From the moment a fellow student tapped me on my shoulder at the welcome barbecue to tell me I had my shirt on backward, I knew I was in over my head. Nevertheless, this week I graduated with a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Non-Fiction from the University of King’s College. Two years and 60 000 words have come and gone. The program and the whole experience have been one of the best things I have ever done for my writing. Here is some of what I learned.
Push through fear. I had those sinking and then kicking-to-the-surface moments countless times during the two years. Walking up the stairs to the hot, stuffy classroom where our first mentor group gathered and met, I could have bolted and ran back to predictable. Standing in front of a group of strangers and pitching a writing project idea that was barely formed in my own mind, I could have fake-fainted just to get out of there. Those moments of fear and the decision to push through them and embrace risk just kept appearing before me. I look back now and I do think I said yes to every opportunity I had, and I took every risk that stood before me. I’m really glad I did.
Try a new way of writing. When I first started writing my project — a spiritual memoir that pulls in my experience of being a minister’s wife — I was so relieved to discover I could still use my own, old toolbox. I could research and read other sources and pull them into my work. What does Henri Nouwen say about community? What did Dietrich Bonnehoffer write about listening? As a writer, I felt like I was visiting a different province, but generally wandering around the same country. Then, one of my mentors in the program asked me to “blow up my formula.” He encouraged me to write without relying on any other expert, just do that thing writers do and simply write. The blank page was never whiter or brighter or longer. But I did it. It felt right for me.
Dwell for a while in the rough places. My other mentor was brilliant at asking me to dwell in places that I had skimmed over. “I want to know what you are feeling and thinking here,” she might write in the margin. And my heart sank. I didn’t want to dig deep so often. I felt done. Leave me alone, would ya! But she was always right, of course. Dwelling, even for a few extra beats (as she might say); helped my writing immensely. So did rewriting yet again, after the already dozens of times I already had. Of course. It always does. I also learned that beautiful digressions are part of what makes creative non-fiction so rich and enjoyable. This genre gives you room to kick the dirt around a bit, and I really liked that.
Reading matters. I’ve never been more convinced that reading well and widely is essential to great writing. I’ve read more non-fiction in the last two years than I did in the previous 20, and I’m fascinated with other people’s true stories. Memoir is beautiful, and it weaves us together. I love that. I get it now. Reading feeds writing like water nourishes a garden.
It takes a gang to raise a writer. What friends I made. What fun we had. I highly recommend, if you can do it at mid-life, to return to being a student. As it turns out, it’s still fun to go out for beer and macaroni and talk about life, after all these years. And we helped each other fight discouragement and defeat. The biggest supporter I had, of course, was my husband. Maybe every minister out there would encourage his wife to go write about their life together, never ask to see it, trust her completely, cheer her on, tell her it’s okay over the phone, and then buy her a cool present when she was done. Maybe. But I doubt it. What I wrote, a project called The Minister’s Wife, is not a love story. But it could be.