To MFA Or To Not MFA, That Is The Question

Whenever someone asks me how I weathered the isolation of the pandemic, I proudly announce, “I wrote a book.” I admit I didn’t accomplish that feat without support. A little over a month ago, I completed the Memoir Incubator program at a well-known writing center in Boston, and as a result of the experience, I completed a first draft. While I expected the rigor of the eleven-month program, my lack of formal preparation and real world writing experience put me at a deficit. Surrounded by authors, journalists, and Ivy League grads, my Boston College education and advanced degrees in Education gave me little credibility. It might have been in my head but I felt like a second class citizen. Whether or not my perception mirrored reality, I saw myself as inferior, unskilled, and remedial. In my exit interview,” my instructor said, referring back to the beginning, almost a year earlier, “You were a little wet behind the ears.”

I won’t sugarcoat the situation. Every minute was a struggle. The thought of quitting nagged at me and required a lot of “put on your big girl panties” self-talk. I showed up every week, panicked, overwhelmed, working overtime to learn everything thrown at me, all the while writing new words and editing what I had already produced. I had applied and been accepted to this competitive program, and I spent months wondering how I got in and what made me think this was a good idea. 

Now on the other side of “the year that was,” I realize how much I gained from surviving the experience. I learned how important writing was to me, enough so that I was willing to bare my incompetence to this accomplished group. I latched on to the techniques and ideas shared by my instructor and guest authors, and employed the ideas to improve upon what I had written. I re-wrote–a lot. I learned how to read critically and offered constructive feedback in editorial letters. I have been able to apply what I learned in my college counseling business. My own essays are stronger and I’ve had a few pieces published. Still, I sense something is missing. I scooped up the crumbs of information as they were scattered before me but I needed the whole story, in one place. I craved something comprehensive and focused, with a bonus of credibility and credentials. 

When I float the idea of another graduate program, a Master of Fine Arts, to family and friends,  the reactions are mixed. My husband, Tim, anticipates retiring in about a year and a half. He fears going into debt for another degree, especially at this point in life. I have sheltered him from the actual tuition costs of the MFA program until I figure out a combination of IRA withdrawals, loans, and cash. Of all the stumbling blocks, this is the biggest. I am not young and spending this money now is an enormous gamble. 

My son didn’t mince words. A writer himself, he said, “What the hell do you want to do that for?” It was an honest, impulsive response but as we discussed the possibility, he said, “I get it, Mum. The days of the Bukowski types are over. There are few who make it on sheer talent.” We discussed the reality of the writing community. Our shared experiences in stand-up comedy came to mind. Comedians laugh loud and affirmingly for their fellow comedians in a pretentious way. Similarly, writers cheer each other on and puff each other up. While connections within the discipline help, in the end, talent combined with a curriculum vitae full of residencies, publications, and advanced degrees in writing affirm potential and help pave the way to success. I only wish that someone would recognize my Bukowski-like way with words without needing all the superfluous trappings to back up my raw talent (my apologies to Charles…).

Another writing friend initially reacted similarly, and like my son, shifted her thinking. After questioning the prudence of an MFA at this point in my life, she reaffirmed my son’s observations. It’s a tough field. I started to think, I really do need to do this. The idea intrigued and terrified me. 

When I applied to the no-residency, fully online program at a school in western Massachusetts, I submitted a very overworked excerpt of my manuscript, a personal statement, and my transcripts from my undergrad and two prior grad programs. In a few weeks, I received a call to schedule an interview via Zoom. Having conducted enough interviews in my career as a manager, I knew the meeting went well. A week later, I received a tentative acceptance pending forthcoming recommendations. 

As the university awaits my decision, I examine my conscience–what do I really want for my future? I read an article about a seventy-year-old man who became a veterinarian so that he could help the dogs he rescues. I googled to find inspiration from other older students. I found a ninety-year-old man who earned a doctorate in Economics, and a one-hundred-four-year-old man who swears you’re never too old to learn. 

I also searched for drawbacks. Another negative lies in the age discrepancy between “the old student” and the rest of them. I won’t delude myself into believing my “wisdom” will be welcome. I’m a dinosaur and of another generation. Will my age be a distraction? I am most comfortable in my writing groups with my peers who look beyond age and look to craft and ideas. Will my obsession with being the oldest distract me, as well? Will I discover a fountain of youth while immersed in a youthful environment?

