Originally published at Catherine Campbell's Literary Blog
In a chalk-scented classroom on a September afternoon, I read The Circuit with nine English language learners. The Circuit, a spare book of stories by Francisco Jimenez, is a struggle for these readers, although to me these words are as familiar as my own hands: dripped, kissed, puddles, baby, tree. Walked, felt, spoke, scattered, clattered. I need not read carefully to understand the page, but my students take turns stumbling through the paragraphs, pausing at phrases I feel like I’ve always known: of course, whether or not, awhile.
When I began applying for MFA programs in 2007, I hadn’t envisioned this as my future. I was twenty-four, and all I knew was that I could write. I’d been a writer all my life. Writers could become lawyers, but the LSAT prep books proved unbearable. I was a waitress by night and an administrative assistant by day, and I decided to follow my heart. I figured that, with an MFA, I could teach English at the college level and also start – and maybe even finish – my first book. The MFA was a terminal degree, and I knew most programs demanded a book-length manuscript of their students by the end. It felt indulgent, especially as my college classmates were thinking of med school or a masters in public health or a teaching certification: practical things that would get them jobs. But I was lucky; my parents encouraged me. I penned a fresh sample, typed up my application, and mailed it out.
What do you do with an MFA? It was a popular joke once I started my program – in my case, at the Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier. Each semester, students from around the world came together for ten days to workshop, lecture, listen, and learn. On one of the last nights, you’d always get a group of rowdy fourth-semesters putting on a skit: “What do you do with an MFA?” to the tune of “What do you do with a Drunken Sailor?” Fueled by Jack Daniels, they’d mime rolling the degree up like a joint: You can smoke your MFA! You can use it to cover the windows! You can fan yourself with it! And so on.
But in all honesty, there was nothing sweeter than those two years spent pursuing my MFA. During those ten precious days every five months, I’d stay up with my writer friends, drinking until the sun rose, still waking with enough energy to talk writing all day. Several of my peers even divorced their partners back home for fellow writers they met in the program. Meanwhile, my writing developed by leaps and bounds, expanding with every new “packet” – my monthly, 50-page submission to my advisor. I graduated in 2010 feeling confident and buoyed. My support network spanned the nation. A fellow graduate helped me to get a job as an adjunct professor in New Mexico, and the rest, as they say, is history.
In some respects, my MFA gave me what I wanted: A job teaching English at the college level, and a book deal. Eventually, I landed a full-time post at a small community college in the third-poorest state in the nation. The bulk of my courses are for students who need remedial work to enter college-level composition. Creative writing classes are highly coveted where I work, and I’m at the bottom of the seniority totem pole. I had to work like a dog – adjuncting and cocktail waitressing for years, or what Santa Feans call “The Santa Fe Shuffle” – to get where I am. Meanwhile, most radiologist technicians, who can get their two-year degrees at our community college, earn more than I do. I’m not referred to as a professor, but as an instructor. I’ve gotten used to students yawning during class, but it still hurts – especially if I’m trying to teach them about something I love.
Still, I’m grateful for the work that I have. A few years ago, I befriended the head of our creative writing program; a year later, she handed the literary magazine over to me, and I’m the editor now. I started a reading series last year with my best friend on campus, the head librarian. I get work on the side now, editing projects routed to me through word of mouth. Last week, I was even on the radio, talking about writing.
The best thing about my work schedule is that I can spend my mornings, weekends, and summer breaks writing, although cobbling together the time to work on my own projects during the semester can seem impossible. That’s when I envy friends with PhDs who work at universities, with their 2-1 schedules and the impetus the administration puts on them to produce. I yearn for that – for my employers to nag me about writing more, getting published more. But I work at a community college, and my main job is to teach – not to publish.
With every passing year, I feel like I become a writer a little bit more. That’s certainly the truest gift of the MFA: at its heart, the degree solidifies your presence as a writer on this earth. Once I left the program, I felt that writing would be with me forever. I knew I wouldn’t survive without it now. Writing became something that was mine, beyond any job or relationship.
And so, on a warm day in mid-September, five years after graduating from my MFA program, I find myself in a classroom with nine English language learners. The Circuit is recommended for readers grades six and up, although my students are all in their twenties. It isn’t about that, though. The ideas in the book are simple, but our language is not. As a class, we debate the differences between the simple past tense and the past continuous – the same differences I have struggled with alone, at home, before the keyboard. We discuss the varied meanings of the word ‘please.’ We laugh at the confusion surrounding ‘wound’: The bandage was wound around the wound. Wound and wound and wound. We play with words; we tease their meanings out. Sometimes, we let them shake us.
I’m a writer, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.