I started an MFA at Columbia this September. I moved from London to New York in August, and was so excited about the whole thing, being in New York, stripping the craft bare &c, that I ran around the house throwing things into boxes and suitcases and some of them were sharp things and lurked on the floor when dropped and i cut one of my heels and left bloody footsteps everywhere, which was very cool (i thought) until I was snapped at for being 'disgusting and unhygienic'.
When I got here I didn't like it at all, though I tried to. I did try, honest.
It's just that didn't know that many apprentice writers were quite so sociable and organised quite so many readings and things to go to. The classes demanded more writing about writing than I was able to keep up with. Actually I don't know what on earth I'd been expecting. I should have realised that writing programs are for writers with a system, writers who have sufficient self awareness to consistently adapt different literary techniques and styles into their own. Admirable people who can read to a deadline, go to class and make intelligent comments, then go to a reading at a wine bar in the evening and listen to more words. This is not a program for the fellow who hides in bed for as long as possible because sleep is sweeter than life, fortifies herself with green tea at noon and chai in the evening, has very bad dreams whenever she is writing and, despite her best efforts, is unable to organise the jumble that she gratefully puts down when it comes. It is possible that such a fellow would drop out of an MFA because the program holds a mirror to her process and reveals it to be a murky labryinth that can't sustain itself.
O and I didn't know that workshops were such dread. Three hours of it, even. Time yawned. The fellow who comes from bed to workshop can only stammer 'I think this story is existential.' Why do you think that, the workshop leader asks. 'Er...because, it's...well, it's existential.'
I am none too swift. Since September I have been outraged by the expectation that I'm to write and function at the same time. The classes paralyze whatever ideas I have for stories. One class, called 'love, marriage and family in premodern europe', an elective i picked from the history faculty, is the king. We read about Burgundian marriage laws. 'Should a woman want a divorce, let her be smothered in mire.' It gave me ideas that workshop crushed. I've been reluctant to critique the work of the other writers in my workshop because I can't imagine that a writer wouldn't have their own instinct for what wasn't working in their piece. I have glugged furiously from my water bottle when it's time to comment, knowing that I can't laugh manically with a mouthful of water (unless I want to drown), also knowing that I can't be expected to speak if I'm seen to be drinking. It's bothered me that workshop takes the definition of a finished piece away from the person who's written it and puts it in the hands of the people who are critiquing it. Aside from the wonderful writers I've met, my time on the MFA has been a great sorrow to me.
I'd never heard of Shirley Jackson before (please allow me to play the Englishwoman card), but when I came across her novels, We have always lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House on the Barnes and Noble website, I snapped them up, thinking they might help with the new novel I began in the summer (and haven't touched since starting at Columbia) which features a starving girl and a sentient house. I despatched of both in a day, despite lingering over the words to try and make the books last longer. When I came to the end I knew what I had to do to differentiate the four different voices in this novel I'm writing. It was like learning electricity by running along tube train tracks in big rubber boots. I felt the movement in the prose, the unrelenting craft with which Jackson handfeeds the reader darkness. What better way to understand voice than to let the voice of a murderous thirteen year old, or of a thirty four year old poltergeist magnet, crash over you unanalysed? It was like being let into a treasure trove and coming out with my pockets stuffed full of gold secreted there by sprites who knew more than me, anticipated my needs before i did. One day versus four months.
I'm moving to Paris next month, and I'm not sorry at all.