Tag Archives: MFA

Writing Time and the Ph.D. Poet

Recently, I’ve gotten a couple of e-mails from poet friends inquiring as to my digital and 3-D whereabouts. I’ve been teaching a compressed-semester writing course. That means I’ve had exactly zero time for anything else. Unfortunately, “anything” includes my own studies and writing.

All those poets who warn that the Ph.D. kills poetry are correct, in the sense that the Ph.D. demands so much time and headspace for so many things that are not conducive to producing new work. Envision the unholy marriage of repeating your MFA workshop without the fun of making the reading circuit, while simultaneously adjuncting, writing two major proposals a year, and being hazed regularly for five to seven years, and you’ll get some idea of what a creative writing Ph.D. is like.

Is it all bad? No, not unless you allow yourself to get sucked into the vortex that is teaching in the 21st-century university. I finally got to take Spenser and Old English, courses which never were available to me in programs past. I got to pick up a few goodies on the side: ed psych, screenwriting, technical writing, Spanish, historic preservation, a scholarship for a research trip to Cuba.

Every semester, I learn something more about myself, about the students I work with, about building and delivering a solid course, about some great book or study I might not have sought out on my own. I learn what’s worth putting precious time into. I also learn how to say no–to time-wasters, to manipulations, to worthy causes, to counterproductivity, to saboteurs, to bad energy. I learn to say yes–to my research, to my writing in all genres, to my life beyond the university.

Meanwhile, I regroup for the next exam, the next conference panel, the next course syllabus, and Whatever’s Next.

Whatever’s Next is serious business for doctoral students in the liberal arts these days. All options are open.

In my twenties, with no degree and lots of raw talent, I wrote for a living. In my forties, with 2.85 degrees, one small-press book, and lots of experience and education, I grade papers for a living. Projects on hold include two nonfiction books, the dissertation and book to follow, and my freelance writing business.

I would much rather be writing any one of those books. Or producing a documentary. Or filing stories from any number of datelines. I have reached the stage of Ph.D.-dom at which many grad students throw up their hands and say, “I’m going back to work!”

Each day, I remind myself that I’m almost there. Others counsel that the decision to quit the Ph.D. is highly personal, that quitting is not a sign of failure to follow through, that quitting is the best course of action for all those laboring in non-Ivy programs, that the economy and student loan repayments don’t mix, that far too many Ph.Ds compete for far too few tenure-track openings, and any number of suggestions specious or sensible.

My solution: What do I have to do today? Of course, I don’t have to do any of it. So I rephrase: Am I committed to doing this today? Like an alcoholic chasing the sober life, I deal only with today.

Do I write a poem every day? I do not. Do I commit to working on a poem every day? I do.

It’s that simple.

Any project, any problem, I tell my students, is doable if you figure out how long you have to finish it, count backwards, and divide the work into small, doable parts.

This basic time-management principle is a revelation to many of them, especially the younger ones who get caught up in their own anxiety and mistake high stress for hard work. To protect my own sanity, I have had to learn–the hard way–to meet their Velcro with Teflon. (I’m still learning.) All graduate students who teach must learn the fine art of setting and maintaining boundaries between themselves and their students. For poets doing the Ph.D., protecting that space can be extremely challenging. Lately, I think a lot about what I did to finish my B.A. while working full-time at CNN. I read photocopies at lunch and index cards in the ladies’ room. I listened to French tapes in my Walkman between CNN Center and Georgia State. And I refused to deliver updates on the Gulf War when I walked into poetry workshop.

The grades are in. My parents wants me to move my things out of the basement they’re having remodeled. My dog flings himself down in the middle of the living room and bicycles his back legs, begging for belly rubs. My partner is exhausted and needs me to pick up my end of all things neglected. I had planned all year that I would use this time to drive out of town and work on the dissertation–in the field, away from people and in the marsh, on the coast, under the surface.

Will I say yes? Will I say no?

Bear with me.

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Put a bow on it; rent some tanks

The Semester from Hell is over. After this spring, I’ll need three more classes and then I spend a year taking comps.

Meanwhile, I must set for myself this task:

Soon after completing written doctoral examinations, a doctoral student must submit to his or her dissertation committee a written dissertation prospectus that should include the following:

1. A description of the subject, including a statement of the way the proposed approach to the subject differs from, contributes to, or modifies the existing scholarship on the subject;

2. A description of the proposed method of treatment and an account of the research necessary to complete it; and

3. A preliminary bibliography, including a discussion of the availability of materials.

The question is how I am to do this for a creative dissertation. For my MFA, I wrote a lengthy introductory essay explaining my aesthetic choices. I suppose I need to do the same thing on a more detailed level, but look at #1. Am I to write a sweeping claim along the lines of the following?

“My poetry will revolutionize the English language itself.”

“With this collection, I hope to put an end to aesthetic Balkanization, positing myself as leader of a united poetic front.”

A more down-to-earth approach seems called for in #2:

“I will write whatever the hell I want, whenever the hell I want. This approach is best accomplished on the beaches of various Caribbean nations, researching a wide range of imagery on various coral reefs while using an underwater slate to make notes. I propose a $50,000 research grant to cover six months of investigation. To minimize expenses, I will use my own equipment; however, given post-9/11 security concerns, I will need to rent a knife, weights, and tanks.”

