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MFA Nostalgia

Last night I visited my old campus. It’s a city campus, walled in, where I spent two-and-a-half years in MFA courses (I took an extra semester for thesis workshop) and then two-and-a-half more years “writing” the thesis (more like keeping my cheap & cushy couples housing that I won by lottery) and more years have passed since even those. After I graduated, and thus lost the apartment, E and I moved out of the neighborhood and now I rarely go back.

I’ve been in regret mode lately: I shouldn’t have started my MFA straight out of college, I just wasn’t ready. I shouldn’t have gone to such an expensive school. I should have graduated straightaway instead of keeping that apartment (although dodging the loan payments sure was helpful). I should have used my connections to get a more interesting job. I should have used my connections period. Mostly, I should have made better use of my time there. Should have, could have, you know the rest.

So it was with trepidation that I took the subway there last night. I was meeting a friend nearby, but I got off a stop early, my old stop, just to have a look around. My supermarket is gone, the building now turning into condos. My favorite newsstand is still there, with the great selection of literary journals, as usual. They didn’t remember me. The famous diner where E and I got food poisoning (we suspect the french fries) is still there. The bar I never really went to is gone. I felt out of place, and yet right at home at the same time.

I kept walking. I approached the gates of campus. The lights were up in the trees, just how I’d remembered it. I walked in to the middle of the lawn, where the buildings spread out all around me, and it all came back in a wave: how happy I had been there, how much I had loved it.

I had to take a moment, so I sat on a bench. This same bench, overlooking the main campus and just below the art school, is where I have a clear memory of sitting, my second year in the program. I recall it clearly: I had come from a workshop class that had gone really well, and I was delighted, and embarrassed, by the comments I’d received. I was living three blocks away with E, who was about to start film school. I had just starting writing the manuscript I thought would become my first published novel. I was editor of the literary journal. I knew it would soon be over, all of it. And I told myself to remember that moment, because there would come a day when it would be so far over I wouldn’t even recall what it felt like to be there. I’d be paying off all those loans I blindly signed. I’d be working a boring job. I wouldn’t have the time to write for hours every day.

I was right, here I am, and all those things have come true. So was it worth it? Before the trip to campus I would have said probably not. After, though, and especially during, I would have said maybe.

Maybe it was.

But also, sitting there on that bench on the night-lit campus, I looked up at the art school where I had all my classes and felt . . . incomplete. Like I haven’t done right by the experience as of yet. Like I’m not working hard enough. Like I should be sitting here now, in the 40 minutes I have left before I go in to work, and be writing something real instead of this post. Something is missing and it’s all on me. Whatever I expected of that experience hasn’t happened yet.

On the subway ride home, hours later, I ran into an old acquaintance from college far, far away in the Midwest. A coincidence. Another coincidence was that the friend who was with her had finished an MFA in the same program I did, a few years after me. She leaned over and asked how it was going. I shrugged and said okay I guess. So that means no million dollar book deal? she asked. No, I admitted. And she laughed, and I laughed, and how absurd that is to wish for, to expect. My own delusions are so simple now. I just want to finish writing a good book and get it published. You could pay me two dollars. That would not help me pay off my student loans, but it would sure be the best two dollars I’ve ever come across in my entire life.

I’m feeling a little more motivated now. I want to live up to my own expectations. I want to go back to that campus one day and have not a single doubt remain. It could happen. My spot on the bench is waiting…

10 thoughts on “MFA Nostalgia

  1. thanks for this post. i understand regret mode. i feel these same things every single day, and right now as i type from my cubicle.

    yes, it will happen! good luck, nova. keep writing and i will, too.

  2. you are so fucking right–you definitely could pay me two dollars, and it would be the BEST two dollars ever if it was for my novel (thank goodness I’m “anonymous” here).🙂

    I love this post, I am still in my MFA program (doing some similar things–elongating my stay however I can), trying VERY hard to not have regrets. How do I squeeze more!

    anyway–i wish you BEST!

  3. I sometimes wake up in a panic because of feelings like you have described here. Remember when I said how often when I’m on holiday visiting friends, only afterwards do I realise that I’ve spent part of that precious time in a kind of daze, not having the wonderful conversations and connecting with them but just kind of letting the experience pass. I feel like a lot of my ‘career’ life has been like that, and like you descibe your experience here.

    Maybe we’re just not fast people. We don’t always spot the clearest routes or the ways of doing things that are obvious to other seemingly more *successful* people. We didn’t figure out that in order to have matching underwear you buy one bra and 7 pairs of the same knickers (I never did figure out what you call them over there – is knickers a funny word to use?).

    It’s your perception of you and it does matter but it’s also not what others see. To me you are phenomenally impressive. I look at the things that you’ve done and I’m in awe. It was worth it, and it’s early days still – nobody needs to have achieved what they want to achieve in their twenties for goodness sake – or in their thirties or forties or even ever. We are all Katy Archer [obscure personal reference that I hope you remember me talking about!] to someone else – even I have to accept that!

    Anyway, I don’t know what I’m doing with this ‘giving you advice’ tone that I seem to have used. What nonsense! I know nothing🙂

  4. Sharon, Thank you so much for this comment, it means a lot.

    Of course I remember Katy Archer!

    p.s. panties, or—less sexy-sounding—underwear🙂

  5. This post really touched me. I’m currently in my final year of a B.A. degree, and I’m having many of the same feelings you have expressed in your post, feelings of how great university has been, questions of what to do next (I’ve applied to teacher’s college, but have also thought a lot about a masters…. maybe sometime) and also questions about how I’ll remember this place in 5, 10, even 20 years when I come to visit it – what will it be like then? Will it still be that same place that I loved so dearly for the past four years? And will any place I go next compare to how great university has been? And can I tell you how relieving it is to hear someone say they wish they had taken more time before continuing studies….what a blessing to hear! Thank you for sharing your memories and adventures through your blog. From one writer, and student, to another……thanks.

  6. I know this is an oldie but I stumbled across it via your bio – how rewarding it must be for you to re-read this now! I have had a lot of the same regrets/doubts about not making the most of connections and opportunities (like being too young, at 16, to properly capitalise on a gig as a book reviewer on a national TV network), starting a degree too soon, studying writing in a formal setting at all (the first things I had published after graduating from a Professional Writing degree had to be heavily edited because I’d drowned my own voice in academiacspeak). But stories like this remind us that whenever we’re in the midst of doubt and angst about our decisions, it’s only because we haven’t reached the end of our story yet – and when we do, it will all make sense…

    Congrats on your work and success!

    • Thank you so much for this comment… I had forgotten this post, and reading it back now is so surreal! Thank you for pointing me here, and for the kind words. Best of luck to you!

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