Getting accepted into an MFA program is tough stuff — at some of the top programs, the acceptance rate is lower than at Harvard Medical School. So with that acceptance comes the assumption that you’ll be among professional grown-ups who are sophisticated, bright, and put-together. You’ve mentally prepared yourself. You’ve read all the required books. And perhaps some MFA programs are like that: all sophisticated and grown-up.
My own experience felt that way on rare occasions. But most of the time, it didn't. Three months in, and I felt like it was 10 years earlier and I was walking down the halls of my high school, full of nerves and excitement and hormones. (More on hormones later.)
Maybe those in my program had spent too many years as the quiet kids in school (we were English majors, after all — we were mild-mannered and polite to adults and didn’t stay up after 2 a.m.). Perhaps we had some pent-up drama that we needed to get out. Whatever the case, the three years I spent working on my master's degree were characterized by more high school tropes than my actual high school experience. Pretty soon, my life felt more like an episode of MTV's Awkward. than graduate school.
Here's what I mean:
Oh, the gossip. You think that rumor Rachel Bell spread back in 6th period about you hooking up in the utility closet was bad? Now, there are rumors that you're dating the professor (or at least, getting some "extra help" on those assignments). And instead of 200 students in your graduating class, it's 20. Word gets around fast. Gossiping could have been an elective course in my program, given the amount of time we spent on it.
Sure, in 10th grade when Connie got her new car you were super-jealous, but when Rob from fiction workshop has a story accepted in McSweeney’s? Oh, the daggers I shot from my eyes. What follows is that perky, “I’m so happy for you!” response, which sounds just a tad too forced. And also: There are secret writing groups that you may or may not be invited to join. Talk about a bitter sting of jealously.
Sparknotes were everything in high school. During my MFA, not only was a writer or two copying another writer, but also copying themselves — turning in pieces they’d written for undergraduate classes. Loss of funding and academic probation are a lot more life-changing than going to detention.
Popular kids? Check. Jocks? Yep. Outcasts? You bet. The cliques in my program formed almost immediately, determined largely by the perceived quality of your writing. The “good” writers hung out and talked trash about the “bad” ones. The “bad” ones hung out and talked about the lack of acceptance in workshop. The outcasts wrote weird science fiction that no one could understand. And seniority? Absolutely. First semester grad students left workshop in a shaking mess after the second years got their hands on their manuscripts.
5. RAGING HORMONES
My entire MFA experience felt like the last hour of senior prom — all the pressure and nerves of waiting to see if you were going to hook up or not. Wondering if you should have just one more drink at that literary event and then see if the cute guy in your workshop class wants to “get out of here.” Everyone had crushes on everyone. And everyone knew about it. (See how gossip gets around?) There were hookups. (Guilty.) There were girls that were sort of mean to you because they had a crush on the same guy. (Guilty again.) There were house parties with a lot of wine and whiskey and drinking games and 4 a.m. and crashing on the couch (or bed). There were actual restraining orders. (No, really. There were.) If that doesn’t define the word raging, then nothing does.
By the way, MFA newbies: Happy back to school.
Images: Elisabeth Carden/MTV