When I started the MFA program at William Paterson University, I had never been in a workshop before.
The closest I had come were “critiques” as a freshman art major at community college. I switched majors because I couldn’t handle that kind of criticism. All the attacks felt personal. Nobody ever had anything nice to say. Also, maybe I was bad at painting.
My MFA class was the first ever at William Paterson. It was small, only four students, but we shared classes with MAs (and eventually MFAs who started after us), both in creative writing and literature.
The four of us were clique-ish, is what I’ve since been told. We were intimidating. Bullies. We were intimidating bullies, is what I’ve been told. I don’t agree with this, though who am I to deny people their observations.
I think we bonded over taking the work seriously. We bonded because we knew that we meant it. That it was blood and bone for us. If it wasn’t that way for other people, that’s their problem.
Sharing your writing is one of the most vulnerable things that you can do; criticism of it can feel like someone has taken a bite out of a fleshy part of your skin. It scars. I get it.
But look, these three other people: Liz, Charlie, and Tim? These are incredibly sensitive people, with real concerns about other people’s feelings. I know because they care about my feelings. Friendship matures quickly when you share a common bond of vulnerability.
All the attacks feel personal. It doesn’t matter if you’re bad at painting. How you survive personal attacks is by working on your craft until there’s nothing to attack.
Besides, what’s being perceived as an attack is just a friendly gesture to a spot that could be better defended in case of a real attack. Presumably the real attacks come later, when we’re all doing this for a living, right? That’s the idea anyway.
Because we allowed ourselves to be vulnerable with one another, we also allowed ourselves to be critical of one another. There’s nothing any of them could say to me about something I wrote that would make me mad, because I know that they are attacking me to make me stronger. If you don’t have that bond, things get tougher. A workshop can be a real unfriendly place if you don’t feel like you’re part of a community that cares about your work and is trying to make it better.
I went into the MFA program with the idea that by the end I’d be born fully shaped: a novelist version of Athena. It’s okay that that’s not what happened. It’s partially okay because I met the people who are still shaping me. Although that sounds like they’re going to birth me? Or I guess only one of them would birth me, probably Liz. Which means that they had sex with each other and one of them is pregnant with me?
Look, this is getting graphic and I didn’t really learn about metaphors in the MFA program. None of us ever had sex with each other, is the point. What am I, on trial?
The upside is everything above: community, friendship, love. You form lasting relationships that will change your life for the better. You really do. And you get better at writing, I swear.
The downside is: I’m an adjunct professor. For how much longer, who knows. Teaching sometimes feels like it’s the best thing in the world, but money-wise it’s not a sustainable lifestyle and unfortunately it’s really the only lifestyle that an MFA allows for.
The previous sentence is not entirely true, as Liz is a full-time instructor. Charlie is getting his PhD. Tim works at a hospital where he gets all those benefits I crave.
The MFA allows for whatever you want it to. I was making excuses for myself. Am I a happy person? Did the MFA program make me a happy person? No, probably not. But happy isn’t the point. The point is that we never had sex with each other.
Bobby Fischer lives in Haledon, NJ. He received an MFA from William Paterson in 2012 and has been adjuncting at various schools in NJ ever since.