In 2011, I began pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing degree at University of Central Florida. Having turned 40 the previous year, I was inspired by the passing of time to step up, take the GRE, and get my act together. I had a great full-time job, a stable home and supportive partner, so it was time to mix it up and with my green monogrammed L.L. Bean backpack over one shoulder, off to school I went.
I remember the first day of that first semester. I left work, giving myself plenty of time to get to campus, eat dinner, and find my classroom. I drove and drove and realized that the commute to school from work was 45 minutes. I would make that trip some semesters 2 or 3 times per week. I thought to myself, “What have I done?”
After submitting my first assignments, and noting how long it had been since I had to list proper citations on an academic paper, I knew I made a few mistakes. I mentally beat myself up over it, and even more so at the end of that first semester when I received an A- for my grade. (That was the only A- I received in my program – I vowed not to let that happen again.)
I was approached by a faculty member, David James (Jamie) Poissant, that first semester, asking if I would be interested in helping to start a graduate reading series, to create a safe public space for MFA students to get practice reading their creative works aloud in front of a group. I joined forces with Leslie Salas and Kirsten Holt, and a month or so later, we launched, PARCELS: MFAs in Progress, and I’m so pleased to see the series continue to run today. (Dr. Poissant has just published his latest book, The Heaven of Animals: Stories.)
There were a few semesters I thought I was in over my head. Again, I asked myself, “What have I done? What have I gotten myself into?” Despite self-doubt creeping in now and then, I kept clear about my objective and I did whatever it took to get everything done. Some weeks I would work 45 or 50 hours, read two novels, and write a paper or two. Just when I thought there wasn’t any more I could do, I did more. I pushed my personal limits of achievement, and learned to use time in an entirely different way.
This past week, on Wednesday, March 12, I defended my 152-page thesis, Stories I Told Myself: A Memoir. It’s a collection of personal essays about what it was like growing up gay in a small farming city on California’s central coast in the 1980s. I sat before the 3 members of my committee and 5 other students who were present to show their support (Thank you for being there Sean, Madison, Gabrielle, Jeffrey and Genevieve). I answered a series of questions about my creative work, a project I have spent the last three years developing. It was exhilarating and I was not nervous. This was an opportunity to talk about my writing, in an almost NPR-style discussion.
After 45 minutes or so, the committee excused everyone, including me. We milled about in the hallway, speculating as to whether or not they would approve my thesis. A few minutes passed, the classroom door opened, and my thesis chair, Darlin’ Neal, PhD, opened the door and said, “Congratulations!” I walked in the room and Dr. Lisa Roney and Ms. Laurie Rachkus Uttich also wished me well. My thesis had been approved. All that remained was for me to submit the final version to the University, and submit a form with a variety of signatures on it. It was done. A few weeks remain in the class I’m taking this semester, and I will graduate on May 1.
While I was and am thrilled the thesis was well received and approved by my committee and that milestone is complete, there is a growing gap in my heart as the final weeks of school pass. My pursuit of this MFA was not solely for the final acknowledgement and diploma of completion. The passionate conversations about truth in nonfiction, about the use of commas and semi-colons, about whether nonfiction should be with or without a hyphen, were exhilarating to me. Being around younger people kept me inspired and jolted my joie de vivre! The books, people and stories I was introduced to over the past three years ran the gamut and I am a better reader, writer and editor for it. And two AWP conference trips to Chicago and Boston were simply icing on the literary cake. It was each step along the way that fed my soul and inspired me in so many ways. And as I see the end in sight, I have already found myself making lists of things to do post-MFA.
Whatever may appear on that list, I know nothing will compare to the myriad friendships I have forged, the learning I have gleaned, and the growth I have enjoyed in these past three years. And soon, very soon, I will sit briefly to reflect, only to ask myself, “What’s next?”