MFA Dispatch: My Last Writing Workshop

Usually, I was looking out the window.
Yesterday, I had my last workshop ever. It sort of just snuck up on me. On all of us, I think. I haven’t been the best student and it didn’t take me going to graduate school to realize this. I would have flunked out early and efficiently if my program was slightly more rigorous than it was, and I knew this going in. It wasn’t hard – I’m not bragging – but after twenty-five years as a student of somewhere or other, you get to know yourself as such. You learn where to invest your limited academic energy. You get to know certain professor types – the ones who actually care if you speak up in class and turn in your stuff on time, the ones who raise an eyebrow and say nothing if you ask for an extension on an assignment because it means “Hell no, how could you even dare to ask,” vs. the ones who themselves are always tripping in late, a mess of papers and excuses – oh the trains, my child, my partner, my dying/sick parent! I know by now which professors I can just ask for the grade and which I respect and show up on time and do the reading for.
But the MFA is for me. And it’s always now, when classes are winding down and it dawns on me that this visit to this classroom and interaction with this professor might be my last, that I look back and think, I probably could have done things a bit more enthusiastically. I spent the fifteen minute breaks of my last workshop applying to jobs, and the better part of last two years complaining about having too much reading and too little class. And complaining too that even those little classes were too long! Two or three hours each! And the little classes I did have all held in little airless classrooms that were too cold in the winter, too hot in the summer. Too loud when the windows were open with cigarette smoke wafting in from the yard below since writers loved to congregate and smoke downstairs. Also, the tables were too shaky, the water fountain always broken and there were sometimes never enough chairs. Or not enough space at the tables for the chairs. The professors were too disorganized. My classmates too serious.
But now classes are nearly done and my final assignments nearly turned in (I have one last fifteen pager looming over me) and everyone is again more or less on the same page (minus the Pulitzer winners) – writers, but unemployed. Not-quite-authors. It’s always around now that I too, come out of my surly, serious-but-not-really shell and think, “Well, that wasn’t so bad.” I look around at my classmates and wonder which ones, had I invested the time, might have become friends rather than just acquaintances I knew fairly well because I read their lives on paper.
Over the course of two years I’ve grown accustomed to certain faces in my classes, certain mannerisms and phrases and ways of dressing and, as expected, distinct voices on paper that even if I were to come across their work in a bookstore published under a nom de plume, I could probably tell if it was someone I’ve worked with in Workshop.
Workshop: the thing that was most worth the astronomical price tag of this MFA.
To have not just an authorial professor but also authorial peers read your work and give good feedback. Feedback, feedback. I pride myself on having given some good feedback. But to have met readers and writers who, on the right, lucky days, when I needed it most, took my writing more seriously than I did. They taught me something.
Don’t get me wrong – my complaints remain: Columbia could definitely invest in some better heating and cooling and more stable desks and more rigorous requirements regarding how organized professors ought to be. But. I’m grateful for all that I’ve been given, from my professors and fellow writers who, from the very beginning, took the MFA much more to heart than I did.
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