Reflections on the Mid-Life MFA
“It is never too late to be who you might have been.” —Attributed to George Eliot
When I first read these oft-cited words, I was twenty-two and wanted to be a fiction writer. Headlining a subway ad for adult education, the quote literally hung over my head as I took the E train to my survival job in Manhattan. A call to action, but no match for youthful self-indulgence: if time was unlimited, why worry? I didn’t—it was 1984, and twenty years would pass before I got serious about writing. What happened? I thrived on books, and coming from literary parents, a career in the creative commons would have been the family business, so to speak. But there are sons who emulate and those who rebel, and as the latter, I largely rejected art in favor of the world of business.
There was also the problem of my early literary efforts, which made it clear that good fiction is insanely hard to write. Friends who read my work confirmed I had a long way to go, and it would turn out that I lacked, to paraphrase Stephen Dobyns, the “humility and gall” that art requires. Nobody demanded I choose between an individualistic path and a traditional one; there are artists who manage to live in both worlds. But neither humility nor gall is comfortable, and I chose the comfort of easier work and good pay. My twenty-year delay was a failure of will, and for anyone currently at the point that I was then, I recommend more courage if possible. I’m fifty now and though my career had benefits of security, its price was a sense of regret. I never ceased wanting to write, and fancied myself a frustrated writer. This is why six months ago, I finished a low-residency MFA degree. Which begs the question—if there is still time to be who I might have been, do those letters stand for self-actualization at last? Hardly—writing demands a unity of self and work my business career did not. In that work, authenticity was secondary to persuasion, and decades of self-suppression are now proving difficult to unlace. My MFA may be progress towards who I might have been—but who am I? Am I a might-have-been that never will be? This is my main anxiety, here at the intersection of middle age and literary life.
My twenty-year delay was a failure of will, and for anyone currently at the point that I was then, I recommend more courage if possible. I’m fifty now and though my career had benefits of security, its price was a sense of regret. I never ceased wanting to write, and fancied myself a frustrated writer. This is why six months ago, I finished a low-residency MFA degree. Which begs the question—if there is still time to be who I might have been, do those letters stand for self-actualization at last?
Back when I read that subway blurb, I worked for a firm that produced Sunday coupon inserts—those colorful flyers that save consumers money on groceries or household goods. Art may be hidden throughout life, but in this niche it was particularly covert—which suited my self-image at the time. I was a writer-in-disguise, not a businessperson. After hours I traded my suit for requisite black Levi’s, drank bourbon, and typed pages that have long since biodegraded in the defunct Staten Island landfill. This is the best thing that could have happened to them. Reflection and revision were difficulties I was unwilling to face—I hewed to my stereotype of what it meant to make art, and my submissions at the time met the fate they deserved. Today I try to think of art, among other interpretations, as thought patterns that are more inclusive and less fettered than the bottom line calculations of business dealings. One channels artistic impulses, through effort and media, in pursuit of an authentic outcome—a painting, a sculpture, a play, or story. Before my MFA studies, my take on art was more product-oriented, detached from the satisfactions of process. You stood at a canvas until a painting basically downloaded, or sat and birthed a story without the difficulties of labor. Is a new way of thought, one that feels organic, a reasonable expression of self? If we are what we think about, then the answer is yes—and to have my mind rewired for art made the disruption of a midlife MFA not only worthwhile, but necessary.
During my twenty-odd years of being a writer manqué, I tended to mistake style for substance. I inflated my vocabulary—with words like manqué—and dropped these obscurities into letters or proposals (usually to the recipient’s vexation) to show I was an artist in salesman’s garb. Meanwhile, my job offered increasingly good pay and perks, in return for small but cumulative investments in conformity. Years later, I would embarrass myself when, at my first MFA residency, I asked “who’s Alice Munro?” Conformity might pay, but there are tradeoffs. For years I read mostly business books, and wrote barely enough to call it a hobby. At forty-seven, I started my MFA ignorant not only of Alice Munro, but William Trevor, Denis Johnson, and Flannery O’Connor. I didn’t know what the National Book Award was. I’d somehow managed to never read Gatsby. A reasonable query is, why was I in an MFA program at all?
The answer may appeal to anyone who postpones what they dream of being, without abandoning hope. For years, on planes and in hotels, I occasionally wrote scenes or sketches. In my thirties I penned a couple of essays, and in my forties, perhaps at last hearing the alarm of time, took an evening fiction course. I had an instructor who pushed me to submit work, and three years later, a journal accepted a story. I of course conflated this with literary arrival, began to submit willy-nilly, and mass boilerplate rejection humbled me enough to seek professional help. My wise instructor-friend suggested I might think about an MFA, and that a low-residency degree suited my stage of life. A month into my studies, I’d read more novels than I had in the preceding year. And by the end of the program, I’d absorbed more literature than I had in two decades. In my case, this benefit of the MFA was priceless—a new book by David Shields is called How Literature Saved my Life, and he isn’t alone.
For years I’d read less literature than I wanted to, and I now had to absorb more than I could handle. But it was a beautiful excess, an existential game changer, and one of two main justifications for getting an MFA. The other was the mental rewiring I mentioned earlier. Craft, in the sense of shaping ideas for artistic merit instead of gain, was largely absent in my business life. Perhaps this is why certain challenges of craft may have factored unconsciously into my extracurricular pursuits. I ran marathon after marathon, pushing beyond my known limits of pain. I got a fast car and learned to drive it on the racetrack, a skill so physically and mentally demanding that one’s fear threshold changes forever. In retrospect, hobbies that required breaking barriers may have been my response to expressive impulses—but they had no tangible outcome. The craft of writing means a result fashioned from words, and to truly nail a sentence is a combination of peak experience and workmanship. Distance running and driving at the limit were also peak experiences, but lacked the enduring sense of expression. This vacancy, which I think can be a gateway to art, was what I hoped to address when I finally decided to get an MFA.
In social interactions, “what do you do?” tends to be the third question in the meet-and-greet sequence, behind name and residence. For years, my answer could have been “service provider,” which suggests how service work can mistake activity for identity. The time is long past when most people worked with their hands, but our craft urges remain—we’re driven to create, hence the artistic goals we often have beyond the office. “What do you make?” might be a more identifying question—but most in our culture might presume nosiness about salary. I have one service provider friend who is also a master cabinetmaker, and another who painstakingly restores classic cars. These people are what they make, more than what, in career terms, they “do.” Kafka and Wallace Stevens both “did” insurance, meanwhile making eternity out of thought. For years, I made nothing tangible or utilitarian—only money. I didn’t know how to make anything else, until my MFA’s curriculum, through study and application of literary craft, helped me begin to make stories. In my MFA program I met others like me—people who had long postponed a deeper commitment to writing. Most of us probably agree our MFA has been a bridge towards what we wanted to be. It has given us the hope that with work, the stories we make will confirm our longtime belief in ourselves as writers.
The low-residency model can be the best choice for those with the responsibilities and demands that accrue with age—my wise instructor-friend was right about this, as well as the inherent benefits of the degree. But whatever the program, if you have put off the idea of an MFA, the time to act may be now. Epigrams have value, but there does come a point where it is too late to be who you might have been. The tradeoff can be at best rationalization, at worst, regret. I can’t say that my MFA means I’ve caught up with destiny. Such complete unification of self and art is rare, if not mythical. But the degree has helped bring destiny into view, and to me, this is equally affirming. At fifty, I can approach the idea of a literary life with fascination and cautious optimism, because the MFA taught me to see myself as an apprentice artist and craftsperson, rather than someone with a vocabulary and a wish. I’m not yet who I might have been, but I’m working on it.