Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Recovering from my MFA

Here's a fact from my past that I rarely admit: I failed my driver's license test the first time I took it. I was sixteen years old and couldn't complete a three-point turn to save my life. This was on a Friday--my actual sixteenth birthday--and I went home to spend a miserable weekend sulking away in my bedroom, refusing all comfort save an entire package of Nutter Butters.

The next week, I practiced up, my mother in the passenger seat gasping every time the car accelerated, telling me to nudge forward here, that I came too close to the sidewalk there, that I'm signalling too early, too late, that stop does not mean yield. She stood on her own imaginary brake pedal on her side of the car whenever she thought I was going too fast or braking too late. We somehow survived that week together, and the following Friday, I passed the test. And then, finally, I learned how to drive.

Twelve years later, I engaged in an altogether different adventure, though, in many ways, no less harrowing or exhilarating: The Creative Writing MFA program at Queens University. My instructors there were breezy yet approachable, funny, brilliant, encouraging, and terrifying. While my writing surely made them wince, and, in one case laugh out loud despite the fact that the scene was about a woman going into labor and she nor I intended for the incident to be funny, it could not actually imperil their lives, and they did not gasp or hover over imaginary brake pedals. Yet, their instruction was not completely unlike my mother's: you're going too fast here, or, more often, too slow, or, you're stalled out, you missed a turn, you have no idea where you're going, do you? And, occasionally, something my mother never said: I'm enjoying the ride here, you're coasting along just fine. I wrote my thesis, graduated, and then, with a little time and a heck of a lot of practice, my writing started to improve.

I am indebted to my mother for so much more than the driving lessons, of course. And I'm so grateful for all that I learned from my instructors at Queens--even for what the one who laughed taught me. Truly, invaluable lessons. Yet, in both cases, the learning does not come in simple instruction, nor even in generous-hearted guidance: it comes later, when I'm at it on my own. When there's been enough time that the voices in my head--whose approval I wrote for those two years--have quieted, when I've first forgotten and then remembered everything they taught me. When I confront my own drafts with the tools they gave me, when I can discern the direction the story needs to go. It is the instruction and time and practice and reading that bring together what I really have to use: my own sense of momentum and the heft of the thing and the weight with which to lean into the pedal. Writerly instinct. In the beginning, when there's someone with you, it's about being careful, but you have to let go of a bit of that caution as you go, I think. It's about wearing down the sharp edges a bit, trusting yourself more and more. You have to let the sparkling thing--your training--fade just a bit. You have to breathe.