Retrospective on my First Semester in an MFA Program

I’ve turned in all my assignments, given all my grades, filled out all my teacher evaluations, and mentally checked out from school. And I’m actually sad that it’s over. I think that the first semester went really well. I am sure that I’ll eventually get tired of this, but right now I would not be averse to doing this MFA thing forever. Let me go through the many things that I think have been great.

Time

The workload is not high. We teach three 50-minute classes a week. And out-of-class prep time is no more than 7 hours (2 hours of which are grading). So that’s about 10 hours of actual work for our stipends (which, as any googling would tell you, run to about $22,000 a year). And then the workshop is 2.5 hours but has no out-of-class commitment other than the writing that you’re already doing. Our readings class is 3 hours and maybe another 2-3 hours of out-of-class readings. And then, for various incomprehensible institutional reasons, I have to take Spanish, which is about 5 hours of work every week. All together, that’s maybe 20-25 hours of work every week. Which is great! I mean, that’s a half-time job that pays 22k a year and has health benefits.

Furthermore, since I recently started logging the actual amount of time that I spend on various tasks, I can tell you exactly how productive I am able to be. The program started at the beginning of September, and since then, I have written for an average of 10.0 hours every week (Low of 3.0; High of 15.1) and read for an average of 11 hours every week (Low of 4; High of 18). As you can see from my table, I’m a bit less productive than I was in the summer before the MFA…but not that much lower. And part of that could just be seasonal variation, too (I’ve recently crunched nine years of data and realized that I’m much more productive during the summer months)

Task

Workload (hours)

Fall ’12

Summer ’12

Teaching

10

N/A

Workshop

2.5

N/A

Readings class

6

N/A

Spanish

5

N/A

Avg. Writing Time

10.0

12.0

Avg. Reading Time

11

17

I do want to get both my writing and reading numbers up (to somewhere around 15 hours a week, each). But, as a baseline, this isn’t bad. Even amidst all the dislocation of moving and starting a new program and learning how to teach, there’s still time to get stuff done. And it’s easy time, too. I tended to get all my writing done by about 5 or 6 PM, and usually had plenty of time to hang out and see people and browse the internet and do everything else that needs doing. At times, I did feel a little strain, and a few balls did get dropped, but nothing major.

The Writing

Was a little rocky. Slush-reading and workshop, when combined, made me super self-critical of myself, and I was finding it hard to start and finish stories. I also found it very difficult to work on the revision of my novel (since, to my eyes, it looked very bad). However, I did manage to finish the requisite stories for workshop. And I think the self-critical effect has started to abate. Over December, things got much easier

Teaching

Not much to say here. The Hopkins students are better at being students than I am at teaching them. They come to class. They do the reading (or at least fake it really well). They turn in their assignments. They try to write well. And although they can be quiet, they’re really good during discussion (after being prompted). I teach 9 AM and, after the first few classes, I never really felt anxious about going in and teaching. I pretty much knew it was gonna turn out okay (even if I was teaching something I was absurdly unqualified to teach, like “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock”)

The class is a mix of people who are taking it to fulfill their writing requirement and people who are really interested in creative writing (some people are both, of course). Some of the writing is beginning writing, but…that’s okay. As I noted when talking about the slush pile, I’m really not offended by beginner’s writing. Like…you don’t need to be good at something that you’ve: a) never done before; and b) are doing for fun. If I went out and took a tennis lesson, I’d hope that the tennis teacher could look at my own pathetic attempts in the same light.

That having been said, I do see everyone in my class as someone who could potentially pursue writing as a vocation, and I try to give people the sort of advice and guidance that I think I could have used at that age. Mostly, I tell them to submit their work. Err…and to write in scenes.

I’m not a perfect teacher. I’m not even sure that I’m a very good teacher. I think that I guided my discussions too heavily and forced the students to guess what I wanted to hear. It was only as the class was ending that I started to figure out how to lead discussion with a gentler hand. But I’m new at this too, and I hope that by the time I leave here, I’ll have improved considerably.

