I didn’t admit to my family that I was in school to “become a writer” for the duration of my graduate education. As far as they knew, I was in school to “become a teacher,” which was something closer to what they understood and farther from my own fantasy, which was to write those books on the bookstore shelves I was convinced sold enough copies to support an author’s needs and caprices. But the more carefully I listened while I was an M.A. student at UC-Davis (where I specialized in poetry) and an M.F.A. student at Arizona State University (where I specialized in fiction), the clearer it became that a cold reality awaited me just after graduation. But instead of becoming anxious about that uncertain future, I sharpened my sense of purpose about the present, asking myself: why was I enrolled in a creative writing program?
The immediate answers to that question: I was there to expand my knowledge about contemporary literature; I was there to be part of a community of artists that would celebrate and commiserate with me; I was there to interact with professors who, by example, showed me it was possible to have more than one profession, whose passion for writing, whose love of books was contagious enough to send me home to the desk. The long-term answer was more resonant: I was enrolled in a writing program to imagine a cultured life, not just to dream about the rewards of being a writer.
Interestingly enough, I resisted returning to the M.F.A. program as a professor for many years—mostly because I had learned how to eke out a living doing a series of part-time day jobs that covered (just barely) my basic expenses. But eventually I found my way home, to Rutgers-Newark, where I have been teaching since 2008. As a mentor to my graduate students, I keep reminding them that they’re writers first, but that the conversations in the classroom and among their peers are the most valuable part of their education; that learning how to articulate ideas and critical thoughts are skills they will use in a number of roles—as essayists, book reviewers, teachers, etc.; that becoming versed in contemporary literature will orient their own visions as artists. Poets, in particular, I encourage to learn to write prose that will communicate with clarity the complexities of their work, which becomes useful when applying for grants, fellowships, or writing residencies. In short, the experiences I found helpful as an M.F.A. student and the information that I wish I had been given have shaped my supplementary lesson plans as a guide toward the profession. Sometimes advice is imparted during office hours, sometimes in the classroom at an opportune moment, but those practical exchanges are necessary in case my students decide that, like me, they too want to imagine themselves inhabiting the literary community long after they leave the place where they nurtured their first intimate circle of writers.