Ten years ago, I was at one of life’s low points. I was nearly two years into the only job I could get with a fresh-out-of-college writing degree – journalist at the Fergus Falls Daily Journal. It paid crap, and I was going into debt a bit more each month no matter how I cut expenses. I worked Sundays at Herberger’s selling shoes, where I made more per hour than I did reporting (and I got significantly less flak from random people working in retail than for the news). I was progressively more and more exhausted by the mundane, repetitive reporting that comes from being in a small town. Just two years in and I had the second highest seniority in a revolving door news department of six staff members. And after several years of being a young, single guy in a town that people run from after high school and return to once married, I had no friends.
I had resisted going back to grad school because I thought it would be a cop out – that it meant I couldn’t hack it in the real world and was heading back to school to avoid life. It would also mean more debt. And what if I sucked? My undergrad experience was one of tons of pompous writing majors that I didn’t hang out with and thank goodness cause I wrote like shit back then, utter shit. After four years of undergrad, I had one poem and one short story worth reading.
On the other hand, looking down the future at more years in journalism. Fergus Falls had become a source of hopelessness I no longer had the reserves to handle even with a therapist.
I did some research, asked around and whatnot, and got some great recommendations for Minnesota State University Moorhead. Bonus, they would let me start in January if accepted.
I was accepted, and I jumped.
I took that one good short story from undergrad and spent the next 2.5 years making it into a novel that I’m very proud of. I sold shoes part time to pay for living expenses, taught freshman comp classes, and forged some great friendships with fellow grad students and mentors. I still keep in better touch with those people than I do with undergraduate friends. I love to hear of any publishing successes they earn, and they do earn and deserve any recognition – so much talent in every group! I got to participate on a book team for New Rivers Press – which allowed an up close and behind the scenes look at small press publishing. Classes would go from 6 to 9 at night, then continue for hours over beers at Lauermann’s or the Red Bear (both now closed). *
I didn’t realize how special this all was until long after graduating. Becky has been an adjunct at MSUM, SDSU, NDSCS, UND and HTC. By FAR, MSUM has been her best and only experience with a functioning faculty that cares about student learning. (And from what I understand from reading about higher academic departments, it is rare.)
Seven years after graduating, I still think the writing I did at MSUM is the best I’ve ever done. I’ve used what I learned at MSUM in my job since then – first as a writer for NDSU, where I used creative writing techniques to create narrative journalism pieces that earned national recognition. I also use the empathy one gains from two years in heavy humanities studies every day in my current position. My company believes in empathy as a guiding force in design – in other words, they start designing products by asking what customers need to make their lives easier, which is an act of empathy. I write ALWAYS with the audience in mind, as I was taught and as I taught others, in order to generate attention grabbing emails and press releases about new products and news.
On Monday, I found out that this place that was a huge part of my life as a student for 2.5 years, as a student/adjunct teacher for seven years, is going to be no more.
My MFA program is being cut from the budget.
They are doing this to keep people I learned from and shared beers with employed. I can’t argue against that. They are amazing people and deserve every dollar they get, and if it takes destroying a program to keep their paychecks coming, so be it. I can accept that.
Still. It’s a death that gut-punches on a Monday morning. I imagine it’s like hearing that your childhood home has been demolished.
Becky and I are finally at a place financially, as in not deciding between medicine and food, where we can pursue writing in our off hours. This comes in the form of blog posts, art reviews, and other creative endeavors. I’m starting to try to get published again – but slowly.
Writing has long been a cry against death. And as Al Davis reminded me, the bound novel that is my thesis sits on a shelf in the English department, not only as proof that I was once there, a vibrant member of the MSUM academic community and fledgling writer, but now also as proof that an MFA program once collected a community of writers looking to engage others and be engaged by craft. Those shelves hold the weight of hundreds of dreamers tied together by a program that will soon no longer exist.
A toast to what was, and what will remain in between the lines of each one of those books – and thank you to each student and teacher who took the time to help me become a better writer.
*Other images that stick with me:
- Playing catch outside with Greg and Jay and Jens before the night’s workshop
- Catching a smoke with KC on the bench outside Weld and having about a dozen of his students stop by for a chat, every time
- Parties at Kevin Carollo’s house
- Finding out I have a horrible poker face when I hear feedback about someone’s story that I don’t quite agree with
- Overnight Diabolo II sessions
- Sharing an office with Conor and honing my impression of his best mannerisms as well as driving him nuts by saying someone else borrowed me a book
- Staying up until 3 in my non-air conditioned apartment working on revisions or new sections of my novel wondering how the hell I was sweating so much from typing
- Epic darts tournaments
- Taking a bus to the cities with the intro to publishing class
Please share any moments or any posts you have in honor of the MFA program at MSUM below.