFA, your writing is either a thing that supplements the rest of your experience, or you just don’t have enough time to really sink into everything. Here at CSU, you have three years where your writing comes first. You take other classes besides the workshop, of course, but the object you are encouraged to see everything else through is your art. As a result, of both time and work, I feel I’ve gotten to know my colleagues and classmates just as much by reading their fiction as I do through interacting with them.
Yet I cannot deny this troubles me, at least a little bit. Of the stories I have read so far in my workshop, the stories have had autobiographical elements, both in time and place. In contrast, the two stories I’ve turned in are as far from my lived-in experience as possible, being set decades, even millennia before I was born, thousands of miles from any place I’ve been, with characters like nobody I’ve ever met and events as far from my life as it’s possible to imagine.
This isn’t a judgment of my peers, and it’s not tooting my own horn either. Rather, it’s something which has made me re-examine my own skills and personal style. In art and writing, I’ve always been impressed by range and ambition rather than specifics: I prefer David Mitchell to Philip Roth, Thomas Pynchon to Thomas Wolfe, Lily Tuck to Anne Tyler. My writing had reflected this, but I’ve wondered, as I’ve been reading other people’s stories and workshopping my own, if I’m going about this all wrong. Should I first know myself? Am I misjudging what my gifts are? Am I writing the things I am, stories that don’t identify as a “Henry Dykstal story” because I don’t know who Henry Dykstal really is?
These are real questions worth asking, but it could also be that I’m overthinking it. I know what I like, in both fiction and myself, and I’m trying to achieve the best possible version of it. If I feel like I’m struggling, it’s only because I’ve chosen the hard path on purpose. But just because I know these things, doesn’t mean there aren’t things I can try differently. Maybe I should try to do something autobiographical, for instance. If my voice is about shapeshifting, why deny myself a shape?
Henry Dykstal is a first year MFA student in Fiction at CSU.