One Thanksgiving morning, six or so years ago, I had to run to the grocery store for some more broth. The lines, expectedly, were long, many people in my same position of needing one last thing. I was second in line and looked at the people behind me, and the last person in line was Danny Glover.
This was a delight but not a surprise; neighbors had told me they’d seen Danny Glover at the campus gym, so I knew he lived in the area. Danny Glover wore a white T-shirt with something printed on it I didn’t take note of. His beard was salt-and-pepper. I made a note to tell Neal when I got home.
Between me and Danny Glover were a straight couple in their 20s, dressed like every other straight couple in San Francisco. The man was short with dark hair and wore fleece. The woman was blond and around his height and wore leggings. They each had wine bottles in their hands.
“Oh my god that guy looks like Danny Glover,” said the woman. She spoke to the man in a regular speaking voice, loud enough for everyone in line to hear.
If the man replied I didn’t hear him, but Danny Glover heard her. I watched as the woman noticed that Danny Glover heard her and was looking at her.
“You look like Danny Glover!” she said a bit louder, so that he could hear.
“I am Danny Glover,” Danny Glover said.
“What?” she said.
“I am Danny Glover.”
“Oh my god what are you doing here?” she asked.
“I live here,” Danny Glover said. “I’ve lived here all my life.”
By this point I had paid and needed to take my items and go. I don’t know what the woman said to Danny Glover after that, if she said anything at all, but I won’t forget the look on Danny Glover’s face when he said, “I’ve lived here all my life.” It was a look of tired hopelessness, the face your face carries when you once again have to tell somebody something they’ll never believe.
I. Here’s what the fall semester looks like for me:
About a post a week, a lot of different ideas, space to think and write about my thinking, and none of this counts all the time I have to watch Hallmark Christmas Movies and post about them.
Here’s what the spring semester looks like for me:
I hate the spring semester. The spring semester, every year, can go to hell.
II. It’s unfair to blame this term, which is busy because I teach an actual class while directing the program, as opposed to teaching the directed study theses courses I do with 5 students over the course of the fall, itself the same amount of work-hours as an actual class of 10 students, but far more blissful and easygoing and pleasurable in the one-on-one format. Plus the long list of directing duties that for boring reasons fall on this semester to do, and I won’t bore you with it all, because, like I said, it’s not all this semester’s fault. I should also blame my writing.
I wrote a lot last year, nearly 50,000 words of the second half of my memoir, and it was chiefly capturing work. I had to put memories and old feelings into words, often for the first time, and while it had its challenges—I’m not yet convinced this book is even readable, much less publishable—they were challenges of persistence. I had to just keep going.
Since January I’ve been writing an essay about something I’ve only told my therapist about, and my partner, and on top of the same persistence against shame and self-loathing, it’s taken a lot of attention-work. I’ve had to think really hard about what all of this means, and how to write about it in a way that doesn’t make people hate me, and knowing how little time I’m able to put to my writing, and how scant the energy I can give it after all the shitwork of spring, I haven’t thought a lick about this blog.
It paid off. I finished the draft this morning. I think it’s going to be good, but I always think that of a new thing. Then the publishing process comes….
III. The other day, my phone did something such that Instagram stopped working. I forced quit it, nothing. I restarted my phone, nothing. So I uninstalled it, and then realized I didn’t have to reinstall it. Months ago, I logged out of Twitter on my phone’s web browser, and as I use strong, cryptic passwords through LastPass, and now that LastPass only works on my laptop, I don’t know how to log back in again on my phone.
Old habits die hard. Today in the library I walked past this book, and I took this photo:
I realized my caption would be, “Sure, Alva,” but I had nowhere to post it.
Except here. Would anyone see anything I put up here without social media directing them over here? Is that a gift for what I might do with this space?
Before the spring semester burst like a water main in the basement of my pandemic life, I’d had the idea of writing a newsletter, delivering this blog to people’s inboxes, but then I stopped being able to see what pleasure would lie in that. 2021 has so far been about a drop in my satisfaction when writing things that don’t matter.
IV. But also, two wonderful things happened to me this year. One is that I discovered 70’s/80’s San Francisco synthpunk band the Units. They aren’t well known, but if they’re known they’re known for this perfect song:
I’ve written about this before, how some bands match the ongoing sounds that run in your head all the time, and how mine seem to be the asynchronous chewings of a hive full of bees. Constant busyness. That’s this song. I feel grateful to get to spend the second half of my life with it buzzing in me.