As for #3, I plan to take an interdisciplinary approach:

Adrienne Rich’s ‘Diving Into the Wreck’ contains minor factual errors about the speaker’s gear; tendentious theorists may make the case that these invalidate the resulting larger metaphors. I argue that these ‘errors’ may or may not be poetic license, but in any case do not embolize the larger poem. Research at the Historical Diving Society should turn up fruitful leads. In addition, reading every diving poem written in or translated into English will help contextualize the Deep Hidden Meaning of metaphors and similes based on inner space. Oh, yeah, and ‘The Kraken’ by Tennyson, if you like that sort of thing.

If only I could celebrate the end of the semester with a few good dives. I’ll have to be content with having taken myself out for an overpriced dinner last night.

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“You Can’t Afford It!”

I am no money genius. However, Suze Orman, author though she may be, is no creative writer. I love Suze, but she gave some rotten advice tonight. A caller who was perfectly capable of paying for her entire MFA out of her own pocket (AND who would have tons of savings and retirement left over) laid herself bare on the “Can I Afford It?” segment.

First, Suze got that pained look on her face–you know, the one that non-creative people get just before they ask, “What are you going to do with THAT?!” To her great credit, those words never came up. However, Suze did ask the caller whether she already made a living as a writer. This, of course, is not a prerequisite to graduate creative writing study. Demonstrated talent is.

The caller has her own publishing company–and from the figures, she’s doing quite well.

Suze whined, “Can’t you just get together with some of your writer friends and do that for free?” Would that it were so, indeed. We’d all be much wealthier!

At any rate, she asked the caller to “show (her) the money,” which the caller promptly did. Suze then denied the caller for these reasons: the caller is in her early 40s and would be spending 1/3 of her savings on the venture. (This ignores the fact that the caller also had considerable retirement money separate from her regular savings.)

Jeez! Suze, here are the reasons why you should have approved this caller wholeheartedly:

1. Unlike nearly all other creative writing graduate students, she will not have to grovel for token scholarships and/or assistantships that cut into her actual work.

2. She has experience as an editor, which is strongly related to writing and demonstrates an understanding of the critical process.

3. She is old enough to know what she wants.

4. She owns her own business, has many good years of earning left, and has significant savings.

5. She won’t have to take out rapacious student loans.

Here are the financial questions that you should have asked her:

1. What does a $40K program have to offer that a $20K program doesn’t? Is it the kind of program that charges big money for big names, promises low student-teacher ratios and personal attention, but whose instructors can barely fit you in around all the other conferences-of-the-month, teaching gigs, editing positions, visiting instructorships, reading circuits, etc. they do the rest of the year? (Hint: Stay away from that program!!!)

2. Have you compared programs by talking with current and past MFA students?

3. Do you plan to run your company full-time while enrolled full-time?

4. Is this a low-residency program or one to which you can commute easily? Is that good or bad for your particular needs?

5. Are you absolutely certain that you have found a good “fit”and will be able to manage any unforseen crises (if personality clashes might, for example, require you to transfer)?

6. With whom do you want to study, and why that person/those people in particular?

7. Are you planning to stay in publishing? In what capacity (run your own company, move to a literary house, close it down and just write, publish on the side, get into academe)?

8. How well/often are current/recent graduates publishing? How many are teaching full-time? Part-time? Where? How many are tending bar? How many have gone back to previous professional jobs? Who among these have published at least one full-length book with a decent literary or commercial house?

I have a great deal of respect for Suze as a personal finance adviser. However, she should not assume that, as the author of commercial non-fiction, she is qualified to advise creative writers on the very expensive and difficult choice to study their art and craft in depth. To denigrate a professional editor’s choice to expand her repertoire by suggesting that she get together with a few pals at the coffee shop for an exercise in the blind leading the blind is like suggesting to a prospective MBA student that she get together with a couple of friends and open said coffee shop as a means to understanding macroeconomic theory.

Then there’s the model of the restaurant in Iowa City completely staffed by creative writing students.

As somebody who definitely cannot afford it, and who lost a great deal of financial wealth pursuing a low-residency MFA at a private college, I have to say that I am poor and in hefty educational debt, but not sorry. I transferred to a public university, earned an MFA, taught part-time for a while, and now am pursuing a creative Ph.D. at another public university. Yes, I could have earned $500,000 or more in the eleven years since I left my wonderful journalism job–not counting retirement savings–and yes, it does make me a little nauseated to think about it. However, I can look at myself in the mirror; my writing has improved by light years; and I have developed a body of work, widened my professional contacts, and made many good friends since then.

A creative graduate degree does imply the right to teach; it is not, however, a job license or a guarantee that its holder will win the Pulitzer, Nobel, or state poetry contest. It is an exercise in craft refinement and development that results in a publishable body of work, good work habits, and much deep and wide reading.

I refer the curious to the Association of Writers and Writing Programs for information about why an MFA (or creative Ph.D.) can be vital to any serious writer’s artistic development. It seems that writers pursuing advanced study are forever held up to the “practicality” test in ways that other artists (musicians, visual artists, etc.) are not.

Suze’s motto is “People first, then money, then things.” I agree. If you are serious about your writing, then your development as a writer comes first. It is integral to your happiness, your well-being, and your time spent on the planet. Next, you are in the fortunate position to have the money to pursue said artistic development. You are very lucky. Finally, if the “thing” at the bottom of this hierarchy is the sheepskin–that is, if you are doing this for the right reasons and not merely to say, “I have an MFA (or whatever degree it is),” then you have followed her advice.

Caller! Go forth and sniff out the various programs! Go part-time and keep running your publishing business! Find a suitable low-res and keep working! Talk to others who have been in your position! Your financials are a hell of a lot better than mine, girlfriend! You have been APPROVED!

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