On social media, to mark the end of the decade, people have been posting side-by-side photos of themselves from 2009 and 2019. Alongside the photos, they’ve been listing milestones illustrating how much they’ve achieved and changed in that time.
I’ve decided to mix things up a bit and look back 25 years. Here are my captions for the above photos:
Left: me in 1994, a 29-year-old about to drop out of my second MFA program, this time at City College.
Right: me in 2019, a 54-year-old teaching in an MFA program (at Bay Path University), at Catapult, and now, also in an online class I recently created for Skillshare.
(*More about my Skillshare class, how you can take it for free, and a special offer at the bottom.)
Let’s rewind to the early 90s, shall we?
In an earlier installment, I told you about how I dropped out of the MFA program at Sarah Lawrence when I couldn’t figure out how to pay for it (especially not after I was scammed out of $850 for the delivery of a $30K Cadillac I figured I’d hock, but which I had not in fact won 🤦🏻♀️).
Before I dropped out, I mentioned my financial distress to one of my professors, and she shared a little money-saving secret with me: “Many of us also teach in the program at City College, which is a fraction of the cost.”
It was true. Where Sarah Lawrence was something like $11K per semester, at City College, I could take one or two courses at a time, for about $375 each. I applied, got in, and then enrolled in two courses.
I was most excited about the short story workshop led by Deborah Eisenberg. At the time, creative non-fiction wasn’t offered in the program, and I was writing fiction then, anyway.
(The big memoir boom of the mid-to-late-’90s, which had a big effect on me, hadn’t yet gotten under way. When I started at City College in the fall of 1993, Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation was still a year away from being released; it would be another two years before Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club would appear, three years before Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes would be published, and another four before Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss would.)
But the short story workshop was too big, with something like 25 students, meaning we each had only one opportunity to workshop a piece — two students per session. When it was my turn, I found a lot of the feedback on my story to be utterly useless. One guy said, “I don’t like these characters. I wouldn’t want to be friends with them” Another hissed, “I find your writing to be disingenuous, obtuse and oblique,” without offering any further insights as to what about that one story had made him feel that way. I felt vindicated when Eisbenberg gave me an A on the story, and another for the class, but I found that workshop experience to be wholly unsatisfying.
A much bigger problem was one I’d already encountered at Sarah Lawrence: I couldn’t seem to juggle going to school at night with working full-time as a reporter, not to mention commuting to West 137th St. and Convent Avenue from the East Village. In the middle of my second semester, I dropped out of the City College MFA program.
Often younger writers ask me if I regret not going further with my MFA. The truth is I do and don’t. I wish I’d had time to immerse myself in reading and writing and learning craft. I wish I had that degree, and the community and connections that come from being part of a program. I’m glad, though, that I haven’t saddled myself with massive school loans to pay back; I believe I could have only continued if I had quit my job and gone into major debt. When I hear about the steep debt hanging over writers who pursued MFAs and other advanced degrees, I feel glad I’m not in their shoes. To wit:
The good news today is that there are lots of great alternatives to (on-site) MFA programs — and I am fortunate to be able to teach through three of them.
The Bay Path MFA program I teach in is 100% online, so my students and I are able to telecommute. (I wish I’d had that option in the early 90s. Although, back then I had AOL and a 14.4 kbit dial-up modem, so it would have taken forever.)
Catapult — whose tote bags are emblazoned with the slogan “Catapult vs. MFA" —offers a wide array of courses taught by some of the best writers and editors around. (There’s still room in my January anthology editing course! Grab your spot before it’s gone!)
And Skillshare allows you to take countless classes in a variety of creative subjects online for a low subscription fee. In fact, you can get two free months of Skillshare Premium if you sign up for my new class, "Writing Essays: Making the Personal Universal"
I hope you’ll consider subscribing to Skillshare and taking my class. It’s an introductory course in writing personal essays that will be useful for students at all levels, even true beginners. Here’s the special offer I mentioned:
The first five students to take my Skillshare workshop and post their essays in the class’s project gallery will receive my light notes on their pieces.
So, sign up, why don’t you? Twenty-five years from now (and hopefully also much sooner!) you’ll be glad you did.