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Not This Year, Sports Fans

November 5, 2010

Today is the UBC MFA application deadline. I’d planned to apply; maybe I mentioned it. Probably for sure I did, because I was pretty stoked about it. The chances of my being accepted were not high, but it was within the realm of possibility; I’ve got an attractive CV and great references and was in the process of compiling a portfolio of writing that didn’t suck.

So I was damn surprised last week when I stopped working on my application. Set the pen down mid-translation and started to give it all a real serious think. Hyperventilation and tears ensued. I was just so confused and angry all of a sudden. Full of questions I’d obviously been putting a lot of effort into not letting myself become consciously aware of over the past few months. For example: Why the hell am I doing this?

I’m not saying it’s not a good program; I’m not saying people shouldn’t apply to it (or to other similar programs). It is a good program. People should apply to it. I was excited about applying to it myself, and it hurts not to; it’s rained a lot more in my apartment this week than it’s rained outside.

I’m even more not saying that nobody should write or literature is not worth anyone’s time or the world is right to treat people with humanities backgrounds the way it treats them. A real writer can’t stop writing, and literature is worth everyone’s time, and the way the world treats humanities graduates is fucking appalling. You’ve all heard me say all of these things over and over.

But what I am saying, what my brain finally said to me, is You can’t afford it and it’s not necessary. It said You crave stability and you’re attracted to what’s familiar and you’re not thinking about what’ll happen after the program is over. Best case scenario: you’ve successfully completed the MFA and your first poetry collection or your screwy experimental memoir is about to be released. Awesome! Golf clap! If it weren’t for the opportunities and connections you received and made in the program, it would have taken you longer to get that book published. Let’s say the launch goes fabulously well and you sell 60 books. Golf clap! You meet a bunch of other published writers and professors and they say nice things to you about your ability to write sentences and read out loud. Golf clap!

Now pay your rent, though. Pay your rent and pay off the $20,000 in student loan debt. You’re 33 years old and you have three Master’s degrees. Pay your rent–in fact, preferably, pay your mortgage–and your debt and keep in mind that you have to pay it with money, not with literary opportunities or compliments or talent or connections, and god knows not with book sales, whether it’s the poetry collection or the freaky memoir, and not with your partner’s income either, because you don’t have one of those, and let’s be honest, can anyone imagine you dating anyone? Can even the most compassionate and optimistic of your friends sustain that mental image for a protracted length of time? You are one of the top ten strangest people in Vancouver.

Yikes. Maybe it went a bit overboard at the end there, but the brain did have a point. Several of them, really.

I can’t afford to spend thousands and thousands of dollars on a program that will almost certainly never pay for itself on a practical level. In ca$h money dollarzz, I mean. To reiterate, it would be a wonderful two years. I’d learn from great professors, I’d make friends of the lifelong variety. But do you know what you get when you publish a poem in a journal? A free copy of the journal. That sounds like a punch line but it isn’t, it’s just reality. Reality is, it takes decades to build a writing career whether you have an MFA or not. If you want to be a professional writer, you have to either fall in love with Dr. Science in your early thirties (preferably earlier) or spend a decade or two working a day job while you establish yourself. Fact.

As a recovering crackademia addict, I know how relentlessly tempting it is to put yourself in a situation that looks good. To spend your days on a beautiful campus, to get compliments from accomplished tenured scholars, to see As on papers and 4.0s on transcripts, to get to tell people you’re a grad student in this or that competitive difficult subject and to bask in the ensuing admiration. To feel legitimate.

But ideally, the world would find it interesting and relevant that I am actually kinder, happier, more intelligent, more well-rounded, and a much more considerate and open-minded person for having left graduate school three years ago. Completing my PhD would never have given me the perspective and depth of character that I have now, and listening to Jay-Z for half an hour every morning gives me more confidence than earning that degree ever could have. It is, of course, endlessly frustrating that dead-end jobs are all I can find, that it takes months of effort and rejection to find even those, and that a not-negligible percentage of the customers and higher-level coworkers I encounter in these jobs treat me contemptuously, dismissively, like I’m not a human being at all. (Ironic considering how long I spent studying the humanities, but anyway.) I suppose the idea of being accepted to the MFA program, doing that degree, meeting those professors and making friends with others with similar interests and personalities centered me during what has been, outside of my program, an extremely difficult, unstable, and rejection-oversaturated year. It was a means of reassuring myself that I have a future–in Vancouver and in general.

It wasn’t about writing. It had nothing to do with writing, and that’s why it was the wrong path to take. It was a source of temporary relief for my present exhaustion, a means of filling in the black hole of the next two years with something besides getting pushed around for slightly more than minimum wage and sending off endless unsuccessful applications for decently paid jobs. It was about desperation to prove my value to a city that’s spent the past ten months telling me I’m worthless. Most of the contentment and all of the success I’ve experienced this year has happened in classrooms or on paper, and my program is winding down, and I felt compelled to seek something similar to fill the space.

Those are terrible reasons to apply to a graduate program. Terrible reasons, people!

Because as a human being, what I can afford even less than I can afford two years of graduate tuition is to do anything that will result in my becoming bitter or angry about writing. Wordplay is the core and essence of my character. I am a writer, bitches! Irregardless–that’s right, irremotherfuckingcocksuckinggardless–of my academic credentials, I am one right now. I’ve been one all my life. I read anything with a pulse, I write in nearly every genre there is, I rock readings whenever I can, I’m involved in workshop groups, I copyedit like a champion, I’ve got a shitload of stuff to submit to journals and there’s more of this stuff every day and it just keeps getting better, so what the fuck, Kate? What the fuck do you need an MFA for? People without MFAs have been doing kickass things with language since like 3000 BC. You don’t have a goddamned thing to prove to anyone who matters. You’re a disciplined and ambitious and versatile and passionate writer and the reason you love it is because you and Indo-European poetics are soulmates, because you want to fuck the brains out of the English language from every last one of the infinity possible positions, because you love the feeling of being in front of a microphone and hearing the freaky magical silence that’s the full attention of everyone in the room, not because you want some diploma on your wall. You have three other diplomas and you don’t even know where the fuck they are.

To sum up–

[holds new Florentine fountain pen aloft]–


I hope to do an MFA eventually. Some day when I can afford it both financially and emotionally, when I’m able to approach it as an enriching experience that will open more doors for me, rather than something I’ve bet my entire future on and must get exactly right because at the end of these two amazing years the universe will collapse on my head and I’ll be an enraged unemployed mess. In the meantime I’m going to do the responsible practical thing and apply for an ESL teaching certificate program. Ten months, full-time, in and out, with gainful, helpful employment to follow.

Writing-wise, as usual, I’m going to just give’r. That’s a plan right there. Golf clap!

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