Surviving a Low-Residency MFA

Inspired in part by Lifehacker’s article on How To Study With A Full-time Job, I thought I’d share a little about how I’m surviving working full-time as an IT executive and studying toward an MFA in writing poetry. It’s early days–I am only a few weeks into my first semester, but I have already made it through the first residency intensive and am drawing close to the second exchange with my faculty advisor. Guess what? I’m loving it. A lot of that, however, is because I took certain steps well before the program started to make the whole experience less painful.

With the exception of times I have been really sick (since sleep is my immune system’s best friend), I have been getting up an hour early before work every day. I started this months before the MFA began, before I even knew I was accepted. This seemingly obvious exercise has helped me keep a steady focus on my writing independent of other circumstances. The catch, of course, is getting to bed early enough. But with the prospect of writing again in the morning, this little programmer-owl is has finally stopped stalling at beddy-by time. Well, mostly. Tonight’s an exception. Really.

The second major preparation was garnering the support of my wife. Val has seen how much writing has helped with my grief recovery (even though I often am not necessarily writing about our son). In fact, some days, the prospect of reading and writing poems is what gets me out of bed in the morning. But even more than this, we talked about the practical impact of my new schedule and what it could mean in terms of our lifestyle–all well before I started sending tuition payments.

In addition to the one hour of writing before work, I also read for an hour after work. This means stopping work at a reasonable time so I can fit the reading in and still, when necessary, make dinner. Ending work at a reasonable hour is another discipline I started months before the start of the program. Figuring out and then working toward these simple, banal practicalities–as unpoetic as they are–has gone a long way to establishing my pace. After all, twenty four months of creative writing graduate school is not a sprint–it’s a marathon.

Val and I also often head for our favorite local coffee shop on late Saturday and/or Sunday morning. She brings a book, or picks up one of the English papers they get in or chats to our friend the owner. I read books of poems and sometimes write my essays. Having this kind of a ritual, in a nice spot with an espresso con panna and my laptop bag full of books before me, makes studying in the morning on weekends feel less like work and more like, well, a weekend. Again, setting this up in terms of the practicalities, our relationship and how I can put in the time on a regular basis in a regular way has gone a long way toward making this a sustainable effort.

I’m ahead of the game, in fact–which is another tip that has really helped. Being one assignment up at any given time (and maintaining it) gives me a little peace of mind, knowing I can deal with one of life’s little curve-balls without having to play too much catch up afterward. This and other remarkable little gems of advice came from another strategy I highly recommend to new students starting an MFA (low-res or otherwise): talk to your elders.

I got in touch with one friend-of-a-friend on his last semester at Pacific, and the program coordinator put me in touch with a second exiting student at my request. My one question to them: “What do you know now at the end of the two-year program that you wish you knew at the beginning?” Then I opened the field up wide–everything from long underwear for the Oregon winter to “the question of losing one’s voice in the institution of the MFA.” They were only too happy to pour out their words of wisdom, and I was only too happy to take it all with my requisite grain of salt. Everyone’s experience is different, and I had to bear that in mind when it came to personal preferences. But getting the low-down from at least two sources had me feeling much more confident going into the residency.

I am not really sure if my circumstances are extraordinary, or if nearly everyone who commits to their art in a major way feels as I do–but I know doing this is much more than a want or whim. It’s part of me. So that, above all, has given me what I need when the alarm goes off early each morning. Once my feet hit the bedroom floor, I know I’m in for another day when writing comes first. So far, doing this degree has been one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself, and a little planning has gone a long way. Hopefully these tips can help other students of art–whether in a formal schooling or just looking to add a little more regularity to their practice. And, if the inspiration hits, maybe I’ll do a followup when I’m further down the road.

Related Posts:

“Should I do an MFA?”

More on Choosing to Do an MFA

Pacific University MFA Commencement Student Speech

What I Learned in the Pacific University MFA in Writing Program

Open Thanks to the Pacific University MFA Program and All Who Sail in Her

Pacific University’s MFA in Writing was named one of the top five low-residency programs in the country by Atlantic Monthly, “Special Fiction Issue 2007.”

Posts About My Faculty Advisors:

Joseph Millar, first semester
Sandra Alcosser, second semester
Marvin Bell, third and fourth semester

Posts About The Residency Periods:

The First Residency in Seaside, Oregon
The Second Residency in Forest Grove, Oregon
The Third Residency in Seaside, Oregon
The Fourth Residency in Forest Grove, Oregon
The Fifth and Final Residency in Seaside, Oregon

Related Topics:

Master of Fine Arts in Writing
Pacific University