An MFA is a huge commitment of time, money, and effort. I question whether I need to invest any of those things to get to my goal. And, truthfully, what is my goal? I grind out words and revise. Then, I will write more. Will these exercises ever end up as a polished book–refined by an editor, represented by an agent, and published by a small press? Is that what I even want?

In the next few weeks, I foresee myself asking these questions over and over again. I acknowledge how far I have come with the proper instruction, guidance, and mentoring. I imagine my quest to improve will not end anytime soon. I will explore my options and make the right decision.

One thing will not change–I will keep on writing. 

Uncle Sam, Dad, and Me: A Taxing Relationship

Tax time always reminds me of my father. When I was small, I watched as my father took on the task of “doing the taxes.” Every April 14th, he set himself up at the kitchen table with a pile of mishmashed documents, muttering swears under his breath as he scribbled, erased, and reworked the data.  Dad was the master of the loophole and fudging numbers, knowing exactly where to tweak a digit without fear of an audit. To his credit, he seldom got hauled in for an “accounting error.” Instead, he toyed with working for the Internal Revenue Service, going so far as to take the civil service test, pass it, interview, and ultimately decline the offer of employment. His work at the General Electric plant in Lynn, Massachusetts was far more lucrative than what the government paid, and since he worked the night shift, he could nap on the job. He knew he couldn’t snooze at his desk at the IRS, making his life as a blue-collared machinist preferable to a career dressed in a shirt and tie and sitting upright.

Dad’s professed acumen with a 1040 and its multiple schedules gave birth to a side gig. He did the taxes for most of the guys in “the shop,” my grandparents, and anyone who needed help navigating the convoluted forms. Again, he employed his skills–a little heavy on the charitable donations, a little less on the bank interest. It was the 60s, a simpler and less precise  time when the use of computers the size of an entire room had yet to manage the banking world. Paper, pen, adding machines, and old fashioned manual typewriters kept track of transactions. Dad easily snuck a few adjustments by the discerning eye of an auditor. He was clever, if not also a bit dishonest. I never questioned or doubted my father. To me, Dad’s shifty ways were normal.

Propping me on his knee, Dad showed me his calculations and how the numbers interacted to produce an amount of tax owed. I was probably only six-years-old the first time I flipped to the back of the IRS manual to find the chart, sliding my finger down the margin to my father’s income range, then moving to the right to the “Married Filing Jointly” column. Like magic, there was Dad’s tax liability. I remember giggling at this secret my father was letting me in on. For years to come, I sat at his side, learning to fill out the forms, curious about the process without ever knowing the life skill my father was teaching me. When we finished, he always gave me the extra, unused forms and I subjected more than a few of my dolls to my version of tax prep. Didn’t every kid do that?

This past Monday, I filed my taxes. It’s harder now to play the system, and being of a more honorable nature than Dad, I wouldn’t even try. Still, in the tradition of my father, I waited until the last minute to file and pay my bill. I heard my father’s voice clearly as I procrastinated:

 “Why the hell would you pay early if you owe them money? Keep the money in the bank until the very last minute and then write the check. Why give them use of your money when you could be making money on it yourself?”

Dad loved money: making it, saving it, investing it. He was shrewd and calculating. And maybe a little devious. 

In the 1990s, I assumed the responsibility for our family’s taxes–ours and my father’s. Dad sat beside me as Turbotax prompted me for the digits found in Box 1b and I typed the numbers on the computer keyboard as he read to me from his 1099’s–R, DIV, INT, OID. Dad watched in awe as the program whirred through the responses, giving us a real-time calculation at the top of the screen. I loved to hear him say, “Geeze, that’s amazing!” Dad loved technology but for him, this  bordered on miraculous.  In time, he just handed over his half-assed file of tax paperwork, leaving me to plow through his lousy recordkeeping system. Eventually, I just kept the books for him and me. As Dad passed the baton, he never doubted my abilities. He knew I was trained by the best, and now had a computer calculation to back me, in case I screwed up.

In a surprising shift, my father also had a slant on paying his due. I think about his words every year as I send off my small fortune in taxes owed to the IRS: 

“Never complain about paying your taxes. It means you have money to pay taxes on. Be grateful.”

And as much as it pains me to see my bank balance shrink every year, I know he was right. And for Dad’s tutelage and my good fortune, I am grateful.