And That’s a Wrap: The Graduate

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On Bay Path’s lovely campus in Longmeadow, MA.
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The top of my hat, decorated to pay homage to my three years as a student of creative nonfiction.
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I am grateful to have had such an inspiring MFA program director, Leanna James Blackwell.

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Kind of a thrill to be a part of a graduation processional again at age 46. Carpe Diem!

 

Chasing the Barbie Dream House

I am entering the final phase of my MFA program, with two classes this semester and a publishing internship next spring. My Intro to Publishing class has us writing blog entries this fall. For this first blog post, we are asked to consider what it means to be “accomplished.”

As I contemplate the term “accomplished,” for some reason I think of a pianist. Even though I suffered eight years of lessons, I do not consider myself (nor am I objectively) an accomplished pianist. An accomplished pianist likely practices far more than I ever did or has some inherent musical talent, or—most likely—a combination of those two factors. An accomplished pianist can sight read difficult music. An accomplished pianist has successful recitals and concerts under her belt; she’s also memorized songs to play impromptu concerts, on demand.

Similarly, although I’ve had wonderful writing teachers and a few years of disciplined writing training (“lessons,” if you will) over the course of my MFA program, I don’t yet feel like an accomplished writer. I could, however, agree that I am “more accomplished” than I was before beginning my MFA. I understand the various sub-genres of creative nonfiction with an intimacy that I lacked before the program. I can also name both trailblazers and current writers within each sub-genre. I might even be able to teach beginning CNF writers a few things, just as I am competent to help my six-year old with the piano lessons he began taking this summer.

In writing, I still equate “accomplished” with “published.” Although I’ve been published in a variety of online publications, many before I started this program—back when I had more time to work on submissions—I probably won’t feel “accomplished” until or unless I have a book sitting on my shelf, with my name on its spine, or my desk is lined with a collection of print magazines and/or literary journals that contain my work. Until then, I’ll likely continue to feel like a fraud when I tell people I am a writer in response to the question, “What do you do?” Sometimes, I think I should just come out with it and admit, “I’m a fake writer,” before being asked the inevitable follow-up, “What do you write?”

I am reminded of how, as a child, I wanted a canopy bed—one with a pink gingham canopy. While I did get the pink gingham bedspread, it wasn’t quite right. At that same time, a friend of mine owned a Barbie Dream House. It was three stories high and had a working elevator, which operated on a rudimentary pulley system. Her multiple Barbie dolls drove a hot pink plastic sports car. I owned but one true Barbie; the rest were cheap plastic “fakes,” with shoulders that easily snapped off and they drove around empty Kleenex boxes or my brothers’ battered G.I. Joe Jeep. One Christmas, I received a plastic Barbie suitcase fashioned to look like a jetliner (I’m certain my mother found it on clearance). It wasn’t terribly fun and it could never match the Dream House.

Not quite right tends to remain not quite right.

I may always equate success as a writer with being published and, because I equate publishing with success, I may struggle to believe I am accomplished without a cadre of print clips or a published book that says “Heidi Fettig Parton” on the spine. That elusive book is my adult-sized Barbie Dream House. Still, what I have learned in my MFA program is that a published book doesn’t make a life. The day after one’s book publishes, she still has to do the laundry (maybe Elizabeth Gilbert doesn’t), worry about book sales, and continue the search for her corner of happiness in the world.

I recently read an article about writer and bookstore owner, Ann Patchett in The Guardian. The article quotes Patchett as having said, “[With] every book I think: well, if this one’s really successful, maybe I won’t have to make dinner any more.” She also comments on how there are more important things to her than writing novels. Patchett adds, “The thing that makes me feel really alive is figuring out how I can frighten other people into doing good.”

I am willing to sit with the notion that I don’t require a Barbie Dream House to feel complete (and acceptance alone is an accomplishment). I don’t have time for that right now, however; I still have to make dinner.

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I suppose this was taken in my Barbie Dream House phase. The local newspaper interviewed me about my Judy Blue obsession (I suppose the local library tipped them off). Just to be clear, I wanted to be Judy Blume someday.

 

 

 

Is an MFA in Writing Worth the Time and Money?

I’m back in school again. I’m at the start of my fifth semester in my MFA program in Creative Nonfiction at Bay Path University. I am on the three-year plan (with two summers) and anticipate receiving my MFA in May of 2017. Because I’m doing my thesis work this year (next year I will be finishing up my teaching/publishing concentration and internship), it seems that this year will prove the most challenging.

I entered this program with 98,000 words of a work-in-progress on a memoir and the intention to gain the skill and understanding to refine those words into something that I would be proud to publish. I am pleased to say that this program, in conjunction with classes at The Loft Literary Center and writing retreats like Kate Hopper’s Motherhood and Words retreat weekends, are all helping me find the Situation and the Story (nod to Vivian Gornick) of my memoir.

When I started at Bay Path University (a completely nonresidential program) in August, 2014, I was hungry for writing mentors. I’ve certainly found those mentors in the likes of the ever wise author and teacher, Kate Whouley, and the incomparable visionary and editorial critiques of my thesis advisor, Lisa Romeo, as well as the “old school” (as my six-year old would call it) reporting and writing guidance from teacher and editor of Yankee Magazine, Mel Allen–truly a “salt of the earth” kind of guy. Mel is so good at this editing business that he can, with just a question or two, change the trajectory of an essay and help a writer transform a piece from “just okay” into a captivating read. I am pretty sure that Mel is a word alchemist.

Although it feels somewhat difficult (it is a transition after all) to head back down into the pit of writing fire for the next sixteen weeks, leaving aside most of my “own” projects for homework assignments and thesis work (which, after all, dovetails with my memoir work), I am happy to already know, at this half-way-through-the-program point, that “Yes, my MFA program has definitely been a worthwhile endeavor for me” and Bay Path was the best choice of program to fit the demands of life raising a special needs child.

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Illustration of Emily Dickinson by my son, Ethan Hellekson. Somedays, I feel this way about writing.