The MFA faculty at FAU bring in an impressive amount of both renowned and prolific authors for students to engage with; I’ve had the chance to listen to lectures from Tayari Jones, Jo Ann Beard, Richard Ford, and others. One comment that Ford made that resonated with me was: “Anybody who knows me for very long is going to fall out with me.” While he said this with a mixture of seriousness and humor, commenting on his own work and his lack of a writing community, it felt true for me as well.
That fear of a fall out something I’ve dealt with in all social aspects of my life. I assume that I’m going to hurt someone needlessly, so to me emotional distance is protection. However, that attitude is counter to the reason I came to the MFA program here at FAU. I wanted to invest in a community of writers and take risks. Upon receiving tenure, A. Papatya Bucak wrote: “It feels like I ought to do something to deserve it,” and that was a feeling I could relate to early on in the program. A feeling that grew when the University offered me a GTA position, and a feeling that continues to grow with the opportunities I am offered through the English Department and the Creative Writing Director, Dr. Becka Mara McKay.
Within that desire to both partake in a community and to deserve that community, I have continuously been pushed by my professors to excel. The nudge for success also comes with the support to take more chances, and through this process of escalating demands and adjustments of self-accountability, I see something of my own experience reflected in Papatya’s writing: “It feels like I can try to write something better than what I’ve written before because I can risk failing.” The MFA program offers the opportunity to risk success because no matter what I write, it will be taken seriously, and there is something in that to cherish, something special.
I’m enrolled in Papatya’s course on the Forms of Prose, and throughout this semester we have been working toward seeing the value in creating obstacles and restrictions to existing forms in order to create growth in our own writing. I’ve always valued form in poetry because of its ability to slip into the subconscious and complicate content.
However, the forms in prose have been a different experience. Early on in the semester when asked to define what this might mean, I approached it rather literally: “it seems that form is an agreed upon process to mold content with an inherent suggestion to resist the familiar. But, form only works when it’s symbiotic with content.” This explication of form is light and timid. It feels more like an attempt to have something to say rather than an actual definition of the term.
And this doesn’t surprise me; I fear the fall out with a professor even more than with a peer. I fear losing the chance to be taken seriously by someone I respect. After Richard Ford spoke, a few peers and I walked around in a stupor of amazement at his insight and presence. A professor mentioned annoyance with the fact that we seem to value what incoming authors say more than the professors in the program, even though they say the same things. It seems that somehow from a new voice, knowledge becomes more significant.
That professor was right to question our infatuation, because classes do deliver what we experience from visiting scholars and authors. Richard Ford’s strongest moment was during a contemplation on the serious nature of writing. He said: “Your work is your work. It’s no less important at the beginning to you than it is to me at the end.” That, to me, is a profoundly powerful thing to say to an aspiring writer. It is also a description of what the MFA does for writers here. I love the burden of earnest expectations to not succeed or fail, but to create with no restraint.
At the end of the semester, Papatya asked the class to redefine forms, and looking at my definition, I’ve come to the conclusion that the concept of “forms” might be synonymous with the MFA degree. I wrote: “Forms teach writers to learn the necessary tools that they can abandon. Forms are lessons in rules that subsume the reader’s wants and needs with the author’s intentions through their obstacles and restrictions. Forms are invitations to apprenticeship with no master but accountability.” I latch onto that last line. As much as I want to say it is the drive of the MFA that propels my work, to do so would ignore the reality that the MFA ends.
Last night I was very tired and hanging awake on the lines of a book when my mind woke to a realization. It’s a common one that I have; I see someone in my recent life and remember that we may forget each other, but we will never forget each other’s influence. I am grateful and still surprised that I am here. The conversations that drive my writing community start in the classroom. I know that, I see that in my growth; I want my professors to know.
Jason Stephens is from Boise, Idaho and he joined the MFA at Florida Atlantic University in the Spring of 2014. He published last year his first fiction piece in alice blue review's issue 24.