Regrouping After the MFA: How to Find Community Postprogram

Jean Hartig

In Asuncion's experience, it has been a struggle to continue the writer's life after leaving an MFA program. In a society that often diminishes the value of the written word, students of fine writing can find their ventures trivialized as flighty or idealistic. "More often than not, I feel like the world is telling me that doing an MFA program was a bad decision," she says. "And more often than not, I'm like, ‘Yeah, time to start studying for the LSATs.'"

"I often feel stuck in my writing life," fellow salon member Rena Priest recently told me. "I have long patches of time where nothing I write is satisfying to me, and I have periods where nothing I read is resonating. When I am with other writers talking about writing and all the triumphs and struggles it involves, the ennui recedes." For Hila Ratzabi, another member of our group, connecting with other writers forces her to think about writing and to return it to the forefront of her mind where it belongs—but from which it can quietly slip as the static of the world interferes with our creative frequencies. "Thinking and talking about writing are not the same as writing, but having a community where it's safe to say, ‘I haven't written in months, and it sucks, but here's who I read when I can't write' is a blessing," Ratzabi says.

Without the meeting of friends and colleagues to help reframe myself in my project—and in the living portrait of us all doing this work together—writing began to feel like a secret game of limited consequence. I felt as if my contributions to anything larger than myself were nil. In fact, at our second salon, the question was posed, "To whom do you write?" For several months, I noticed, I had been writing primarily to words themselves, fiddling with language with nothing much at stake. My work on the page was reflective of my practice: scrawling on the train or for a few minutes at lunchtime, or making mental notes while running. I didn't feel I had an audience, and, curiously, my writing had even receded from conversation with my imaginary listeners, Dickinson and Stein among them. During my time at graduate school, the writing process itself had induced an exceptional sense of accomplishment, a purposefulness that comes from knowing that one is doing the work that one is supposed to be doing.

At times, the validation that we achieve through being and acting—in this case, writing—genuinely wavers, and we are compelled to look to one another not for appraisal but for support. Asuncion, who had rounded us up with the aid of a Google group she and others had created for Sarah Lawrence MFA alums, was inspired to start the salon by a similar series of gatherings she'd been attending that had been organized by Kundiman, the Asian American poets organization, whose members began running informal salons in January. She experienced the salon format as more of a generative field than an editing session for pieces in assorted stages of existence. Asuncion herself has written several pieces this year as a result of short salon exercises. For our group, exercises have ranged from creating a portrait based on a character we frequently noticed at our meeting spot—the mustachioed fellow leaning over his Belgian ale doesn't know how many weird narratives were spun about him—to drafting radical rewrites of work we'd each brought to the table. But most central to the salon, and for me its most vital aspect, is topical discussion.

I have always thrived in arenas that celebrate and engage ideas in all their intricacy and malleability, particularly ideas relating to perceptions of language. While not all classrooms are equally conducive to such vigorous exploration, the MFA roundtable at which I participated provided such a space and, ultimately, fed my writing. The salon reinvigorated that part of me that had been too easily neglected after leaving school, quelled by the seeming urgency of daily routines and pursuits unrelated to writing. In several of our conversations we've discussed how we can each create a space, physical and mental, where writing matters and can thrive after the intensity of the MFA experience. I've found that before establishing that room of one's own, separate from the mesh of the world, one needs to acknowledge that each of us is not alone in our endeavor; we are part of both a tradition and a living multitude of others.