Saturday, April 02, 2016

What I learned in graduate school, part one

It seems as if I've read hundreds of critiques about M.F.A. writing programs over the years. They usually fall into two camps.
No. 1: I spent three years and tens of thousands of dollars on an M.F.A. program and all I got was this lousy diploma.
No. 2: Grad school was worth it -- I learned more than I thought I would.

Alas, I've read more of the former than the latter. They usually are written by young people who have joined the system without much life experience which, of course, is what it means to be young. Does this 65-year-old retiree remember how it was to be 19 or 21 and flummoxed by a university system -- any university system? I was an overachiever, a scholarship student, who crashed and burned after two years at a major American university. The fault was my own, although I spent many years blaming the university and the government and my parents and the phases of the moon. I am an ex-newspaper reporter and satirist who loves it when people take on any system. Doesn't mean the writer is correct in his/her critique. It's fun to be pissed off in print and get attention. 

I'm going to say some nice things about my M.F.A. program. Stop here if you prefer to read the negative over the positive. You may learn something but no guarantee, just as there is no guarantee that an M.F.A. program will make you a stellar writer and a denizen of the Literary World. 

Before I begin, let me thank writer Marian Palaia who wrote a recent essay, "The Real World vs. the M.F.A." for Literary Hub at If fact, you can skip this blog and go read Palaia's piece, as it covers most of the same ground that I do. She's close to my age (pushing 60) and earned her M.F.A. as an older student, older even than I was at 41. Such a wonderful essay that I'm ordering her novel and reading it. The least I can do for a fellow writer.

I liked these lines from her essay:
I do not advise waiting as long as I did to get an MFA, if you are sure that what you want to do is to write. What I do advise is gaining some awareness of the world, and of the people in it who are not like you, before you go into a program.
At 37, I had met a lot of people not like me. Gang-bangers, corporate CEOs, jocks, cabbies, political activists, druggies, yuppies, loonies, etc. I had held tons of jobs, some temporary gigs as hospital orderly and warehouse worker, to full-time jobs as corporate editor and newspaper reporter. When I began to look around for creative writing programs, I had one goal in mind: become a better writer. I had written articles on teen-age swimming phenoms to automotive fan belts. I'd written a novel, which earned me an agent but not a publisher.  My agent advised me to quit my job, go down to my basement and write full-time. I knew that hunkering down in my basement with my typewriter was a bad idea. I could see myself typing, the clatter of the keys clanging off of the basement walls. But I could also see myself wandering the basement rooms, haunted look on my face. Not good for an introvert depressive to be alone all day in his basement. Visions of Emily Dickinson, tormented in her attic. Ernest Hemingway and shotgun at his writing desk in remote Idaho.

I also wanted to meet interesting people. I guess you can do that anywhere. But writers, even in academia, should be interesting, right?

Thee first interesting person I met was writer and faculty member John Clark Pratt. My wife, son and I were in Fort Collins looking for a rental. I decided to drop into the CSU English Department. Dr. Pratt (I could call him John but he'll always be Dr. Pratt to me) was the lone M.F.A. faculty member hanging out in the Eddy Building on a July afternoon. He welcomed me, told me a bit about the program, which only began the year before. Only later did I learn that Dr. Pratt was the author of "The Laotian Fragments," a pilot in Vietnam, and one of the country's experts on the literature of the Vietnam War. He helped establish the CSU library's special collection on Vietnam. In the late 1980s, it featured unpublished manuscripts by veterans, published works by some well-known writers and an assortment of notes and research and ephemera. You can visit it still. Might even be online now.

When school began in late August, I met the rest of the faculty and my fellow students. For the most part, the faculty was closer in age to me than the students, but I had expected that. John Calderazzo was the creative non-fiction guru, A world traveler, he wrote mostly on environmental issues and wrote an excellent book on volcanoes. He'd been a free-lance writer for years, writing articles for corporate, real estate and automotive mags to make extra cash. We free-lanced a real estate piece together, since I also was on the lookout for extra cash.

David Milofsky was a novelist and short-story writer. He'd just left a position with Denver University to take the job at CSU, and commuted from Denver. Milofsky had been an investigative reporter in Milwaukee and still had that hard-bitten city reporter attitude. He was my adviser as I liked his fiction and he liked the fact that I was a bit older than the other students and not so naive and wide-eyed. Poet Bill Tremblay was from Jack Keroauc's hometown and played football before turning to poetry. He was more coach than academic. Mentor to many poets and the faculty member that you knew would turn up for every student reading. I worked for him as student editor of the campus literary magazine, the Colorado Review.

Mary Crow was the other poetry prof. She may have been the most academic of the bunch. She traveled widely, was bilingual and made sure that students got a taste of writers from all over the world through the visiting writers program. Receptions were always held at her house, potlucks where us budding writers got a chance to gnosh and chat with writers such as Paul Monette, Linda Hogan, Tomaz Salamun, and Gwendolyn Brooks. Mary talked me into being the M.F.A. student rep to the university's Fine Arts Program, which led to my career in arts administration -- more about that later. Leslee Becker was a fine short story writer and quirky human. She mentored us short story writers and also LGBT students in the English department.

One of my four semester-long workshops was with short story writer Steve Schwartz. I learned a lot in the workshop, but possibly the best info I got from Steve was about the Colorado Council on the Arts' Arts Education program. I applied, was accepted, and next thing I know, I'm signed up to spent a month in Peetz on the prairie as a paid visiting writer. The goal was to mentor high school students for half the day and write the other half. I never made it to Peetz as a writer/teacher, The students never knew what they missed, and neither did I. My job in Wyoming would place me in charge of a visiting writers program called Tumblewords, brainchild of the Western States Arts Federation (WESTAF), then located in Santa Fe, now in Denver.

Most of these writers who also were teachers are now retired, as I am. A new crew took over, which is the way of things. I learned so much from them, and I was able to work with them in new and interesting ways when I found my calling.

In my next installment, I'll talk about all the good stuff I learned during my three years in the M.F.A. program. Stay tuned...

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