Workshop

…is good. Alice McDermott was a delightful instructor. At Hopkins, we have her every Fall, so I’ll see her again next year. When workshop is good, there’s not really much to say about it. It’s just…workshop. You have nine peer who call you out for the things you’re doing poorly (hopefully decreasing your odds of doing them poorly again) and you have one instructor who hopefully gives you a paradigm-shifting way of thinking about things.

But when workshop is bad…shit gets crazy! I feel like bad workshops are really both a symptom and a cause of bad social dynamics. What I liked about our workshop was that: a) I didn’t feel like having a story that was well-received in workshop would make you more (or less) popular outside of workshop; and b) I didn’t feel like being popular outside of workshop would accept the reception of your story by the workshop. Now, obviously, to some degree these are false feelings on my part (since we cannot help being unconsciously affected by how much we like a person). But still, at least that effect was dampened.

Part of the credit for this goes to Alice McDermott, who leads a good workshop and does not play favorites. But most of the credit goes to my fellow students. They are awesome.

The People

I am sure that my feelings re: my classmates will eventually become more mixed, as we get to know each other better. Perhaps as soon as this winter! But right now, I like them a lot. All of the ten people in the fiction program are really friendly and interesting. I’m generally pretty friendly and get along well with most people, but I really like my MFA peeps. They’re fun to be around. Most of them decamped from Baltimore a week ago, and I miss them. I think there’s not a one of them that I don’t feel close to. They’re the super-best. (Oh, err…I like all the poets too…)

The City

Aside from the weather not being as good as it is in Oakland, Baltimore is great (for me). Traffic is light. It’s easy to find parking. It’s super cheap. I live in a two-bedroom apartment for which I pay $850 a month (I have an office!). And I can walk to campus every day: my commute is fifteen minutes of walking! Also, it’s very close to DC, where I grew up and have family and friends. And I’ve gotten to know some local Baltimore-area science fiction people, which has also been great. The SF scene around here feels very vibrant. All in all, I don’t think I could’ve gone to school in a better city (for me). However, the area around Hopkins’ campus is most definitely not a hip or a happening place. So if you’re thinking about coming here just, well…keep that in mind.

Okay, that’s it for that, I think.

Getting up at 7 AM every day is kind of awesome

            I forget exactly when I started waking up at 9 AM every day (even on weekends). I think it was about fifteen months ago, when I stopped drinking coffee. I realized that even with my self-employed schedule, I was going to need to wake up in the morning at least one day a week (for social engagements, if nothing else), and that without coffee there was no way I could continue to do my usual thing of sleeping until noon on most days and then powering through whatever mornings I needed to.

            And waking up at 9 was pretty good. It was wonderful to have a firm sense of how much time I was going to have each day. It’s difficult to plan out your days if the start date moves around depending on whenever you decide to get up. However, 9 AM was kind of too late. It was hard to fall asleep at night, and the sun often woke me up too early.

In the months before I started school, I decided to pre-emptively begin waking up at 7 AM (every day, even on the weekends), so that I’d be able to handle the possibility of teaching a 9 AM class. As it turned out, that was pretty prescient. I was assigned a 9 AM class (and I’ll be teaching one next semester as well). But it’s been pretty great. 7 AM is perfect. There’s an hour to lounge around in my underwear and answer my email and reject stories and drink tea. And my body seems to feel like seven is an adequate time. I do frequently wake up at around 5 AM with a need to go to the bathroom, but that means that I’m usually able to get in another sleep cycle between 5 AM and 7 AM. I’m usually lying awake in bed for a few moments by the time my alarm goes off, but I rarely feel shortchanged.

Furthermore, after I’ve experienced considerably less insomnia now that I’ve moved my bedtime to around midnight. I usually manage to fall asleep in what feels like less than half an hour. Then, my noon to 2 PM nap takes care of the rest of my sleep needs.

