Getting an M.F.A- A dream deferred

I’ve blogged somewhat on this topic before of how I’ve always loved creative writing and decided in 8th grade that I wanted to be an author. Somewhere along I convinced myself I needed a “real job” so I majored in journalism. Eventually I began to feel less enthused and added another major–not English or creative writing–but Global Studies and a certificate in Religion and Conflict. I thought I wanted to be international, travel, talk about current events, be the token Muslim intellectual that blows everyone’s minds out of the water because she’s intelligent, eloquent AND Muslim. I care about humanitarian issues, human rights and community development so it all made sense in my head to pursue this path.

But now, as I finish my third year of college, I can’t help but still feel unsatisfied by my college career and where I’m heading. I can see a lot of exciting destinations for me based on what I’m doing, but all I seem to feel is stress when it comes to preparing myself to get there. Shouldn’t the journey be what’s more fun? Shouldn’t the journey be what you enjoy the most?

When I think about the journey I care about the most, all I can think about my writing. I never had any doubts or regrets or felt like it didn’t mean what I wanted it to mean to me. Sure, I chickened out and thought I wasn’t good enough to declare myself a creative writing student. I thought I should study other subjects to make myself well-rounded and I could always go to grad school for creative writing.

But I’ve visited several MFA degree websites and am really frustrated by how elitist and exclusive they are. ASU’s program, for example, says you should have majored in English or Creative Writing, but if you didn’t then you better have a hell of a portfolio to show them. They also accept just 3% of admission :O

And then let’s talk about teacher recommendations. I have zero connection with the creative writing or English program, so I’m getting nada from them. None of the professors that I do have good working relationships with, have any idea about my secret love for fiction. They all think I’m going into public relations, nonprofit or international development work, which based on my classes and activities, makes absolute sense.

So here’s the thing. Some writers have been writing their whole lives, get undergrad degrees in English or Creative Writing and are all set to do an MFA after they graduate.

Others study other subjects, go out and work, realized nothing makes them as happy as writing does and so they decide to go back to school and get an MFA. Many of these people are really crappy writers and think everything they write will be gold/the next Harry Potter/Oprah’s favorite book. Some of these people are geniuses with latent talent that never got to be developed because of fear or other circumstances.

I just don’t see how these MFA programs are encouraging people from all walks of life who maybe, didn’t have the privilege to study creative writing or for whatever reason, discovered late in life what it is they wanted to do. I have the grades, I have the work ethic and I do have a decent portfolio, but because I wasn’t in school for creative writing, I wasn’t rewarded for working on my novel or short stories. I couldn’t afford to spend all my time writing when I had articles, essays and books to read for my two majors. I joined the undergrad literary magazine with the honors college and had barely any time to keep up with my position as a fiction reviewer, because of the crapload of homework I had to do. Where are my priorities?

Now I know some of you will say, “You don’t need to get an MFA! It doesn’t mean anything! It’s not going to make you a writer or a published writer at that!”

I understand and acknowledge that. But if I’m going to pursue higher education, then I want it to be something that gives value to me in a way that I denied myself all these years. Maybe I’ll be a teacher who specializes in English or ESL and runs a creative writing program after school on the side. Is it crazy that I would absolutely love to run a nonprofit program like that, working with high-achieving, minority or refugee students and inspire them to write and publish their own work, while I handle the management, PR and fundraising, while writing my own stories? I think I’m getting a little too Freedom Writers here, but bear with me.

I have one year of school left and then I’m a graduate from ASU. I’ll be out in the world, armed with two bachelor’s degrees, theories, skills, hopes, fears and a dream deferred. Let’s hope one year from now, I’m not still the same pathetic, woeful person I am at this moment. Let’s hope I get it together, rein in all my passions, block out societal expectations and embrace my true nature.

“To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.”

-e.e. cummings

Thanks for getting through this word vomit.

Update: Here’s a list of underrated MFA programs according this guy on HuffPo. Worth checking out.


5 thoughts on “Getting an M.F.A- A dream deferred

  1. Nesima,
    I hope you never let go of your love for writing and I hope you keep doing it, no matter where life takes you. Don’t deny who you are, because you are beautiful in your own skin.

    Reading this post reminded me of my own struggle to embrace my love for writing. It is it the one thing I’ve always done, the one passion I’ve never gotten tired of. I write constantly, and yet there is still a voice in my head saying, “Get a real job! There’s no money here!” I think a lot of writers struggle with this, and I think it’s a battle worth fighting. So don’t give up, you never know where your passion will take you, if you let it. 🙂

    Good luck!

  2. I love your spirit and energy, Nesima, and salute you for your dedication to be true to yourself! I can relate to your dilemma in more ways than you can imagine. It does blow that MFA programs are so clique-y, but honestly after encountering some of the pretentious people I met in publishing I’m totally fine with not putting myself in just pursuing my writing/editing independently, should the time come! An MFA, I feel, isn’t the golden grail. Often, it’s having to exchange a bunch of (usually overprivileged) hippies who aren’t even necessarily brilliant writers. They just happen to know the right people and have some strokes of dumb luck. Maybe that’s just me being bitter 😛

    And as someone who tried to focus on the literary side when I was in the same stage of life you were, I do want to tell you that I think you’re totally on the right track. Human beings have too many facets to them, and it’s highly possible that you have much more to offer to the world along with your writing. At least I like to think that to justify the switch I’m making in my formal education and career path.

    I highly recommend you read Betsy Lerner’s The Forest for the Trees. She gives stellar examples of writers who were SUPER determined: how John Grisham would wake up at dawn to write before going to work, or how Michael Cunningham spent ages working the most random jobs while working on his novels. It’s really motivating and admirable stuff that can help a potential writer tap into more inner resources.

    • Thank you so much Sarah. I will definitely read that book and also try to keep your words in perspective when I start to feel desperate and hopeless in the whole process. Sometimes I think that we’re lucky to have blogs and social media where we can create our own writers’ groups and assemble our own portfolios in a less restrictive, privileged and stuffy environment. It’s nice to seek out fellow writers and hear about their journeys 😀

  3. Look, as someone in a well-known MFA program who didn’t get my BA in English – my previous graduate degrees are in the health field – I can tell you that the stuff about the journey being “fun,” is bullshit. All of us in programs, and those not, work our asses off, living off student loans just to pay rent and knowing that we’re going to have to network like hell to get somewhere. Should you be mindful during the journey? Yes, of course. But don’t expect it to be “fun.”

  4. Maybe you’re not meant to get an MFA in English or Creative Writing because you’re meant to explore something different so that it will enhance your writing. Like journalists. There are many journalists out there who didn’t go to school for journalism, yet somehow they ended in that field, whether they wanted to or not. Just do your thing and keep your eyes and ears open. If this door won’t open for you, then another one will. A better one. 🙂

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