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.  Continue reading “MFA Dispatch: My Last Writing Workshop”

MFA Dispatch: The Pulitzer Prizes

Last week, the Pulitzer Prize winners were announced. I have never followed the prizes, though I’ve bought books because they are labeled Pulitzer Prize winners. But last week, one of my classmates, Gregory Pardlo, won the prize for Poetry and the news came to me through a department-wide email blast.

I thought, “Whoa.”

I had a workshop with him last semester and followed him on Instagram. I had almost gone to his book launch – I’d RSVP’d and told his wife via Paperless Post that I’d be bringing a plus one. Not Tom, but a friend from college who’d written tons of poetry herself and who planned to visit me in New York that weekend.

But I deferred our plans to my guest.

“We can go to this book party,” I emailed a few days before her visit, “Or we can do whatever.”

“I’m open,” she said.

I mulled it over, but also gave her time to consider the options. A few days later she wrote, “Let’s get brunch at the Spotted Pig instead.” Her boyfriend had said it was one of the best meals he’d ever had.

“Sounds good,” I wrote back, “I like books. But I like brunch too.”

It was a good brunch.

A weeks later, the Prizes were announced. The day after the announcement, I had my workshop.

“So,” my professor said, “One of your classmates just won the Pulitzer. How you guys feeling?”

“It was for poetry,” a classmate said quickly.

“Yeah, it’s awesome. I’m happy for him,” said another.

Then after a minute, “But honestly, if it had been for nonfiction, I might feel a little shitty.”

“Yeah,” we all agreed.

A few of us started to share the MFA equivalent of a celebrity sighting story. Most of us had had a class or two with him. In workshop, he wrote a lot about being black and also, being aware that he wrote a lot about being black. I thought that was alright.

“Well,” I said, “I almost went to his book party but I went to brunch instead.”

My classmates looked at me, nodding in recognition. Apparently a handful of us had been invited but few, if any of us, had gone. We all went to brunch or other places that seemed more immediately appealing than a poetry book launch. At least this is what I read on our expressions. But I could have been wrong. I might have been the only person invited that did not go and now instead of saying, “I went to Gregory Pardlo’s book party,” I can say, “Well, there is some really good french toast at the Spotted Pig.”

Mysterious West Virginia

At the post office, the elderly woman also named Betty placed my letter on the scale.

“I know exactly where this is,” she said, nodding towards the address on the envelope, “I grew up in a town about half an hour away and let me tell you, it’s gorgeous. When the seasons change,” she looked up towards the ceiling of the small post office and spread her left hand, “Wowee, you’ve never seen colors like that.”

Photo courtesy of, User: Forestwander

I am beginning to smell fall – it’s a very peculiar and distinct scent, not as obvious as it is up north or in other states such as West Virginia, where the seasons change distinctly rather than indecisively, as they do (or don’t) here in Southern California. I haven’t a name for it, or the correct words to describe the smell – but I take a whiff whenever I step outside the house and most of the time, I wish the scent were more distinct. On a recent trip to New York and Ann Arbor the smell hit me like a ton of bricks and I was excited. It was like biting into an apple with my nose and I understood why fall air is characterized as “crisp.” Though now, back in Southern California the scent is subdued if not diluted with lingering summer. But still, I call it fall.

Betty ran the letter through a large machine, the “stamper,” I guess, and peered at the address more closely. Her hair is a rare, clean pure white, and is cut into a short, easy to manage bob. Her skin is fair and faintly powdered, her eyes a bright, electric blue, intensified by the stone-washed denim shirt she wore. Her nails are always done and she gives off that feeling of old-school no-nonsense capability: the kind of woman who can bring home a decent, steady paycheck, keep a clean house, bake a damn good apple pie and keep her rowdy grand-kids in line. She is razor sharp and I’ve never seen anyone else working behind the counter at the small post office. People wait patiently in line, though Betty never lets it get too long.

“Graduate school,” she said, “so what are you planning to study?”

“Creative writing,” I said.

“Oh lovely,” she said, “that’s lovely.”

“So you would recommend spending three years in West Virginia?”

She looked up, mildly startled to be asked what I felt was an obvious question. She glanced behind me – two women were waiting. It was 4:45PM and the post office closed at 5. Lately, with my thirteen applications all of which required an item or two mailed in via post, Betty was seeing a lot of me, but we had never exchanged more than pleasantries. And there was always a line, as there was now. But her expression told me that whatever she wanted to say could not be summed up in even fifteen minutes, but that being from West Virginia, she wanted to give me her two cents or, as a wise older woman working in the Post Office, her Forever stamp.

“It’s different,” she said.

I moved to the side so that the woman behind me could move to the counter.

“Different….bad different?”

Betty took a deep breath and looked up, searching for the right way to put it. She had just tossed atop the pile of outgoing mail my official Berkeley Transcript, which UWV had politely requested it in a typed letter. Obviously I was somewhat interested in going there.

“Well,” she began slowly, “It’s a small town, everyone knows everyone. Everyone is really friendly, but they do have a particular mindset.”


“Mm hmmm.”

We both turned to look at the woman at the counter, who was mailing a large package. She smiled at Betty and then at me, “I’m from around there too,” she said, “I couldn’t help but overhear, and yes, it is veery different.”

“What do you mean by mindset?” I asked Betty.

She printed a lable for the woman and continued searching for the right words, but they never came.

“You’ll see,” she said, “I honestly can’t explain it.”

“Neither can I,” the other woman said. I wondered if her package was going back east to Virginia, but Betty chucked it in the back before I could see the address.

I was confused and wanted Betty and the woman to be straight, but we were in a small post office in small town at the end of the day and Betty I could tell, wanted to get home. Home home, in southern California. And the woman too, who had for one reason or other moved away from beautiful West Virginia and settled here, a pseudo small town with perpetual sun and year round monochromatic foliage. 

“I guess I’ll be sure to visit if I’m accepted,” I said, and she nodded emphatically.

“Yes definitely,” she said. “You must visit. It’s beautiful.” And with that, she turned to the next customer and I was left to ponder her enigmatic emphasis on ‘visit’.