I was having my hair cut recently in my home town in the English countryside, enjoying a break from the perpetual motion machine of New York. Not a terribly interesting thing in itself, but when you’re in the summer bridging your two-year MFA program, with your thesis relentlessly vying for your attention, any moments in which you can sit and relax are worth noting. So there I was, happily trapped at the mercy of the hairdresser, trying to look uninteresting enough to avoid conversation, when:
“So what do you do?” she asks innocently.
Oh god. Do I ignore her? Should I lie? I know where this is going. “I’m a master’s student,” I tell her.
“Oh, what do you study?”
Say English Literature. Say Business. “Creative Writing,” I say, and her face twists into a grimace. I should’ve just said English.
“Oh, writing. Where do you study?”
This part is always fun. I am from a small English town, after all. “New York,” I say, trying to find the tone in my voice that’s between haughty and modest.
“Writing in New York, wow.”
“It’s no big deal, really.”
“So you’re published?”
I knew I should’ve lied. “Um. No.”
“But you’re writing a book?”
Here we go. There’s no backing out now. “Yes, I suppose. A novel. A thesis. A first draft.”
“So when will it come out?”
“That’s not quite how it works,” I concede.
“Oh. So what do you do with a Creative Writing master’s?”
The uninterrupted sound of snipping.
Since starting my MFA in New York over a year ago, I’ve become wary of interactions like these. Perhaps we can blame my reserved nature (a cross we British folk must eternally bear) or my uncommonly interrogative hairdresser, rather than the MFA itself. But I fear the two seem to be umbilically linked.
The reason for this is simple enough. An MFA is a pursuit of a passion. There is no obvious or easy answer when asked where we are going, because there is no real career plan. Well, there is, but it’s a rather hopeful one, and goes like this: Step 1.) Continue writing. Step 2.) Be paid.
In my first Creative Writing class at university we were told that half of us would go on to publish. Not half of our twenty-person class, but rather half a person, statistically. We looked around, glumly wondering which person it would be. And which half. One cannot help but ask: Is this a worthwhile venture?
The scissors snipping millimeters from my earlobe stopped me from reacting too vigorously, but as I was floundering about with “ums” and “well, you sees,” all the encounters of this sort suddenly came back to me. Taxi-drivers asking if it wouldn’t have been a better idea to study business and write on the side; friends remarking how jealous they are that I get to write stories while they take exams; and now the hairdresser, trying to work out what it is one can do with a Creative Writing degree. In the heat of the moment, my response was muttered, something like “Hopefully it’ll all come together. I could go into publishing or teaching…” But — and blame it on my injured pride — I have since changed my stance. And here it is:
An MFA student is a strange thing to be. It is wonderful. But strange. I often make the mistake, along with those who are not literarily inclined, of thinking that a Creative Writing MFA is akin to treading water between the shore and the paradise island.
The shore is littered with undergraduate creative writing courses, old, full notebooks and nights spent hopelessly wondering how it is that a book has kept you awake for so long. The paradise island on the other hand, is that fabled thing: a professional writer’s life. There is sunshine, a light breeze, a feeling of belonging. You are on stage inviting probing questions from moderators and fans alike, and imparting wisdom that only comes after spending hard years chiseling away at your masterpiece. Here there are publishers, agents, glowing reviews, fellowships and even old high school bullies queuing up to get your autograph.
And in the swell between them, alas, is the MFA student, doggy-paddling through rejections, networking opportunities and homework, knowing which direction to go, but not knowing if they can keep their little legs kicking long enough to get there.
But this is not the case. Or, at least, not the whole picture.
The endless doggy-paddling feeling can be apt; we can all testify to that. But the reality, the thing that is the real benefit of an MFA, the real answer to the hairdresser’s query: “What are you going to do with my MFA?” is that I don’t know, but whatever it is, I am already doing it.
The paddle is not the empty task it seemed, but a journey full of the infinite possibilities that spread out with the current from the paradise island. The island is still there, but there are certainly opportunities of equal value in the swell. Our indefinable aim, therefore, is a godsend. And, I say, I do not want a definable role in this world. We are adaptable, hungry, and able to apply our skills wherever we see fit. That is why I have become a writer. What’s more, that’s why I am enjoying being an “emerging writer,” as they say, in New York. You cannot doggy-paddle a block here without bumping into inspiration.
I remember my first week of joining the MFA program here, happily having ignored the thoughts that succeeding was too improbable. Within weeks I was wandering around the Brooklyn Book Festival, meeting people who were defending free-expression, writing book reviews, spearheading literary movements, teaching, talking and writing writing writing. I realize now that I am going to have to grow my hair to extraordinary lengths in order to have enough time to explain to my hairdresser the possibilities that are on offer to us MFA-ers.
And, speaking of her, if, by some cosmic turn of fate, my hairdresser in Norfolk has managed to stumble upon this post, then I want you to know, though I will continue to share my adventures and experience, I don’t know what you do with a Creative Writing master’s, and no one else does either. But we are all happy to paddle about until we do. And thank god for that.
Josh King is a second-year MFA student at Adelphi University in New York, and moved from the UK in 2014. He is editor-at-large for the literary website Village of Crickets and divides his time between writing fiction and sampling the New York literary scene.