On August 10 I’ll graduate from my MFA program.
Lots of folks are saying really nice things: “Congratulations!” And “You must be so proud!” Or “You must be happy to have all that work behind you.”
But none of these really resonate, because, well, I didn’t embark on this program to get a degree. I embarked on this program to improve my writing, so that, in its long, novel format, it could be published. (I’m already published in short form.)
Put another way, although I’m not in academia and probably won’t ever go for a tenure-track position (never say never), I’m feeling the “publish or perish” pressure.
Put yet another way, the degree is nice. I worked hard and made friends and am part of a community. But I won’t really feel like I’ve done anything until my work is on the shelf. (Obviously I’m not debunking whatever an MFA feels like for anyone else. We all have our own races to run.)
I’m thinking about this a lot lately, as I query my manuscript. As I’m researching possible outlets, I see agent, or editor, blogs that pass on valuable knowledge, and author blogs that do the same. These things are a veritable fount of warmth and happines. Like, isn’t it wonderful, that there are these people out there, who love books and words and who spent their every waking minute thinking about the way we tell stories? Isn’t it amazing to be, however tangential, a part of a community like this?
And, earlier in my MFA career, I met an editor who started her own literary society for writers of children’s and young-adult books. And I met a woman who worked tirelessly to build a place where writers could feel more connected to each other. And I met another editor who gave so freely of herself that, whenever I called on her after the residency, she responded. And published writers who consistently answer calls for help from writers like me. Agent recommendations, proofing query letters, general brainstorming.
Like, how lucky I am, to be loosely connected to this group of folks who think this way, and who want others to read and gain just a little bit of whatever they’re feeling!
And then, right on the heels of that warm fuzzy stuff, “I can’t wait to be able to pass on knowledge like this. I can’t wait to be able to publish, so that I can speak from the bookshelf, from a position of full experience. I can’t wait to inspire others to love craft, and words, and books.”
“Don’t make yourself responsible for my happiness with this thing,” I tell Yi Shun while we walk along the shore to the beach house she and a few other students have rented. “That’s not going to work out.”
“For me?” she asks.
Doyce is not going to believe this, but I have been thinking about this since we had the exchange. Mostly because something was off. Not the part where I’m anxious about Doyce wanting to enjoy the residency, Get Something out of it, maybe even like it enough to sign on to the program–all that is true. But it was something about the motivation. Why was I so anxious? What did it mean?
Earlier this week, as I was sending out some queries, I finally figured it out. I wanted Doyce to join us in part because I knew he could add to us. I knew his knowledge and experience, which is so different from so many students’–and even most instructors’–in our program would only make us better, as a body. We could learn from him, and he might even learn from us.
The pressure to see Doyce happy with this thing came from wanting to build a better community.
Ultimately, when I publish, I’ll be that much better equipped to be a better part of the community. With an MFA under my belt, I am a step closer. I think.
That’s why graduation matters.