Last Autumn, in my first writing workshop, I joked that the difference between a Master of Information Technology and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) is I can do my MFA homework while resting in my hammock. While that statement is true (at least in the waning days of summer), its levity doesn’t do justice to the challenges faced by fiction writers muddling through a semester of creative writing.
When studying IT, I worked in small multi-lingual teams, interviewed clients, wrote code, created dynamic statistical models, assembled PCs, loaded myriad operating systems, and networked hardware into LANs and WANs. We didn’t do all-nighters. We did all-week-enders. We set sleep set aside in the pursuit of teaching a machine to do what we wanted.
More than a decade later, I decided to pursue an MFA in Fiction writing at the University of New Hampshire (UNH), fitting two classes per term around full-time work. That first semester, afghan-wrapped in my hammock, I read Chekhov and O’Connor, short stories from the New Yorker and Glimmer Train, and stories by my peers. More than 100 pages per week, each story read at least two times. After that, with limited knowledge of craft, I wrote three critiques per week, suggesting improvements to my peers’ narratives, stories which awed and humbled me. Creative tales, dynamic characters with inspiring internal conflict, and descriptions so lovely and brutal and pertinent.
Then, cowed with self-doubt it was my turn. Settings, characters, plot, external and internal conflict, scenes, dialog, climax and epiphany, all must weave together into a coherent tale to entertain and enlighten. My first term, the stories rolled out. Not easily, but they found me and two are now almost ready to circulate. The second term, nothing. I was immobilized. It seemed that all my classmates wrote beautiful sentences, coherent paragraphs, killer first lines, and deep emotions. Me? Nothing. Nada. Nill.
That is the true challenge of an MFA in Fiction Writing. In IT, if I worked hard and asked questions, I accomplished my tasks. There were right answers (many of them in fact) and wrong answers. There was no gray. Fiction writing is black, white, gray, and all the colors of a sun-shower rainbow. Sometimes you have to sit in a chair for hours, or even days, and write gibberish. Then suddenly a character steps forward and says Fine. Write my story. But I’m not going to make it easy for you. At that point you latch on and go for the ride, never quite sure where the character is taking you.
At least that’s what I’m supposed to do, but my analytical brain doesn’t enjoy the ride. It wants to know who is this person? Where is he taking us? Why should we go? What’s the purpose? Shouldn’t we be outside weeding and raking and generally leading a more productive life?
Bottom line? When I’m not writing I’m not happy. It’s part of who I am. Whether or not I write a story worth publication, I do it because I must. Participating in UNH’s MFA program surrounds me with others grappling with similar assaults on their self-confidence. We nudge each other forward, share our rejections, applaud our successes, and despite spending hours alone in a room with imaginary people, we discover real people who’ve got our backs.
Featured short story from UNH MFA candidate Rachel Bullock: Love Birds.