(I wasn’t, but I did learn some valuable lessons!)
by Sarah Rafael García
If you would’ve asked me about a year ago if I’d recommend Texas State University’s Master in Fine Arts in Creative Writing program to other writers (particularly women and writers of color), you would probably have to sit through a rant containing an array of emotions—anger, depression, regret and countless examples of microaggressions I experienced.
Although I still regret attending that program, I have also come to terms with the outcome. After all I became a stronger writer and mentor, not because of the MFA program but because the adverse experience forced me to seek support and resources outside of the MFA world, resources I’m not sure I would’ve sought otherwise. Like many other MFA programs, my MFA program is also too white, too heterosexual and too male, as others have discussed about their MFA experience. As a writer of color, of culture, of social justice and the Spanish language, my MFA experience caused significant emotional trauma but since then, I formed my own writers’ community, one that supports my writing ambitions.
I hope by retracing my lessons in the MFA program, you realize only you can decide what is best for you and this helps find the right environment to obtain your goals or gives you the motivation to finish the program you’re in—whether it be to strengthen your writing and/or use the degree for stable employment. In the last few months, after publishing my MFA experience, more women and writers of color in MFA programs seeking consolation have contacted me—and like me, many gain confidence and perseverance just knowing they are not alone.
When I was thirty-seven, I decided to apply for an MFA in Creative Writing program. I was determined to learn more about the writing industry and improve my writing style. After having published a childhood memoir, I had a negative experience with a publisher but positive reviews from readers and writers like me—Mexican-Americans, Chicanas, Tejanas, and first-generation college students. This motivated me to find a way to strengthen my writing and broaden my audience. I also wanted to expand my teaching skills to the university level. I was in search of an MFA program that would help me become a “well-rounded” writer and sustainable community educator.
Along the way, I decided to apply to three MFA programs ranked by location, career skills opportunities and application fees—because let’s be honest, for some of us, the fees keep us from submitting. My first choice was the University of Texas at Austin for: its location, fully funding their students, and teaching opportunities. My second choice was Mills College in Oakland, California because the application fee was waived and the program itself is known for its diverse faculty and student body. Mills College also offers fellowship opportunities. Lastly, I applied to Texas State University for: its location, my familiarity as an undergraduate alumna and teaching opportunities. An academic friend offered additional advice, but the words she spoke made no sense to me. She said I should consider visiting campuses, contacting professors I would like to work with and also read their work to see if it was something I admired. I did not visit campuses, I merely read faculty profiles in hopes that one writer would eventually become a mentor. But in the words of Junot Díaz, “Still, I was pretty dumb about the whole thing.”
So I applied confidently, mostly motivated by the idea that I could be accepted into an “academic” writers’ community. At my age I knew nothing in life was perfect, so I naturally wasn’t surprised when I didn’t get accepted into the University of Texas.
I didn’t do my “homework” regarding fully funded programs. They usually include teaching positions in English departments. Therefore candidates with an undergraduate degree in English or Creative Writing or who have completed enough English courses at the university level are more qualified than those without. My undergraduate degree is in Sociology and Spanish—I should’ve asked if I’d qualify to teach before applying. I should’ve applied to more programs too.
However, I did get accepted into Mills College and Texas State University with some funding. Both programs differ from each other drastically, but the biggest difference is the cost of tuition—Mills is more than double the amount! In the end, my decision was based on the financial burden I’d accrue in the years it would take to complete a program. At thirty-seven, I should have known better. But I was optimistic and excited, as any incoming student should be.
I mean c’mon now, I got accepted into two of three programs, pretty good right?
Upon being accepted, I did not visit Mills College or Texas State
University’s MFA in Creative Writing programs. I did not ask for reading lists or contact former students for insight. I assumed because my writing sample included Spanish and was heavily immersed in Mexican-American culture that my style and content was accepted too. I also did not know Texas State offered two fully funded positions until my first year in the program—something I should’ve asked before I applied.
Then, I didn’t investigate until my last year that Texas State offers two post-MFA writer-in-residence positions—seriously, I was kept out of the loop. Plus the candidates are picked by the program director, no submission process. (That’s a whole other issue for another piece titled, “Gatekeepers, eff them!”)
In my first year, I was confronted with various problems in my writing during the workshop process. Since I had no prior knowledge of workshop etiquette, it was also pointed out that I didn’t write appropriate feedback to my peers through the practice of writing critique letters. Additionally, I had no knowledge of the authors or theorists referenced in the Form & Theory class. When I asked for help to supplement my reading material and knowledge of course expectations, I was told by the professor, “You’ll eventually get it.”
In time, it was also pointed out by some of my “white” MFA peers that my use of Spanish alienated them from my stories; my Mexican characters were too stereotypical and yet not quite believable. At the time, I was focusing on a historical novella, I used my grandparents’ lives as the source of my material. Apparently, my grandfather, being a Bracero who drank a lot to get over his bad experiences, was too stereotypical. Oh and I should’ve tried to “sprinkle” my Spanish so readers understand my story better. Yet when white students wrote about a culture other than theirs, they were praised for the attempt—like Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy are often praised for the use of Spanish in their writing, given Spanish is not their native language.
I should also add that I had one MFA professor skirt around the idea of writing a letter of recommendation on my behalf, not once but twice. At first she agreed to write one for a scholarship. Then, after a week of thinking it over, she rescinded her intent because I had yet to finish her course or present her with writing that qualified as fiction in her opinion—I got sick with vertigo my first year in the MFA, which led me to take an incomplete and retake a course the following year. A year later, at my second request for a letter of recommendation, she again avoided the task by stating she had completed a number of letters of recommendations for other students and was very busy grading but proceeded to request my deadline dates. I still have the emails to prove it. She never responded to my follow up email, by then I had passed all her classes with A’s. When I reported this to department heads, the only consolation I received was that it was best she didn’t write a letter if she wasn’t interested in doing so.
