No Horizons: The Post-MFA Blues

Earlier this week, Erin wrote about how she ended up in grad school for creative writing. Today, Katherine talks about what happens after your MFA time is over and real life sets in.

So, Vern, our fearless leader, asked us to write about how we ended up here in Chicago being all literary and scholared. I don’t know if my story is that unique, but I would like to write a little about my experience and what it’s been like for me to learn/relearn “how to be a writer” post-MFA.

So we’ll see how this goes.

First, I am a poet. I am from the inland valley of southern California, known to many as the Inland Empire. David Lynch made a movie called the Inland Empire. I’m not sure if it was set there because I had to skip over, like, 45 minutes of it because it was kind of too weird, even for me, but Laura Dern was in it and she’s pretty awesome + stop motion rabbits.

I attended the University of California, Riverside and received my BA in Creative Writing. This is where I learned how much I loved poetry and publishing. I was the poetry editor and editor of our undergraduate magazine (Mosaic: Art and Literary Journal, check it out, hooray!). I had a professor who almost made me give up on writing poetry all together, in whose office I’m sure I cried at least once and definitely cried many times walking away from, who discouraged me because I didn’t write the way he thought I should write, the way he wrote. I realized I had to go on, get out of there and keep writing and learning.

I applied to seven or eight schools, none of which accepted me, but I did get waitlisted for two, including Columbia College Chicago. In the end, some of their more awesome acceptances must have dropped out, because they called me. I packed up and moved to city I had never even visited to be a poet.

I had the best possible experience. It was exactly what I needed, when I needed it. I was a part of a community of poets, people who were as serious as I was about this art and as crazy enough to pursue it as some kind of professional beast. I wrote a bunch of crappy poems and a bunch of great ones. I read a lot. I found all kinds of magic in poems, essays, art, music, life, films, dance clubs, architecture. Sometimes it really sucked, but sometimes it was better than I could have imagined. I am insanely proud of my thesis, and I hope it will find a home as a book sometime soon. I am proud of myself for not just surviving but thriving out here and through my program.

Like many, I’m sure, I wrote a good ¾ of my thesis within four months. As in, the four months before I graduated. It was sudden and spectacular for me. Things were moving.

I felt awesome. I was about to have an awesome graduate degree. I was staying in awesome Chicago, and going to find an awesome job, write awesome poems, make awesome art, go to awesome places. Awesome!

And then I graduated.

I was unemployed. For three months. Considering the economy, not that bad. But for my psyche, bad. For a person who’d been living within the constant structure of school for 18 years, bad.

I was overcome with my own expectations for myself. I felt as if I’d been left behind by everyone. I went out into the world. I didn’t teach. I never taught during my program. I didn’t have a job lined up for fall semester. It felt as if everything had dissolved around me. I watched a lot of Say Yes to the Dress, drank a lot, felt bad a lot, ate a lot of spaghetti, and wrote two poems.

Admittedly, I suffer from depression. And I’ve always wished that I could be one of those people who can just bear down and work during sad times, but I wallow. So I really wallowed for a while, and felt sad and jealous of the people I knew who got the dream jobs that I did not get.

During this time, I also wrote a lot of emails to my two best friends from college, who were in the Big Transition from post-MFA time abroad to back home. This saved me.

In my conversations with my home-friends, I began to be released from myself. I realized that I did not want or need those jobs. I got a job selling cheese in a grocery store, and I loved it. I wrote two poems in three months, but I wrote two good poems, poems that sparkled. I had to look past that number, which was difficult at first. I’d spent 18 years in school, and six years learning how to be a writer in a workshop.

This is a key revelation in my life right now. I spent six years learning how to write and read the writing of other people. I moved here and did my MFA because I wanted and needed that dependence of the contained program. I owe my growth as a writer to it. I felt lost without it.

Those of us who have gone through graduate programs put ourselves directly into this box because it is relatively safe, even when there is challenge or experimentation within it. Maybe we do it because we are expected to go to college, and when we realize we are not 9-5ers, we get degrees in art. (I can only speak for myself, of course, so forgive me.) Maybe we are (I am) too afraid to fringe, to ride the swerve. For so long, I’d been looking toward and within the horizon, and now there is no horizon. There can be no horizon. No expectation.

-Katherine Sanchez

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  1. I can totally see myself in this piece. I’m a fiction writer who graduated in 2010 and went through a post graduation slump of unemployment filled with self-consciousness and anxiety about my lack of creative production. This entry is inspiring to me because I have pressured myself to achieve those “dream jobs” and all sorts of recognition after my program, almost as if I needed to justify my having gotten the MFA to begin with. However, that is the entire wrong approach, and this entry helps keep things in perspective.

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