The other wonderful thing is that Neal and I have signed a lease on a 3-story townhome that will provide us with a laundry room, a second toilet, a guest bedroom, and a dining room where I can actually sit and write in a room that’s not The One Room We Always Sit In Every Day. For seven years we’ve been convinced that we’d never be able to live in what I still think of as an adult home, and then rents dropped because enough people think this city’s top selling point is its proximity to Silicon Valley. So not every part of this pandemic has been a dank basement.
In my Nonfiction Studio course we begin each class writing from a prompt for thirty minutes or so, then discussing the choices we made in our writing and what it tells us about what writing is and can do. For camaraderie purposes, I write along with them. When I get something down worth sharing, I aim to post it here, if only because the semester’s beginning and my being deep into an essay project have led me to post much less here than I did in 2020. Last night’s prompt was to write an essay with the above title, and this is what I wrote.
“All art is quite useless” is a phrase I hold onto as dearly as “We are all sinners.” Both release me. Not the way the harness on a rollercoaster releases me after the car slides in to whatever that large hut thing is called, returning me to my calm-hearted life, but the way a snow day did, all those years ago. I don’t have to be anything other than what I am today, and what I am isn’t any worse than what you are. Ditto the art I make.
I come back, unfairly, and perhaps without enough compassion, to a former student’s writing, and revising, and revising again for their thesis, an essay about laundry. There was a paragraph about the temperature of water called for with various materials and colors. There was a whole thing about stains, and another thing about their delicates, and then the term “delicates”. It was, as far as art goes, totally useless, and while my job was to help them make the essay what they hoped it would be (I recall their aims being very personal, in that they found themselves thinking one day about laundry and how weird it was, and they wanted to inspire their reader to think this deeply about laundry themselves), I privately resented having, once again, to talk about this essay on laundry.
Q: Who cares?
Q: So what?
These are real, and indelicate, questions that “All art is quite useless” protects the artist from deigning to answer, and so I come repeatedly to this feeble feeling whenever I’m in the vicinity of Art For Art’s Sake-ers. But:
A: Why is caring important?
A: What else, if not this?
The question, in prayer one morning, that changed my life just a touch, but irrevocably, the way a cat’s tail knocks the heirloom glass off the table: “Why me, God? Why do I get unconditional love?”
The answer, immediate: “Why not you?”
When it’s so hard to accept that anything you do is good enough, Wilde’s epigram feels like salvation. I am tired of art that doesn’t say anything. I am tired of laundry essays that steer my mind only them-ward. This weariness is why I’m writing the book I’m writing now and not the book I wanted to write eight years ago. But the moment I think of duty, or purpose, and the moment I wonder whether to align my purpose with some cause in the world I’m writing about, I stop writing about it. I hate “Art For Art’s Sake” as a critic and an audience, but I hold it very close as an artist.
January means application deadline season for most MFA in writing programs, and I know what that means for thousands of people in the country: the beginning of 3 or 4 months of anxiety. If you number among them, I hope you get into the program you want to. But I also hope you take this time to consider what it is you’re looking for in an MFA program, and how you know that the programs you’ve applied to are going to treat you well.
What’s “well” mean? Well, after ten years of teaching in MFA programs, I’ve come to understand some of what leads to graduate success—and I’m defining “success” here to mean graduates feel that (a) they’ve grown as writers and are equipped to continue growing even after we stop giving them homework and deadlines, (b) they understand the current literary and publishing landscape and are ready to be a writer in the world, (c) they’ve been taken care of these last few years and that whatever money or labor they paid for their degree with was well spent.
In grad school, Rita Mae Brown once asked my class if, in our careers, we’d rather be Britney Spears or an opera singer, and while I remember being charmed, in 2007, by this quaint comparison, I’ve taken it to heart: a quality education prepares a writer for a lifelong career, not an instant success. So success to me doesn’t mean a book deal, or NYC publishing connections, or a job teaching creative writing. Success to me doesn’t feel like students have “won” the Best MFA Grad competition. (It may look different to you.)
