Things are changing, changing, changing. Next week is the last one before classes begin. I have a group today and a group on Saturday, the last Writing the Flood in our Oakland space on Madison (in early September, I’ll be moving into a different home, and Writing the Flood will be moving back to San Francisco).
I’m thinking a lot about money and class these days — noticing the places where my class consciousness clashes with my class reality. I keep noticing that I have some embarassment when I tell people where I’m going to school: The voice in my head says, All this time you waited to go for your MFA, and you’re just going to State? All this writing and work you’ve been doing, and you couldn’t even get into a good school? I have this idea in my head that this is what people are thinking when I tell them that I’ve chosen to enroll in the MFA program at SF State. Yikes, right? But I think this has nothing, really, to do with the MFA program at any particular school, and everything to do with my idea of what “good” means, what “successful” means, and how much both of those are tied to money and expense, even after all of these years of trying to get away from our money=worth culture in the US.
Let me tell you that I’m really ready to get started with classes. I’ve just been assigned my advisor (the amazing poet/experimental writer Toni Mirosevich, with whom I’m so excited to get to work). Here are just some of the grads of the SFSU MFA program whose work I admire wildly: Kim Addonizio, Elana Dykewomon, Meliza Benales, Devorah Major, Linda Watanabe McFerrin, Alejandro Murguia, Carol Muske- Dukes, Cornelia Nixon (now on staff at Mills), Anne Rice (come on), Rae Armantrout, Barbara Jane Reyes, & the fabulous Gina de Vries — and, of course, faculty include Dodie Bellamy, Robert Gluck, ZZ Packer… I feel like I have to make a case for this program, just for the classist oog in my head that says I made a lesser choice. Of course I didn’t make a lesser choice. I made exactly the right choice for me. So why do I feel this “buyer’s remorse” knocking around in the back of my brain?
I applied to just two MFA programs: SF State and Mills. I wanted something local, I wanted a program that wasn’t just for “working adults” but was a regular, full-time school program. I wanted to work somewhere where the faculty were used to working with experimental writing, weird writing. I was drawn to State in large part because of Biting the Error (a collection of essays tangling with (and undoing) traditional narrative, which blew me right open with gratitude and exhilarated possibility when I first read it, edited by Mary Burger, Robert Glück, Camille Roy and Gail Scott, the co-founders of the Narrativity Website Magazine, based at the Poetry Center at — where? — yes, San Francisco State University). I was drawn to Mills because I knew brilliant folks who had gone there, and also because there was the chance I could get a fellowship that would cover my tuition. There are no fully-funded Creative Writing MFA programs in the Bay Area — the only one I found in CA is the program at Riverside — and the fact is that I can’t afford to pay the tuition at a private institution like Mills. I thought I had a pretty good chance at the fellowship, given the work that I’ve been doing for the last ten years, but it didn’t work out that way. (They don’t make available the information about who got the fellowships, year by year, on their website, so I don’t know who was awareded that opportunity instead.)
Tuition at Mills is $31, 620 for a year. Tuition at State is $6,738 for a year. That makes Mills more than four and a half times as expensive — and that’s just the tuition, not to mention fees, etc., and then I’ve got to figure out how to pay my bills while I’m in school. State gave me a scholarship to cover the full tuition, plus work-study access, and I decided to go ahead and take out a loan to cover living expenses for the first year — if I get other scholarship or other work during my first year of school, I can go ahead and pay that loan right back. I’m still paying for the loans I took out for my MA in Transformative Language Arts at Goddard – I still owe 21,500 on an almost 30,000 loan that I’ve been paying since 2001. I would like to take three years to focus on my writing without coming out completely buried in debt. I’ve been a working writer in the Bay Area. I know what our economic prospects look like. I know how difficult it is to make enough money to pay back big debt (or just enough to pay rent and electric bills). Take that reality plus the opportunity to work with/around/influenced in any way by the folks/program/institution involved with the ideas in Biting the Error, and the choice, in the end, wasn’t a hard one for me at all.
Why am I talking about money today? Because I feel some class shame about going to a state school, about not having some prestigious name to go with my MFA (never mind that I never tell people about the so-called “prestigous” school where I got my BA). But recently I’ve found myself thinking, Oh, the real writers go to Columbia, go to Iowa, don’t go to MFA programs at all — there’s always a way to talk yourself into feeling like shit, isn’t there?
I think about money all the time. In the 10 years that I’ve been facilitating writing groups in the Bay Area (and around the country), I built a business that got some interest, I did some good work; nowadays, if I tell people I run Writing Ourselves Whole, there’s some chance that they’ve heard of it, that someone they know went to a group and had a positive experience there. I’ve worked with hundreds of writers. And yet, because I had to struggle every single quarter of those 10-some-odd years to fill groups and make ends meet, because I’m setting the work down having no money in the bank, I feel like a failure, like lesser-than. I’m not the Writing Salon, not the Grotto, not able to really “make it.”
What is it that only equates success with money, money with success? Is it even possible to root out that mentality while living in our particular capitalist America?
I’m looking for someone to tell me that I did a good job and I made a difference in some folks’ lives. This is about trying to undo the sense of grim in the pit of my stomach, pull up that elitism that my stepfather instilled in me, the way he force-fed his upper-class-climbing down into me — the state schools are the backups, the fallbacks. It’s bullshit, though. The state schools are the working-class schools, where brilliant (and often, of course, under-recognized) work is happening.
What am I really trying to say about this? I’m soaking in stress and panic, in the decisions I’ve made about money in this lifetime. I have certainly resigned myself to understanding that if I want to live the life that feeds me — the one with words in it, and walks with the dog, and long wanders in the garden in the daytime — I won’t be able to buy a house, say, or have much of any other financial security, in the Bay Area, ever. Because the bay area isn’t a place for the dreamers and the wanderers and the weirdos anymore. It’s a place for money.
But that’s not what this is about. This is about something I’m working out about my worth even without money, about my worth, about the worth of my work, even though it hasn’t been lucrative. About not feeling like these last ten years are ending in failure because I have nothing to “show” for them.
Why do I capitulate to the idea that something less expensive is worth less? Do I really believe I’m going to get 3/4 the MFA from State that I would from Mills? Of course I don’t. In fact, I believe I’m going to get a completely different sort of MFA from State that I would from Mills — maybe these two degrees from these two institutions can’t even be compared to one another. I mean, one feels like more of a working-class place, and the other feels like a middle-class place — wouldn’t that necessarily impact the programs themselves? And I’m going to get a degree unencumbered by the sort of money panic I would have had going to Mills. I’m going to get to have three years not constantly anxious about where the money is coming from. After 10 years hustling, working multiple jobs, putting my writing last, never doing “enough” to “make it” as a small-creative, trauma-survivor-centered business in the Bay Area, do I need to explain what a gift that is? Already that stress has been easing off of my soulders, and I don’t quite know what to do with the space its left in its wake. I feel a bit like I’m floating.
I take a break from writing this post to apply for another work-study job — there’s a position in the poetry center, there’s a position in the library (could I go back in to the university library after 18 years?), there’s a position in the english department. There are gigs as instructional aids for creative writing classes, jobs doing circulation work, data entry, and more. As I write this post, I feel the class shame start to transform itself into a throb of pride: I get to go to SF State for my MFA, goddamnit. And I can’t wait to get started.