The latest update from Ryan Sanford Smith, graduate of IU South Bend and MFA student in poetry at Notre Dame:
In my last post I talked about a couple of things I had learned so far in my first term in an MFA program, and now I’d like to get to one of the more troubling things I haven’t quite learned yet—when do we do that writing stuff?
This isn’t to say that I’m not writing, but it is accurate to say that looking back on my workshopped poems over the term now coming to a close, I’m mostly at a loss to recall when I wrote a single one of them. At a glance the class load seems light, or at least manageable—9 total credit hours per term spread over a workshop, a literature course, and ‘thesis direction’, which is exactly what you might think it is. To be fair, thesis direction in the first time (and well into the second) is generally considered a kind of ‘filler’, as first years don’t tend to even have picked an advisor much less done too much thinking or writing on their creative thesis, which is a book-length volume of poems on the Poetry side of the program.
But time fills in quickly—literature courses at the grad. level are, as expected, fairly taxing. When I think about ‘my writing’, mentally I conjure every hour spent researching and writing academic papers for my lit. class this term, not my poetry. So, time goes. There are meetings with professors, readings and lunches with guest authors, social engagements (your socially-inept correspondent mentions this mostly in a theoretical sense), and everyone has a job of some kind, whether working in some manner for the program, teaching (if any dear IUSB readers know Professor Waterman or Professor Stockdale, they are comrades, so be nice!), and so on.
In speaking with my fellow first years, this all resolves into a question we weren’t expecting to ask: when do we write? Not research papers for lit. courses that feel, to put it nicely, not all that pointedly geared in our direction—but the ‘art’ we came here to have time to work on. The joke of course quickly becomes ‘time management is the art!’ which is sad, funny, and absolutely true.
None of us seems to have it figured out yet, though week after week workshop submissions seem to appear from us, almost magically. Pressure can work wonders, enforcing a sort of discipline artists of all walks aren’t usually known for, and perhaps this is one of the real lessons of an MFA—teaching writers within a kind of meta-lesson how to create and keep the time needed to write when it seems next to impossible to do so.