I direct an MFA program.[*] We all make lots of claims and promises about what makes our specific programs great. I believe we’re all telling the truth, there’s no reason to distrust people, but in the spirit of helping applicants find the programs they know will treat them well, I’ve come up with this list of questions you might think to ask the programs that accept you, should you find yourself this spring in the enviable position of getting to choose among them.
This list is not exhaustive, but I’ve tried to split them up in 3 categories corresponding to my definition of success, above:
Your Aesthetic/Academic Growth If you’re into genre, or formalism, or “the very personal essay” as found on websites, it’s no good for a program to “correct” this interest toward what it deems literary. An MFA program should be designed to not only help you develop the kind of writing you’re into now, but also expose you to other kinds of writing that are out there. That exposure is how growth happens; programs should be your partner in where you need to be, not where they’ve decided Every Writer Needs to Be. So:
How regularly will you be able to enroll in the classes you want to? What method(s) does the program use to place students in classes each term?
What openings are possible for you to take classes in a different genre than what you applied in?
What guidelines, suggestions, or restrictions does the program give instructors in designing their course reading lists?
Are directed-study courses possible, and how often do full-time faculty members agree to teach them?
In what ways does the program teach students about the writing process, and not just their writing products? How will you be taught not just what a good book looks like, but actively how to go about writing one from scratch?
Your Education on Today’s Writing Landscape Assume that everyone teaching in an MFA program knows and can teach how literature was put together in the 20th century, but a lot has changed in literature, publishing, and the teaching of creative writing over the last twenty years. Much of these changes have come from queer and BIPOC voices (slowly) being better represented in publishing and academia (to say nothing of the very different means by which writing finds readers in 2021). By now, MFA programs should have already incorporated anti-racist representation, global literatures, and digital publishing into their curriculum. If they haven’t, you should try to get a clear understanding of their commitments and timeline for doing so. So:
What training do instructors get in how to manage issues of bias and representation in the workshop? What programming or coursework has the program committed to to fight racism and bias in writing?
What specific courses are offered in publishing, or do instructors take care of this on their own time in workshop courses? What kind of programming is in place to prepare students to publish their work successfully in the 2020s?
How often do senior/tenured faculty have their teaching observed or otherwise get feedback on their methods? Who reviews faculty teaching evaluations, and how often? What programming does the program or the university put in place to help faculty continually update their teaching?
What kind of contact does the program maintain with its alumni, and how readily can current students be in touch with alumni to learn about their lives and careers after getting their degrees?
Your Care and Management Nobody likes to feel they need to be managed, like some problem, but if you think about it the way Hollywood types do, it’s a useful model: you need a manager-advocate (or two) who’s invested in your growth, and you need to make sure you’ll have as much as voice and presence in the program as you want. So:
Will you get an adviser to guide you through the program, helping you choose the best courses for you? Will you work with the same adviser throughout your time there, or new ones periodically? Are all advisers full-time faculty in the MFA program?
What kind of support is there for planning your thesis project before your final semester/year?
How many students, on average, should you expect in your workshop courses?[†]
Have the MFA students created an organization of their own, which they govern, and which works to develop community or build advocacy for students (or both)? If not, does the university provide resources for such student organizations?
There are hundreds of other questions to ask programs I didn’t address here. You may have concerns about its labor practices vis-a-vis its part-time faculty. You may want to know how trans students have fared in the past (and whether the program has enrolled any). You may want assurance that you won’t be silo’d onto a campus and want to know how the program connects with the greater community. The point here is that you should always feel you have the right to ask these questions, and you should assume any program will be happy to answer them for you.
Remember: you’ve been accepted, so they now need you just as much as you need them. The only way you’ll succeed (in grad school, that is; grad school itself isn’t required for success) is by enrolling in a program that’ll work for you, in both senses of the term. So I urge you to take the time to learn the most you can about what your time as a student there will be like.
And yes, prepare for your classrooms to look like the photo above. It’s not all old wood and staring out leaded glass windows onto centuries-old oaks, folks.
Footnotes (↵ returns to text)
I’ll note that I’m writing this post as a person who’s gone through grad school and still carries ideas and opinions; I’m not speaking in my professional role as director of an MFA program, though I try every day to practice the things I preach.↵
Opinions, and university resources, differ here, but if you ask me, more than 12 is worrisome and more than 15 deserves an explanation.↵