An Open Letter to My MFA Students
Lined up on the window ledge in my office are your pictures. Since 2001, when I came to teach at The Ohio State University, I’ve tried to get a photo of each of you, my thesis advisees, and me at Epilog, the end-of-the-year gala reading for the graduating MFAs. I may have missed one or two over the years, but trust me, none of you have ever left my memory.
I recall the times you pressed back against me as you went through the process of defining your aesthetics. I remember the times you came to me, discouraged, ready to chuck it all because you thought you weren’t good enough. I remember the times you broke through and wrote that piece that was dazzling, a piece that only you could have written, a piece we agreed was a “keeper.” I remember how I read and read and read your work, thankful each time for the gift of it. I remember your first successes out there in the real world—the first publications, the awards, the books, the teaching positions, the matters both personal and professional that rewarded you. I’ve been your fan from afar all these years.
You have to keep in mind that I was once where you were—unsure of my talents, desperate for validation, searching for my material and my voice(s), so eager to know what the future might hold. You have to keep in mind that I’m still in that place. That never changes no matter how much success I might be lucky enough to have. I’m always afraid that I’m not good enough, that no one will want to read what I’ve written, that the future is a dark tunnel through which I’m creeping. I remember my own writing teachers. Most of them are gone now, and still I hear their voices, and still I want to please them.
As they did me, I ask for your effort when you come to me. I ask you to be open to what other writers have to teach you. I ask you to forsake the ego in order to learn what you need to learn. I ask that you be patient. I ask that you be kind with one another and kind with yourselves. I ask you to forgive me when I fall short of being the teacher that you deserve.
And you hope and fear that I’ll tell you the truth. You want to know whether you have the goods, whether you’re on the right track, whether recognition and acclaim await you. The true answer always is, I don’t know. I can show you techniques. I can share with you the things you have to learn and I can tell you how I learned them. I can show you how to practice. I can talk about what seems to matter to you in your work. I can point to passages you’ve written that resonate, that get inside my skin and live there forever. The rest is up to you and the unpredictable circumstances of the fates. I can tell you why I write and why I teach: because in this world everyone should have at least one thing that gives them pleasure, one thing that is pure and good, one talent that’s his or her reason for putting one foot in front of the other each day. I write because I have so much to shape; I teach because I believe in the value of the written word, and I want to do what I can to help others value it, too.
Thank you for allowing me to enter your work. I’ve tried to only take a little from you: some inspiration for my own writing and teaching, a memory of how far you came in the time you were my students, a photograph by which to remember the work we did together, you and I. I only hope I left something with you that ended up mattering as much as our time talking about writing mattered to me. You bless me every day.
Beautiful letter, Lee. Thanks for sharing it. This helps me realize how much I appreciate my students. Though I’m not one of your advisees, on those occasions I’ve been fortunate to watch you teach – at Stephen F. Austin and this summer at Kachemak Bay – I can say that you have “left something that mattered” with me. Thank you for this!
Thanks, Daryl. I have fond memories of being in both of those places. I hope your work continues to thrive.
Lee, I love that you wrote this post! And I love that you have our photos lined up. I cannot imagine having gone through the thesis experience with anyone other than you. I hear your voice in my ear as I continue to work on what is now growing up from thesis into book.
Hi, Rebe! So good to “hear” your voice here. I hope all is sunshine, rainbows, and lollipops for you and that the work on the book is going well.