Throughout each semester, I learned to recount my past struggles and accomplishments to convince myself that I deserved and qualified to be in the same space as my peers—to convince myself that I was not chosen for the color of my skin and to fulfill a quota, to convince myself not to drop out.
I believed the professor who said, “You’ll eventually get it.” I also believed she was an ally until I realized she was not willing to write a letter of rec on my behalf, nor did I have peers who sided with my concerns. Such microaggressions led me to doubt myself and believe I was the cause of the problem. So in reaction I chose to assimilate during my second year and didn’t seek allies within or out of the department, I was also heavily depressed and thought about dropping out on a weekly basis.
During my last semester, a first-year Mexican-American MFA student shared with me that a “white,” MFA male student told her that “we” were lucky to have three Mexican-American female students in one workshop and “we” should be “appreciative of the opportunity” instead of raising the issue of lack of diversity in faculty. By then, I had found solace in study abroad programs, simply to avoid my MFA cohort and core faculty. I also befriended other writers outside the MFA program: Chicanx, Latinx, and women writers who urged me to raise the lack of diversity issues within my MFA program.
I became angry and reactive. I now suggest folks to address the issues directly as they occur rather than later in the journey. I also should’ve had witnesses for the multiple conversations I had with my thesis advisor/program director and the multiple department heads I met with a month before graduation. I regret not insisting on a panel discussion with all of them; after all I paid for the experience and other students would’ve benefitted from the conversation.
By taking study abroad over two summers—which added expense and time—I had fewer courses to take during the regular semesters. Basically I alienated myself from those in the MFA program. After my last study abroad experience, and finally establishing a positive relationship with a Chicano professor on campus, I countered an all-white MFA visiting writers line-up by writing a grant to feature writers I wanted to see on a campus presentation. With this experience, I was forced to reach out to other writers and writer communities with my writing interests for consolation and guidance, and they were all found outside of this MFA program. This actually made me more focused on my writing, rather than my anger and disappointment. It also made me aware that, ultimately, I control my writing and education.
I began to see the end to my tumultuous MFA journey. I also began to find refuge in those who had made a positive impact on my experience—I did eventually find allies, even one within the MFA program but as a new professor and since I was in my last semester, we were both limited. To be honest, it was my comprehensive essay exam prompt—How did this MFA program make you a stronger writer? Something ridiculous like that—which provoked me to seek out other MFA experiences. It was then when I read essays by Junot Díaz, David Mura, Lynn Neary and revisited books about stereotype threats and identity. It was probably about six months after graduation that I began to read and follow Matthew Salesses too. But unfortunately, that was not the last of my lessons regarding the MFA experience.
Although I didn’t think I’d walk out of the MFA with a book deal, I was convinced I’d find a job at a college or university after graduation. I thought obtaining a M.F.A. in Creative Writing and being a teaching assistant during the program would actually provide me with the experience needed to obtain a sustainable position teaching creative writing and English composition. But I have yet to obtain such a job and realize now that I should’ve also considered my age as a possible disadvantage—most of my peers were significantly younger. Also, most MFA folks I know teach as adjuncts and typically only English composition courses.
So why even consider a MFA degree? Well, there’s a good chance you won’t have my experience if you do even a little more research than I did. And if you do share a similar outcome or you’re currently in such a program, well it can lead you to something different in the writing industry, like finding a community such as I did in the Macondo Writers’ Workshop. I can’t deny the fact that the MFA degree has helped me gain the confidence to submit to residencies and grants.
As with most situations in my life, when I’m being challenged by the powers that be, I don’t allow myself to be defeated. I literally keep going and submitting just to prove them wrong. In March 2016 I began my artist-in-residence position at Grand Central Art Center, it includes a free apartment and nice honorarium. My multi-media, literary project, SanTana’s Fairy Tales, was launched out of one of my short stories included in my thesis work—the same short story my thesis director identified as my weakest fiction. I also seek ways to participate in changing the guard by partaking as a gatekeeper, simply to be able to publish more underrepresented voices in the literary spectrum. I’m currently an editorial advisor for the Southwestern American Literature journal; I read fiction submissions, plus I’ll be a guest editor for a forthcoming special edition focused on women in the southwest, submit!
Most recently, I’m curating a special edition for The Acentos Review (extended deadline Sept. 15, 2016) and will be a featured writer on an AWP 2017 conference panel titled, “No One Thinks They’re a Racist: Conscious and Unconscious Bias and Racism in MFA Programs.”
I will say it again and again: building your writers’ community outside of the MFA program is crucial. After all, there are some of us who are willing to share our experiences as well as resources but attending and completing an MFA program is totally up to you.
Sarah Rafael García is a writer, community educator and traveler. Since publishing Las Niñas, she founded Barrio Writers. Her writing has appeared in LATINO Magazine, Contrapuntos III, Outrage: A Protest Anthology For Injustice in a Post 9/11 World, La Tolteca Zine, Lumen Magazine, among others. Sarah Rafael is currently a Macondo Fellow, the Editor for the annual Barrio Writers anthology and Co-editor of pariahs writing from outside the margins anthology.
Most recently, Sarah Rafael’s essay “My MFA Experience” was published in As/Us Journal Issue 6 and she was awarded for Santana’s Fairy Tales, which is supported in part by The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, through a grant supporting the Artist-in-Residence initiative at Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana, California. www.sarahrafaelgarcia.com