Monday, January 12, 2015

Why the MFA Program is Like Notting Hill

   When Julia Roberts walks into Hugh Grant’s travel bookshop in the movie Notting Hill, Grant immediately (though, yes, with hesitancy) recognizes who has entered his store. As Roberts traces the spines of books on Turkey and Istanbul, and Grant watches from behind the counter, it’s clear that both Roberts with her straight American teeth and Grant with his small British charm come to represent something of an irresistible exoticism to each other. Roberts is first seen adorned (and disguised) beneath a black beret, black jacket, and dark sunglasses. She/it appears a mystery, but fails to mask her well-known identity. Both she and Grant are alluring without having to be hypnotic. He is charming, funny, and handsome. She is strong, successful, and beautiful. To each other, they represent different but closely related fantasies. To me, they represent how I first envisioned an MFA program.
            During a recent date, I told an academic figure—one whose career is rooted more in administration than teaching—that the writer will always be considered romantic. Though perhaps not romantic in nature, the writer is situated in a dwindling genre of human being. The writer is the lead in a romance movie, thought of sitting by candlelight at his study desk writing about lost love, in Starbucks too busy typing on his Macbook to wipe the tears away from his five o’clock shadow, saturated in romantic ideas in pursuit of an idealized romantic absolution. He is, at the root of everything, invested both in a job that he has been told will probably not make him any money or bring about any fame, and a love interest whom he has been told simply isn’t good enough for him. Yet, he pursues them. He lives and breathes (wait for it) passion.
            When the writer first learns that he can develop his craft within upper-level academia, strolling through the same land as doctors, engineers, and physicists, he latches onto the idea of closing in on the chase of literary success.  Dr. Poet. Master of Prosody. Lord of the Haiku. When Roberts locates herself in the same intimate, dusty world of Grant’s, she has become less of a fantasy and more of a realistic possibility. Grant quickly learns though, after experiencing more of Roberts within her hectic artistic and romantic environments, that the dream of their relationship will inevitably perish underneath their opposing lifestyles. It is, however, while Roberts witnesses the birthday celebration of Grant’s younger sister that she recognizes what she ultimately wants. Against all prohibiting factors, she wants to have, to be more like, and to be loved by Grant.
Not too long after I started the MFA program, I had a different experience. I wanted to remove myself from the twenty other writers who were sitting at the same dinner table and, like me, also questioning the point of acquiring an MFA degree. I looked around the table and interrogated my position. How was this environment going to benefit my writing and development of a writerly identity? I thought a significant, positive thing about enrolling in an MFA was being surrounded by other writers who are desperately and passionately in love with writing, but it seemed many others were also in need of validation that they were still in love with their art.
When Roberts’ boyfriend—a younger Alec Baldwin—travels to the city unannounced, the romance between Grant and Roberts suffers. The reality of Roberts’ American boyfriend interrupts the spontaneous, whimsical relationship at bloom between Roberts and Grant, and this causes us to question the line between fantasy and reality. I felt a similar damage when my writing—which was, for the most part is, and should always be given full attention during time enrolled in an MFA program—fell behind the overwhelming shadows of other “responsibilities.” Yes, many of these responsibilities were related to my development and refinement as a writer, but seemingly for the purpose of fear-driven career preparation and the satisfaction of credit requirements. It took a while, under the overwhelming anxiety of being told that there isn’t a market for poetry anymore beyond tabling at readings and conferences, and that I only have a 5% - 10% chance of landing a solid university teaching position unless I dedicate the next five to six years acquiring a PhD or (by the grace of God) getting a book or two published, to recognize my view of these “responsibilities” as opportunities.
 It has seemed recently as if Baldwin flew in and stood in the way of my romantic perception of what I wanted the MFA (and for that matter, my future) to be—the dedication of three years of my life to my craft. I came to feel that I had instead given up three years I could have more actively spent on my craft outside academia—beyond teaching composition courses, grading first-year papers, and taking theory courses I had little interest in—for a degree that would simply make me eligible for one of the few professions in which a poet is typically found: teaching. Alec, however, is only realistic. He illustrates that romance (and the MFA program) is more layered and complex than one may take it for. He helps us realize that every choice is an opportunity for something better, and that the MFA is going to be whatever one chooses to see it as. Three years of lying naked on a shag rug in front of a fireplace writing prose poems isn’t as romantic if this same hypothetical MFA student isn’t also teaching essay writing to hundreds of college freshmen, studying other forms of writing and communication, and involving himself in the editorial workings of a literary publication or governmental workings of a student organization. If he sees the MFA degree as three years of opportunities to fully dedicate himself to his writing, the writings of others, and the larger literary world, then he might better imagine the future for Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant.
I find myself now, in the middle of my MFA career, on the cusp of my thesis—ready but not yet able to transfer my attention back to the romance of being a writer, back to seeing the MFA degree for its fullest potential. I feel as if I am standing, admittedly and confessingly hurting, in front of the once-incredibly idealized romantic notion I had of the MFA, hearing it ask me to love it again. And as it asks—hair flopped, eyes wide, ready to accept me back into its arms—how long I plan on staying, I keep finding myself repeating “indefinitely.”

James White is a second year student in the MFA in Creative Writing, Poetry program. He is excited to graduate from the program with a few manuscripts in tow, with which he will entice a handsome NY businessman-turned-lumberjack named Ethan during a writer's retreat in New Hampshire. James will read his poetry to Ethan as he chops firewood, and the two will die holding hands like the old married couple in Titanic.

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