When people ask me whether they should attend an MFA program I give a different answer each time, but there is one thing I want to emphasize now.
I don't talk about this very much because I know this will come across as negative, but one of the best things about attending an MFA program was that it broke me. Right away.
Not breaking in an evil-competitive-students-made-me-cry-in-workshop kind of way (90% of the students were graciously considerate in their critiques, and I only cried once, not in class but in the ladies' room) nor breaking me in a there-can-be-only-one-genre regime we so often hear about in programs (remember Ben Percy's words: "genre is a phantom barrier").
What I mean is, it broke me with the abrupt but quickly needed realization I wasn't a goddamn snowflake, and neither was my writing.
Look: life is short. Too short. And every day there are millions of people hacking away at their stories who believe writing will save them. I could have spent years typing away in a coffee shop and thinking the novel I was inching toward completion would be the golden ticket and I would be discovered and rich and win prizes and write whatever for the rest of my days. (there's nothing wrong with daydreaming that. go ahead.)
But upon entering my first grad workshop, within those initial weeks the realization was shoved in my face--in manuscript after manuscript--that all of us had uncannily similar ideas, concepts, architectures. I didn't have a golden ticket. Characters, opening sentences, flashbacks...they were all indistinguishably lined up together as though most of us had worked on the same paper doll string in our sleep. But we had arrived from all over the world to this MFA program--how had these similarities happened?
Well, common psychology and story forms and archetypes, for one.
So we had to learn how to tear our paper dolls neatly away from each other, not being different for difference's sake, for flash and a moment of glory ("your backward, two-column story is SO COOL!"), but for this reason: So what?
Which is another way of saying: where is the tiny atom of meaning that will save someone else who reads this?
Sure the work was okay, it could pass and a lit mag would even pick it up, but it was no longer good enough for me.
My writing broke.
My semesters stripped all of my ideas of their bells and whistles and the bullshit I thought was conceptually brilliant and was actually nothing. I had taken everything very seriously and I had been scared and had overcompensated with trying to impress.
When I broke, I hit bottom, and realized there was nowhere left to go, nothing left to lose, and I needed to start over and just find the core of a good story. For this I was, and am, grateful. So I started there and that became my true MFA.
It's really hard to teach this, by the way, and I learned through the years from professors and from practice.
Just find and shape the core first. Something with heart, then add the complications and conflicts of the heart (faulkner, let's pour one out).
There's a difference between courage and humility and the impression of courage and humility so I suggest you ask yourself which camp you're actually in. If I have a physical reaction to anything while writing it, that is personally a good sign for me I might be getting to the core of something.
Over the next two years of my MFA, I tried to create over and over a story with a heart, something true, and once in a while I stumbled upon it, but way more often I failed. Tin men with beautiful singing voices who never got to see the Wizard. Hundreds of rejections. Hundreds of ideas stripped from the list.
These days I strongly curate my imagination (not without a sense of ridiculousness and play because we need that more than ever, but just...recognizing what's actually a bell or a whistle or a bar story or an epic story), and it will take me many more years, probably the rest of whatever is left, to hit on a few things with heart.
I guess what was the best part of my MFA program, and should be the case of any program, is you learn writing doesn't save you (trust me there's therapy and then there's what you really do after you get the therapy out of the way). It breaks you and it's up to you to save yourself.
No more going after the mythical golden ticket. You'll die doing that. Cleverness is awarded to the moment, not to you. Find the core.