To MFA or Not: VONA Newsletter

My lovely co-editor of VONA/Voices’ Newsletter, Vanessa Mártir, asked several MFA-ers the old age question: to MFA or not?

Here are my answers. I’m still catching up after AWP–my mind’s still in a weird funk and I’m trying hard to put everything together, especially thesis–so, I will eventually write a post-AWP blog post. I hope. I may not. But I think this will suffice for now. I’m ending my MFA soon and I really needed to write this out (to process my thoughts, to decompress, to answer my own obsessive questioning: ‘Why I’m here at Mills?’).

Lastly, if you are thinking about getting an MFA, I hope this helps. I sincerely, sincerely do.

Did you attend a low residency or full time MFA program?
I’m at Mills College’s MFA program (full-time) as the Community Engagement Fellow.

What genre do you primarily work in?
Fiction.

Why did you decide on pursuing an MFA?
I had a lot of reasons, but mainly I wanted an MFA for the intensified time to write. I say this to be specific: even out of my MFA program, I wrote. But I did not write the way I did at Mills. It was a time of intense apprenticeship, and apprenticeship with books. With workshopping. With giving to others, with receiving from others. It was about community, about choosing my own community within the task and love of writing. When I first came to Mills, I also had the naive notion of affirmation. I say this to be honest: a lot of folks probably want an MFA to have the “thumbs up” that we’re writers. I wanted to prove I was a writer. But at Mills, I was unraveled. My needs, my want of affirmation, my desire to be “seen” via writing broke when I read two–three books a week and wrote under the influence of masters before me. I felt as if I was in communication with a nonlinear, non-sequential space of literature, of art, of people who wrote about the things that broke and upended me. There was a part of me that wanted to teach–because I know I have always been a teacher–and I got to do that, through my community fellowship. But most of all, I came to Mills to write. And write is what I did.

Why did you choose the program you attended? What were the deciding factors?
I chose Mills for several reasons, but the main one was this: VONA and community. I thought going to Mills would be a reflection of my time at VONA, but I was dead wrong. It was so different, drastically different, but different in a very benefiting way. I was challenged. I also came to Mills as the first fully-funded Narrative Writing & Community Engagement Fellow (I shortened it above because it’s too damn long), and honestly, I would not have gained as much as I did if it weren’t for the fellowship. The funding was important, yes. But the history of the California landscape and the manongs (Filipino farmworkers) who came here and worked the soil impacted my writing like a retracting ocean. The Filipino community I worked with here challenged me in every way possible, in terms of my writing, my military marriage, my process of decolonization, and my awareness of my traumatized body, of my halved self, of my fractured history. My writing exploded under the pressures of the land, the history, the repressed memories. I’m really happy I came to Mills for this.

How did you fund your MFA? Did you get a fellowship, teach, pay out of pocket?
I funded my MFA with the Community Engagement fellowship, but I also had a second income. I’m married to a U.S. Sailor, a Nuclear Machinist Mate. What is that, you ask? It means he works in a huge reactor on an aircraft carrier and was gone for most of my MFA. I highly recommend this (moving across country without your spouse to write was the smartest thing I’ve ever done). But funding: yes. I taught in community workshops. You can see documentation of my work here: www.tayoliterarymag.com/community

Knowing what you know now, what advice would you offer someone: a) unsure if they should pursue an MFA?, b) deciding what program to choose?
a) I think you really have to be sure if you want an MFA. Because you sincerely do not have to have one to write. I know many successful writers who do not have an MFA and are incredibly successful (Nayomi Munaweera, Amina Gautier, Juliana Spahr–to name a few). And getting an MFA is smart depending on so many variables. For me, it was the right choice because: 1) I am a military wife. My husband was deployed. I needed time to craft my writing. The timing (timing is so important) was right for me. 2) I had enough funding. Mills would not be the right choice for someone else, especially if that someone did not have a secondary income or a situation that could blanket the extra costs of the Bay Area (it’s expensive to live here). But for the small amount I paid to live here, it was worth it. I made it work.

P.S. An MFA won’t provide success. An MFA won’t guarantee publications in journals or invitations to readings, panels, conferences. But during my time at Mills, I did enter a world where writing was at the forefront of everyone’s palate, where literature was as important as food on the table. I was invited to fantastic readings, to engaging panels, to overwhelming but fun conferences (looking at you, AWP). Second to New York, the Bay Area’s literature scene is intoxicating (in a good way), and the meshing of different MFA programs, different reading series, different/intersecting cultural groups provided me with the framework and mindscape to continue my work. After my first semester at Mills, I finally ‘finished’ a story I was working on for 2.5 years ‘outside’ of the MFA world. That following spring, I won Glimmer Train’s Fiction Open. I feel weird saying this, because it seems like I’m selling myself. But I’m not trying to. I just know that if it weren’t for Mills, if it weren’t for the books I was reading during that first semester, or the conversations I was having with my fellow writers and professors, or the work I was doing late into the night, I wouldn’t have been able to finish that story. I worked hard. The MFA didn’t provide any magic. It was still work.

b) If you get into a program with full-funding and professors you want to work with, go there. It’s a great program. But if you are in a particular situation like me, go somewhere where the community ‘outside’ your MFA program can bleed into your work. Make sure you’re happy, too, with the city you’re moving to. Challenge yourself. Write. It will be okay. Wherever you go, you will write. And that’s what matters.

– Did you encounter issues being a person of color in your program? Can you tell us about this and how you handled it. (This has been discussed at length at VONA. I’ve heard horror stories of people’s work being workshopped where craft is ignored and instead the work is judged for the characters, etc. Junot shared that at a workshop at Cornell, a professor asked him when he was going to start writing “real character.”) What advice would you offer someone who has or will potentially encounter this?
Pick your battles. During my first workshop at Mills, I was surprised that I was the only POC in the fiction cohort, whereas the poetry cohort had a ton of wonderful, brown folks. One of my fellow fiction workshoppers made a racist comment on one of my stories, insinuating that “American” meant only “white folks.” I brought this to my white professor who did agree with me. The fellow workshopper then acted like he was a victim, like I somehow attacked him, like what I said was offensive, and I had taken his comment the wrong way. I just had to let it go. There was no point to hammer something that wasn’t going to help either of us. Later on, in other workshops and classes, I had a few white classmates who said, “I don’t feel like I can comment on race because I’m white.” I was surprised at this kind of comment, because, well, after moving from one of the Bible Belt states to the Bay Area, I thought my conversations about race wouldn’t be so charged. But instead, they were–they became harder.

So, like I said: pick your battles. Continue the work. Write. Give feedback. Give great feedback because you learn more as you give. Write. Find community outside the MFA program and within. Write. Read. Think about your work. Think about creating something that is of your highest self. Think: timeless. I think that’s the best advice I’ve gotten from a professor, and in the beginning I reacted against it. Timeless, to me, sounded too hard–too much pressure. But art-making is about that, isn’t it? Putting yourself under pressure. Putting yourself against the fire. Writing until the light goes out, till the light comes back in. Write. Write. Write. With an MFA or not. Write.

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