In a letter to a friend written at the peak of Virgo season, Anton Chekhov wrote, “Medicine is my lawful wife and literature is my mistress.” Wikipedia touts that he is “considered one of the greatest writers of all time,” Russian or otherwise. But he was never a student of the arts; he spent his days watching human beings fall apart and doing what he could to reverse the human condition, something that is temporary, painful, and disgusting to look at.
I graduate this week and people are very curious about what I’m going to do with my dual degree in English and Russian. Most people assume graduate school is the immediate next step, but studying what, they ask? Am I going to do literary criticism? Slavic studies? The discourse-filled topic of a Master of Fine Arts program arises.
The most common reason I hear to pursue an MFA in creative writing is that it gives you time to write. That’s true: four years of writing classes and workshops is certainly several hours — 4,320 — given the length of an academic year and the assumption you are writing for six hours a day.
I’m not convinced of the importance of this, though. I like to think of Chekhov with his unreadable Russian cursive doctor-scrawl, scribbling the start of a short story on the back of a discarded prescription between appointments. A poem can come at a stoplight or during a breastfeeding session or when your partner is sleeping and you have to reach over their sweaty back to grab your phone from the nightstand.
Writing is best when it’s real. Not autobiographical, but real — filled with aberrations copy-pasted together from bizarre one-time interactions and comforting long-time conversations with friends. Healthcare, for example, is centered around people’s bodies and, by extension, their deepest vulnerabilities. There are raw nerve endings underneath Chekhov’s concise language.
Extending the thin, shimmery bubble of academia over your head isn't the only way to become a good writer. It’s one, but it shouldn’t be the expected path. For one, it’s incredibly expensive and not very accessible. Fully-funded programs are the only logical option for most. These competitive applications operate on recommendations and subjective tastes, making rejections feel like an attack on your personhood.
Experience enriches fiction and poetry as well as memoir. Work and family life encourage connective tissue to grow between people. The best authors, even ones with uneventful lives by the standards of our trauma-obsessed culture, suck up the mundane details of the world and turn them into something moving.
For example, a co-worker who worked as a veterinary technician told me about a surgery she attended where a stomach-shaped wad of carpet was removed from a dog. My dad repo’ed cars and had a crowbar slammed into his stomach. One of my first Russian tutors learned Serbian while he was in a Navy submarine. Occupational experiences provide spectacular images and teach empathy and vulnerability.
I’m in no rush to enter a rigorous workshop where genre exists in sharply defined categories. I’d rather spend a year sorting colorful antibiotics into bottles, interviewing engineers to write project proposals or teaching cellular respiration to kids in Montana. If I ever do decide to pursue an MFA program, it’ll be three kids and five jobs later. I’m still looking for my lawfully wedded wife, though I have my mistress ready for when I meet her.
Nell Johnson is a beat reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be reached on Twitter @peachnells or at firstname.lastname@example.org
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