Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A Week in the Life of an MFA Student

Earlier this month, I saw a request for information about the life of an MFA student posted on the Network of Nice, a great series on the wonderful blog Yes and Yes. Even though I'm new to MFA-land I thought I would reply and share what I could. Then I realized I could actually answer this question on my blog, as those of you who followed my application process (all two years of it!) might be wondering the same thing. And so I give you: A Week in the Life of an MFA Student.

Monday. Most mornings start the same way: I wake up at around 6:30 AM and read blogs for about 20 minutes while the coffee brews. Once I have poured a cup I close the Internet, open my current project and write or revise (or both!) for an hour. It's really important for me to write first thing, otherwise I get caught up in the more mundane tasks of the day and it just doesn't happen. So, first things first: write. Then I either go for a run or take the pups to the dog park with Nathan. Or both, if I have time.

I shower, dress, eat lunch and then settle back at my desk and do some other MFA related work. Read the novel that we'll be discussing in class later that afternoon. Critique stories for workshop. Grade the papers from the class I'm teaching. At 3:00 I pack up my stuff and ride my scooter to campus for my class on the great non-American novel, which lasts from 3:30 to 6:15. We discuss the current book we're reading for three hours and then I'm done for the day.

Tuesday. This is my longest day, which still doesn't seem that long, considering it's not eight hours at a desk AND it's things I enjoy doing. It begins just like Monday - wake, coffee, write. I try to get to campus by 10 AM, at which point I head to the TA computer lab, settle into my work computer and put together lesson plans for the class that I teach. I try to stay a class or two ahead of them because it makes me feel more confident, and because lesson planning always takes more time than you think. We have a loose syllabus that we follow, so all the TA's know to teach the elements of craft on such-and-such day, but how we teach it is entirely up to us. We find stories to read and discuss in our individual classes. We create writing exercises. We assign homework and grade homework. It's fun but time-consuming, and is probably the most stressful part of my new life. Which still isn't that stressful, and I wouldn't dare complain about it. 

From 11 AM to 12 PM I have an office hour, during which time no actual students visit me. I mostly hang out with other grad students and read or grade. At 12:30 PM I head to the undergraduate lecture, which is the easy half of the class I teach. All I need to do is take attendance and make sure my students are paying attention and not using their phones to check Facebook. Lecture ends at 1:45 PM, which leaves just enough time for my 2 PM class, Creative Writing Teaching and Pedagogy. All the TA's take this class together and we basically use the time to talk about our classes, discuss what's working and what's failing miserably and bring up any issues we're dealing with in and out of the classroom. It's actually a lot of fun and can often turn into a gossip/bitch fest. It's also really nice to hear that I'm not the only one having problems, such as getting my students to do their assignments and speak in class. Together, we help each other.

From 3:30 PM to 6:15, I have my favorite class - Fiction Writing Workshop. This is where the magic happens. This is the whole point of an MFA program, as far as I'm concerned. We write stories. We distribute copies. We read and critique them. And then we spend three hours discussing one another's writing. What's working, what's not working, why did the author make this choice, what would happen if the author made that choice instead. Even when I'm not being workshopped, I learn so much from the process of critiquing and discussing the stories of others. It's a great experience and if you have a chance to join a workshop - even an informal one, among friends - do it. Your pride may take a hit, but your writing will be better because of it.

I get home at around 6:30, drink a bottle of wine, and then collapse in bed. Okay, maybe not a whole bottle. But close.

Wednesday: I have no classes! I KNOW. No classes and no work, on a Wednesday. It's kind of ridiculous. But don't think I squander this day - Wednesdays are actually one of my most productive days, as far as my own writing goes. Because I have no obligations, I write and revise as much as possible. This often involves heading to a coffee shop with an MFA friend or two and writing together. Writing with a friend is motivating and changing my scenery usually results in a new perspective. Or some good people watching. Either way, I get a lot done.

Thursday: Wake, coffee, write. Once again, I try to get to campus at 10 AM for any last minute class prep I need to do. From 11 AM to 12 PM I hold an office hour and no one shows up. At 12:30, it's show time - I teach my class of undergraduates for an hour and fifteen minutes. I'm usually very nervous and so far my classes have been hit or miss. The more I figure out my students and how well they respond to certain things, the better classes have been. After teaching I head to Pedagogy. I like the Thursday class because we've all just finished teaching and have tons of stories - some good, some not so good - to share. And once Pedagogy is over, so is my day! I head home and relax, because teaching is exhausting.

Friday: No classes again. I KNOW. I KNOW. And yet: I'm still productive. Friday is a good day to catch up on stuff and get a head start for the next week - mostly on whatever book we're reading for Monday's novel class. And, as always, I do my best to write as much as possible. I also do my long runs on Fridays because it's nice to have that out of the way before the weekend even begins.

Saturday: A day of rest.

Sunday: I rest and I prep for the week ahead. Because the next day is Monday and then we start the whole thing all over again.  

To make a long story short: being an MFA student means you must be self-motivated. You need to dedicate yourself to your writing and not get too distracted by your other classes and obligations. Writing comes first, as so many of my professors like to remind us. We have a lot of free time, but it's not really free - we need to use it for our own projects, our own experiments, our own work.

I look at this time as a gift to myself - the chance to dedicate three years to my growth as a writer, spent in a community that values writing and appreciates the time spent on it. For many of us, our writing will never be supported the way it is while we're in this program. Taking advantage of that support is not only an opportunity, but an obligation.

Plus, Wednesdays and Fridays off are pretty amazing. Just saying.