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…

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