That’s what my thesis chair said at the end of my defense. Which was nice.
The defense was anticlimactic, but I think I was expecting that. My two readers and I sat down in a tiny conference room and had a pleasant conversation about my book. Mostly the reaction was positive, and then there were a few suggestions, mostly on things I already knew were problems: A shadowy character, an ending that needs more…well, just more. One of my readers totally digressed and started telling me about his visit to China and then I recommended a book to him … before my chair steered things back on track. It was that informal.
They asked me what sort of revisions I had made in the last month and why, and they asked me what I planned to do next with the book. I was honest. I said I was burned out on it, and that I planned to take some time away from the manuscript before trying to do another revision, before trying to send it to agents. I said I planned to send out two of the stronger chapters as stand-alone essays, attempt to get them published.
And then my thesis chair (who also happens to be in charge of the college’s MFA program) asked me what I thought of the “MFA experience.”
Oh, man. There were about a million thoughts in my head, but I kind of knew that I was expected to say something positive, in the way that honesty is never foremost in such discussions in academia. So I talked about how before coming to the MFA program I thought I had written a full-length essay anytime I wrote five pages (which was the most I had ever written, in terms of creative writing), and how I soon learned to draw out my essays to make them fuller, more meaningful, and most of all, longer. And then I managed to draw those essays out into a book. So that’s what I got out of my MFA program: I learned to write longer. It sounds so basic and lame — don’t most people seek MFAs to try and improve their writing? There is that, of course, but I wanted to get an MFA to take my writing to the next level. For me, the next level had a lot to do with length. I didn’t know if I was capable of writing a book, but I wanted to. And I didn’t know how to go about it, but now I do. That’s the best thing I got from my MFA program.
Jade Park has a nice post about MFA programs and their alternatives which, along with my recent completion of my program, has me thinking about these things. I’m fairly convinced that I wouldn’t have written my book by cobbling together alternatives like writing workshops, classes, self-imposed reading lists. I am also fairly convinced that my decision about where to get my MFA needn’t have been so fraught. I suspect I would have had a similar experience at any of the schools I got in to.
So am I happy I did it? Yes, of course. I wrote a book! I learned a lot about publishing, agents, revision, literature… Would I have done things differently if I had to do it over? Probably. There are courses I wish I took and professors I wish I had worked with. I might not choose to commute bi-coastally, and I am sure that without having to commute between SF and Boston, I would have taught. But in the grand scheme of things these differences are small. It was a good two years.