Thickly Settled:Some Thoughts on MFA Programs

Now that the school year is done at Ohio State, I’ve hit the road to teach at some writing conferences. A week ago, I was in Rowe, MA, teaching at a retreat sponsored by The Sun Magazine. If you don’t know this amazing magazine, I hope you’ll check it out:

Personal, Political, Provocative. . .and, ad-free.

The route from the Hartford, CT, airport to Rowe included the Mohawk Trail in northwest Massachusetts, a scenic 63-mile east-west highway, that runs from the NY/MA line to Millers Falls on the Connecticut River. I arrived late in the evening and caught a ride from the airport with Krista Bremer and Molly Herboth from The Sun. Krista was also teaching at the weekend retreat, and Molly’s job, as far as I could tell, was to keep everyone delighted with laughter, in addition to taking T-shirt orders and making sure everyone had what they needed. They were excellent company.

So we’re in the rental car on the Mohawk Trail near midnight, and we’re looking for a blue sign on the right, two miles past downtown Charlemont. We’ve passed the first sign that says, “Welcome to Charlemont,” and we’ve gone by a motel with a teepee outside and a few other businesses. Hmm, we wonder. Downtown? We start counting miles, quickly coming to the conclusion that we’ve missed our blue sign signaling the turn toward Rowe.

We retrace our route. Still no blue sign. Krista suggests that we didn’t go far enough to find the downtown area on our first trip. So we turn around again. We drive on, farther than we have previously, and sure enough, we come to a downtown area of a few cafes, stores, a church, etc. There’s a sign that says, “Thickly Settled,” and I find the message both cryptic and charming. The next day at lunch, I ask the waitress what the sign means. She says, “It means you’re in downtown Charlemont, and the speed limit is 30 mph.” So, “thickly settled,” as in “heavily populated.” Wow, I think, that’s a powerful sign. Two words to not only indicate a more densely populated downtown area, but also to imply the speed limit. The sign says all of that, but only to the locals, the ones in the know.

It seems to me that a good MFA program should be thickly settled. That is to say, thick with community and vibrant with the energy that comes from each member doing his or her best to contribute to the common good. I tell students that they’ll never have as close attention paid to their work as they will during the time they’re in their MFA programs. Take advantage of every opportunity. Give as much as you want to get.

What does that mean? Here are a few scenarios:

1.     A visiting writer is on campus to give a reading and perhaps to do an informal question and answer with students. Be there. When I was in my own MFA program, I was afraid that if I missed a reading, even those outside my primary genre, I might miss hearing the exact thing I needed to make me a better writer.

2.     You’d love to get advice from one of your professors, or even ask him or her to read a piece of yours and offer some suggestions, but you’re afraid to bother said professor because of course we’re all insanely busy, so your inclination is not to ask for what you want. Don’t hesitate. Of course, we’re insanely busy, as are you, and we’re all a part of this community and we want you to succeed just as much as you do. So send us emails, or knock on our office doors. Hey, we get paid for this sort of thing. Abuse us at will 🙂

3.     You’re in a workshop, and each week you have to mark manuscripts and prepare critique letters for you peers, and man-oh-man, that gets to be a lot of work, and if you slack off just a tad, maybe even “forget” to write a letter or two, what does it matter? Give yourself a talking-to. Remind yourself why you’re in the program. Because you want to be a writer the rest of your life. Maybe you even want to have a teaching career. When you don’t write the letter, you don’t think deeply about the craft of a particular piece, not to mention the possibilities contained within that draft if the writer would only do this or that. You give up a chance to deepen your knowledge of the craft. You fail to internalize something you’ll need to know somewhere down the road. The workshop itself should be particularly thickly settled. Everyone should be contributing to everyone’s successes. When you do that, you increase the chances for your your own success.

4.     One of your peers has a piece accepted at a really good journal, and as much as you’re happy for that person, perhaps you’re sad for yourself because you’d really like to have one of your pieces accepted at a really good journal, and when-oh-when is that ever going to happen? It’s easy to give into despair in this game. Don’t. I know this is a tough one, but believe me all the energy spent on resentment, envy, etc. is energy not spent on the next great thing you’re going to write if you can only find a way to keep your focus on your own journey and not someone else’s. The success of one is a representative of the success of the entire community, and sooner or later, it’s going to be your turn. Celebrate the good news and keep writing.

In an MFA program, if you give unselfishly by participating in the literary life that it’s your good fortune to enjoy, you’ll make your journey a little easier and much, much richer. Thickly settled. All of us taking one another further down the road.

Which is where I’ll be come Sunday. On the way to Lincoln, NE, to teach in the Nebraska Summer Writer’s Conference. Countless people who aren’t in an MFA program are hungry for that kind of community, if only for a week here and there, or at a retreat as was the case in Rowe, MA. It’s always a privilege for me to be part of their journeys.




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