Three snapshots from my M.F.A. at the University of Virginia:
1. Me, writing at a shabby card table in a basement apartment.
2. In the seminar room with Charles Wright, who is talking about the poetic line as if it’s a mystical entity. Me with hairs rising from the top of my head from the electrical pressure of all the ideas.
3. A dinner party with my M.F.A. student friends. Over the pasta and red wine, we’re shouting about a novel by Jane Bowles. Next to our chairs, manila envelopes containing manuscripts that one or another of us has line-edited for the other.
In the intervening years, I moved from writing poetry to writing novels, and although the scenery has changed and I have a real desk, this is pretty much what my life as a writer looks like, even now. Obviously, Picture 1 is the most important because a writer is only a writer so long as they’re working, but Pictures 2 and 3 have kept the work going.
On 2: my M.F.A. taught me how to put my love of literature into action, or in other words, how to work really hard at writing by learning to read more deeply. A writer has to learn to live with failure a lot of the time, and during those dry periods, it’s often the love of a novel or a poem or a story—the larger project of literature apart from one’s own successful or unsuccessful attempts—that is sustaining. Now, as a teacher myself, I tell my students to not be afraid of the work, but, in fact, to embrace it, to learn where to look for the next way back into the story.
On 3: right now, I’m reading All I Have in This World, a beautiful novel by my former M.F.A. classmate Michael Parker, and it’s thrilling to see how much of him is in the book—his humor, his Southern poetry, his singular perspective on music and cars and love. The best writers find a way to access the subject matter and voice that is unique to them, and it’s kind of ironic that this uniqueness is often forged within writer friendships, perhaps one of the most undersung gifts of a good M.F.A. program. Writer friends play their ideas off of one another; they argue; they talk about one another’s work; they try to help the other see his or her blind spots and particular strengths. All of that can help a writer find his path. In the M.F.A. program at Fairleigh Dickinson, it’s been important for us to foster an engaged, diverse, and tight-knit community of writers, because, in both profound and mundane ways, community can help a writer do his best work.
When poet Frank Bidart visited our M.F.A. residency a few years ago, he said he didn’t believe so much in talent anymore, but more in the idea of having a vision and working like hell to realize that vision. That rings true to me. An M.F.A. should create a space where it’s actually possible for all that to begin, both the vision and the work.