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My Final Lap, Or, What I Learned In My Final MFA Residency

I finished my MFA last week.

Queens has a “fifth residency” as a component of the low-residency MFA program. The fifth residency is quite different from the first four. During the first four semesters, you come into residency having read a stack of books and armed with your own stacks of stories to workshop. You have to tackle the first four residencies with abandon, hit the ground running at a break-neck pace; there is no choice in that matter.

The final residency is more laid back. The reasonable student has the week’s real work (the graduating student presentation and the public reading) under control before the week even begins. The thesis and the background paper for the presentation have already been signed off on. Unless you are deathly afraid of public speaking (and, this time around, I think most of us were pretty comfortable being in front of a crowd, especially since we were talking about things we were passionate about) these last few “tasks” to be completed generate a little anxiety, but nothing like that first semester, when you are new and worried that every move you make is somehow “wrong”.

It was a fun week. Laid back.

I did learn a few things, though, even at the more leisurely pace. Here’s a few things I brought away:

A slower pace allows you to deepen some literary friendships

There’s a line from the Over the Rhine song, I Don’t Wanna Waste Your Time, that came to mind last week:

But I don’t wanna waste the words That you don’t seem to need When it comes to wanting what’s real There’s no such thing as greed I hope this night puts down deep roots I hope we plant a seed

This idea of “putting down deep roots” resonated with me last week. It was a good time to sit, talk, plan out loud, solidify some of the friendships with fellow writers. One of the important roles of an MFA program should be to help you form a writing community that will outlive the two years of study and be an ongoing resource for your writing life.

I’ve completed two years of work, and it feels good

I did some calculations. Here’s what I came up with, as far as my literary output for the last 26 to 28 months: I read 165 individual short stories, 20 essays, 44 non-fiction books, 14 complete story collections, 60 novels, and 7 books of poetry or plays. I read, responded to, and critiqued approximately 85 short stories or novel excerpts submitted for critique groups. I wrote approximately 160,000 new words of fiction, most of which was submitted and reviewed by peers, but that doesn’t include a large number of re-writes, editing passes, and both major and minor reconstruction of works in progress. I’ve written over 120 blog posts and responded to numerous questions on both the blog and in my personal email inbox. The short version: I wrote more the last two years than in the previous ten years, combined.

And, man, taking a step back and doing a little self-evaluation, that fact brings a huge smile to my face.

I have, easily, two years worth of work “in the pipeline” and begging for my attention

My massive seminar paper, needs to be expanded and deepened into a book length work of non-fiction. My thesis, while very well received, needs some tweaking, as well as two or three more stories. The novel-in-progress is moving forward, and I feel even more confident about my ability to wrestle it into shape. I have a whole other story cycle in the works, I have another novel idling in the back ground, I have a plan for submissions and publications.

Some folks see the graduation week as a finish line. I see it more as the last twenty feet of the big snow ramp that the winter olympic ski jumpers launch from. I am so thankful to be finishing the program with that last little lift at the end of the ramp, shooting me up, out, over the hill and into the next phase of the writing life. The feedback from Ashley Warlick, Pinckney Benedict, Fred Leebron, and Michael Kobre has given me plenty to work on in the coming months and I’m excited to get back to a regular work routine!

I really enjoy talking to other people about writing: process, craft, etc.

I’ve done plenty of public speaking, to groups larger and smaller, more friendly and more hostile, but I realized this week how much I just enjoy talking to other people about writing. I’ve taught at various levels (elementary to high school, several office staffs, a range of subjects from technology to political theory to poverty to economic issues…I even taught a technology class to other teachers, which is the hardest group to handle) but there is no topic that makes me as excited to get in front of a group as writing does. It’s my home. It’s where I belong.

I’m sure there are other take-away lessons from last week. Some of them will likely make it into the blog in the coming weeks. I know that I am home, I’m a little tired still, but I am itching to dive back into the work.

I hope you’re as excited about YOUR words as I am about mine.

Have a great Tuesday, and HAPPY WRITING!!!!

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