Thursday, April 21, 2011

Guest in Progress: Abdul Ali on His First Year in an MFA Program

As a teacher of graduate writing students, I know what I want and expect from students (as I’ve stated most recently in this post: But I’m not inhuman: I often find myself wondering what the students are thinking. Not in that dry, evaluation form way, but what, really, they’re thinking as they move through the joy and angst that is a writing workshop, that is a writing program.

Naturally I couldn’t ask any of my own students to write up a guest post, as surely they’d come up with 1000 words on how perfect their teacher is—haha. But Abdul Ali is a Facebook friend who has posted from time to time about his experiences as a first year MFA student, and so I was very happy when he agreed to give us a glimpse from his spot at the workshop table.

Musings on My First Year
By Abdul Ali

Two weeks stand between me and my first completed year as a newly baptized MFA-er. I wish I could tell you that this all began long ago with me deciding on a fire escape of some New York tenement building that when I grow up I wanted to be a writer and then it all sort of happened in no particular order—a miracle of sorts—but of course most things don’t happen as miracles.

As I move into these last two weeks of classes it occurs to me that I’ll actually have some time to finally write. Ironic, you might think? Not really. I thought that I’d be writing nonstop when I started this program but the deadlines creep up on you. Those lit courses. Close readings. Re-readings. Multiple readings. Then there’s your six year old. Parent-teacher conferences. And money wires to western union to your mom. And, if you’re lucky not to have to pay for your degree, you have departmental duties. I’m an editor of a literary magazine which takes on a whole other life of its own, not to mention that it has deadlines of its own which suck away at your juice.

And if you already think I have way too much on my plate, dig this: I also fancy myself as a culture writer, so I’m constantly finding ways to submit my 850 words somewhere. It gives me goosepimples just thinking about how I love to feel my pulse and know exactly which play is opening this weekend. What artsy film I must see, which party I might get invited to. (This is my alter ego talking really.) But it’s not a crappy way to make a living: free tickets to see plays or a film. I interview really cool people, and I get a check.

But, of course, this is not what I’m supposed to be talking about. You probably want to know about the workshops. Are they really worth it? Do I take away anything from them? The answer, of course, is yes and no. There are some wonderfully talented writers in my program who make great peer readers. Their comments are most often on point. And I’m grateful for the two or three who exist in my workshops. But for the most part, the others are pedantic little shits who make gratuitously mean comments all over your pages. I remember one colleague commented on the music inside my poem, and I thought, Huh? Well, what kind of music? Are we talking Bebop, Blue grass, Country or Techno? I mean if you’re gonna be musical in your critique, why not be specific? Then there’s this other student who makes a face like she smelled spoiled cheese whenever someone reads their work. (I could go on. . .)

In the end, though, I’m not even sure if the workshops have anything to do with the writing, the journey, the real work that every writer must do to stretch oneself and discover his or her daring. Though, if given the right circumstances, a workshop can enhance one’s sensibilities and make for good writing. Something occurred to me this year, I realized: everyone is in the program for a different reason. I’m not there to become a writer. I was a writer before I applied to the program. I’m there to work on my craft and develop something that I’m proud of.

And yet, I’m reminded of a quiet lesson from the late Lucille Clifton, whom I met at a reading she gave here in the District a few years back. She whispered conspiratorially in my ear, you don’t need an MFA to write good poems. I guess I’m trying to hold on to that and take the MFA experience for what it is and not what so many make it out to be.

Two weeks stand between me and my first completed year as a newly baptized MFA-er. I wish I could tell you that this will all end with me listening to John Coltrane and stealing time away from my other writing to finish this blog post. And in so doing, I can convince some reader out there that we really can write a life that we dreamed of as children. The thing is, and I’m not sure they tell you this in your MFA program, the real work begins outside the workshop starting with the first line which leads to the next, then the next, unmediated by outside critique— except for that voice in your head.

About:  Abdul Ali is a poet and a writer living in Washington, D.C.

[Read more about the issue of whether or not to get an MFA here:]


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.