Sleep is really what you need in order to start locking down a schedule. Now that I know when and how I’ll be sleeping, I’ve finally started to fall into a routine. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I do my writing post-nap, from about 2 PM to 4 PM. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I do it pre-nap, from about 8 AM to 11 AM. And then I let the rest of the pieces fall where they will. The day is actually quite conveniently ordered in terms of my priorities. I do my writing during my first free moments of the day. Then I do a little socializing in the evening (or at least, try to). After that, I try to take a walk around campus in order to hit my ten thousand steps for the day (yes, I carry a pedometer…it is super nerdy). Finally, I come home and do some reading. I aim for about two hours, but sometimes it’s closer to 1. And, finally, I prep my class and do whatever needs to be done for Spanish.

Over the course of the year, I’m going to try to stretch my writing time from 2 hours a day to somewhere closer to 3, but I’m not too dissatisfied with what I have right now. Of course, I definitely feel a certain amount of constraint. There’s a limited amount that I can do. Already I’m seeing the ways in which I can’t put as much time into certain projects as I’d want to, but in some ways I really enjoy the sense of control that comes from knowing about how much I’m going to be able to accomplish in any given week.

An illustration of my super sophisticated time management techniques

Until now, my time management technique has been all about wresting time away from the forces of entropy. I had plenty of time in my day, I just wasted it watching TV, playing computer games, and browsing the internet, instead of reading, writing, socializing, and working. As such, any time that I spent doing anything (rather than nothing) was time that I was using well. And, since I worked from home, I had infinite flexibility to set my own hours and schedule.

Given this set of conditions, my approach was to have outcome-based goals. By the end of the week, I wanted to have written 5,000 words and read 2 books and written 3 blog posts and etc. etc. Within the week, my time could be divided any way that I wanted. I didn’t care what I did on each day and in each hour.

Over time, my goals became more numerous and specific and I started having daily goals (like walking 10,000 steps per day, for instance). But I still had so much time that I didn’t quite need to think about what happened when and how much time I should devote to it.

Those days are gone!

Now, I have approximately 4-6 hours of school-related stuff to do every single weekday. That means I have to be places at specific times. If I still hewed to my old ways of doing things, I’d inevitably begin to drop balls. Thus, I’ve begun to plan out exactly what I am going to do each day.

In fact, I’ve found that on each day I have enough time to do almost everything that I want to do. For instance, today I:

  • Woke up at 7:20 AM
  • Browsed facebook / rejected stories until 8:05 AM
  • Revised the novel (it is going so well! The first chapter is loads better now!) until 10:45 AM
  • Investigated a mysterious leak in my ceiling until 11 AM (the upstairs neighbor’s toilet flooded).
  • Showered and primped until 11:30 AM
  • Went and checked out some library holds until 12 PM
  • Got food and went to the Brody Learning Commons until 12:30 PM
  • Met with two students until about 1:30 PM
  • Did some reading (finished Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street!) until 3 PM
  • Had our fiction-writing workshop until 6 PM
  • Went to the bar with the fiction folks until 8:15 PM
  • Walked until 8:45 PM
  • Mailed out a hilarious cat video to the fiction folks until 9 PM
  • Wrote this blog post until 9:20 PM (and counting!!!)

Anyway, after this is posted, I need to prepare my lesson plan and handouts for tomorrow’s class! Surely, now, that is a perfect day, que no? I mean, I’ve written, read, taken class, written a blog, prepared for class, and socialized.

But sadly, no. I’d meant to go to Target today and buy a coffee machine. I’d also meant to clean my shower and pay my quarterly taxes. I also haven’t done my reading for my Spanish class.

Tomorrow, I might do these things, but they likely mean I’ll fail to do something else. Yesterday, I had intended to write a blog post, but ran out of time.

I know, right? I think this is just the way my life is gonna be for the remainder of the semester. It’s alright. There’s still plenty of flex time in my schedule. For instance, yesterday I fucked off after an hour and a half of writing and took a nap instead (it was excellent!)

Yes, my life is very very very very very very hard.