Surviving the MFA in Creative Writing: A guest post by Toni M. Todd

We stood at the edge of the dance floor, there in The Wolf Den, that last night of the MFA in Creative Writing residency at The University of Alaska-Anchorage. Program Director David Stevenson and I gazed upon the scene and marveled as students and faculty writhed, twisted and jumped in a frenzy of energetic release, an explosion of foolishness, so completely at ease with one another.

It’s become a ritual, this dance, our way of shaking off the intensity of nigh two weeks immersion into a viscous bowl of literary jello, where we tread to exhaustion, keeping our noses just high enough above the fruit cocktail to breathe. We are young, old and middled-aged, men and women, experienced writers and less-so. We come from all parts of the country, from disparate backgrounds. Dr. Stevenson smiled and said something like, “It’s such an accidental communion, so completely random.” Over the course of three summers, we’ve created a family of sorts, a nurturing cocoon, a place where each writer encourages and is encouraged, brought together by mutual adoration of the written word and a common, masochistic compulsion to put pen to paper. It’s a place we never want to leave.

That was July. This week, I spoke with a friend about the MFA experience and the community we’ve developed. He’s a successful author, this friend, one who’s been processed through the MFA mill and come out a fine writer on the other end. He’s a man whose opinion I respect and whose general good nature and wisdom I exploit often. (Like now, for instance.) Enjoy the support and camaraderie while you can, he urged. Wring it for every drop of motivation it will yield… Then came the blow. “Once you leave the program,” he said, “nobody will care whether or not you write one more word. Nobody.”

Ugh! I felt sucker punched. I stared at the screen. I conjured an image of those gleeful dancers. I’ve known all along that the writer’s life would be grueling and lonely. But these were my comrades in the literary trenches, my classmates and mentors; my people. They were writers, too. Surely they would care. I staggered around the house, rattled through a load of dishes in the sink, folded laundry from the dryer. He was right. Nobody who wasn’t getting paid, or for whom it was not a compulsory assignment to provide feedback, would care one wit whether I continued to write. Nobody.

That evening, still in a funk, I happened upon Anne Caston’s Savannah Blues blog entry, entitled Deep Thoughts in Dixie. Anne is a brilliant poet, teacher and friend. I always enjoy her blog, her poet’s lyrical sensibilities and that soft, subtle, southern style, seeping so beautifully into her prose. This entry, however, proved to be downright therapeutic.

Maybe I write, Anne says, because as the physical body fails and the soul’s dwelling-place washes down to almost-nothing-left now, it seems I still have words to serve as some little channel marker on the sea that indicates I was here, in this time, in this century, in this place or that. Here or there. Snooping around in the woods… Poking my nose into other people’s business… Every poem, every essay, every blog piece lets those who come after me know some things about who I was and the moment in history in which I lived my life…

See what I mean about lyrical sensibilities? It got me thinking about why I write, and again about my friend’s bold statement. Which of my classmates, I wondered, would never type another word after graduation, once there were no more mailings due, no looming creative thesis? I suspect some of the most gifted among us will toss their quills into the junk drawer. Others, the ones you might least expect, will persevere. They might even succeed. Maybe one or two will soar. Whether they become successful, best-selling authors or manage to finally publish a single piece in an obscure literary journal, the real writers among us, those with stories to tell and the tenacity to tell them, will do so, not for money or fame, not for approval of their peers, not because anyone cares whether they write or they don’t, but for the sake of the story itself, for posterity, for love of the written word.

If this essay seems a bit gloomy (and for those of you who know me, way out of character in that regard), let me clarify. I’m actually feeling pretty good now about my prospects for survival post MFA. In my decades on planet earth, I’ve learned that good friends don’t come along often in life, that people with whom we find a genuine affinity are few. This freak, dancing, literary-Alaskan family we’ve created at UAA is real, and the closest of friendships forged here will endure.

The writer’s life is disconsolate and arduous. Despite that, and upon a few moments’ self-reflection, I’m now confident, and just crazy enough to believe, that I will be one of those who writes on. I have stories to tell, stories I’ve found, and continue to find, like Anne, snooping and poking. I tell them for the sake of legacy, for the love of well-crafted sentences and interesting characters. It doesn’t matter that I’m not a genius, that I’m not the most talented wordsmith on the dance floor. It doesn’t matter that nobody cares whether I write a another word. I’ll write anyway, and hold tight to the belief that if I work hard and write well, maybe somebody, someday, will read them.

Toni Todd is a third-year fiction student at UAA’s MFA in Creative Writing program. She lives near Volcano, Hawaii with her husband and a menagerie of adopted cats and dogs.

5 thoughts on “Surviving the MFA in Creative Writing: A guest post by Toni M. Todd”

  1. I have read them today, Toni, and said, "Yes!" not just to what you wrote but to what a wonderful writer you are. I, too, danced on that floor but due to circumstance had never, until today, read a piece of your work. Thanks for these observations, these comments on purpose and reason. I may not agree with the graduate who says that no one will care if you write a word after graduation because I believe we continue to create community. 49 Writers is one. Post MFA people will be another. Teaching, in workshops or other venues, will gather more who care, in part, because they have come to appreciate your take on things – what you are saying as well as the hurrah for getting it into print.

  2. Toni! What a surprise to read today's blog at 49 Writers and to see your entry there. (And how humbled I was to read that those words on Deep Thoughts in Deep Dixie had encouraged you.)

    I think your friend is maybe just feeling the absence of that intensive experience that the MFA program is. It happens.

    But I don't believe for a minute that nobody will want to ever read another word. I WANT TO READ IT – and I don't get paid to read it either, remember.

    The world is filled with so much hardship and joy, I like to kiss the hem of it as it passes. And the only way to do that is to go out looking for the writings that capture the world as others know it. It is one of the great blessings of my life.

    As are you. Thank you. From my lyrical Southern heart. Anne

  3. Thanks, ladies. My cockles are so warmed right now I can hardly stand it. Or maybe it's just a hot flash. Either way, I'm thankful for and encouraged by your comments. Write on, and I shall do the same.

  4. I have to say, if I totally disagree with the person who said that no one will care about whether you write after the MFA. I think actually people cared less deeply about whether I wrote during the program than after. In it, we're all just students, apprentices, people giving it a shot. Once we're out, those who keep writing are the writers. And, I think it's one of the great joys of being friends with other writers–really friends–that they do care. They ask. We talk about writing, our projects, our ups and downs, what's working, what worries us, etc. And dang, I sure care if they keep writing. A couple friends of mine, if they quit writing, I would find it tragic.

    Oh yeah, and as Grace Paley has said more eloquently, if you're not living with someone who cares whether you write or not, find someone new to live with.

  5. Toni,
    I think what you're friend was trying to say was "It's up to you to write." It really is. Sure, my husband (who's also a poet) would care if I didn't write, because I wouldn't be sane and he has to live with me. But no one else is really there in the room with me, every day, telling me that what I'm writing is important. I have to believe it myself. And I think UAA's MFA program is building the kind of relationships that we writers need: people who really care whether or not we write. However, when we finish our MFAs and go our merry ways, it really is a solitary thing, a lonely decision, and some of us will continue to write, to persevere, and others will give up.

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