Reading everyone else’s thoughts on getting an MFA, I thought about why I am in the program at all. Because, you see, I made a giant mistake when I applied to The New School.
The mistake began years before I even thought about getting an MFA, before I even thought about being a writer. It began in the summer before I entered the tenth grade, when I wrote a story in a green notebook and then promptly threw it away. That green notebook contained the first story I had ever written and without even finishing it, I was convinced the story was no good. So I got rid of it.
Fast forward a few years to when I dropped in and out of three colleges, sometimes simultaneously attending one while in the midst of failing classes at another, as I tried to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I thought about being a linguist, a teacher, a paralegal, a museum curator, a librarian, studying medieval history, owning a bookstore, basically anything except writing. But I never forgot about the story in that green notebook and when a friend suggested I write something instead of picking apart the bad writing in a book I had just read, I did it. And when I shared the story with my friend, I was amazed that she liked it, and everyone she showed it to liked it. That’s when I revisited that old story, and even though I had forgotten most of the details, I decided to finally finish it.
Over the course of six months, I stayed up until four and five in the morning, writing because I couldn’t sleep at night. My brain raced with new ideas and I would lie awake in bed, begging my mind to shut down so I could sleep but also excited about all of the scenes I couldn’t wait to write. So I would crawl out of bed and write until the sun came up.
Eventually I finished the book and after sharing it with a few friends, I put it away because I felt it just wasn’t good enough to be published. And I continued on with my life, but by then I had decided to finish college with a degree in English and Creative Writing. In my writing classes, I focused on literary fiction, or adult writing as I call it, because no one in my classes read or wrote YA novels and I didn’t feel comfortable submitting anything that wasn’t adult-orientated. So my YA novels and ideas were put on the back burner as I concentrated on my adult stories even though I didn’t much care about them. I just wanted to write and be around writers.
When it came time to apply for an MFA program, I picked The New School because of the writing for children concentration. I thought it would be great to work on fiction and writing for children but I only applied to the fiction program. I looked at the YA novel I had written and the other YA ideas I had started but never finished, felt none of them were ready, and prepared my fiction submission.
My first semester in the fiction MFA program left me feeling lost. I didn’t care about what I submitted, and dreaded my second year and all of the expectations that came with it. What would I write about during my thesis semester? What would I read at the final student readings? None of the my adult stories were special enough for me to want to keep revising or showcase them and I had no new ideas.
But I had tons of YA stuff I could write and polish. In my second semester, I took a writing for children seminar and I finally felt like I belonged. Here were people who took children’s books seriously, who didn’t treat genre like the plague, and I finally had the chance to share some of my YA ideas and characters with people who could understand where I was coming from and why these characters and their stories mattered to me.
As the semester ended and it came time to choose classes for the next year, a sinking feeling settled into my stomach and I realized what I had done to myself. By not applying to the writing for children program, I had once again thrown away my green notebook. I knew I had made a giant mistake that would haunt me for years, just like the story I had been too scared to finish writing, and I knew I needed to make a change. I finally realized why I didn’t apply to the writing for children program: because writing for children is what matters to me. Fiction was easy; I almost didn’t care if one of my adult stories was rejected. But to put my YA novel out there frightened me. I couldn’t bear the thought of someone saying my YA novel wasn’t good enough and so I didn’t give anyone that chance.
Once I admitted the real reason why I didn’t apply to the writing for children program, I did everything I could to get myself in there. I talked with the program director and began meeting up with my writing for children classmates so that we could start our own workshops and attend writing for children events together. And I sent out the first few chapters of the novel I wrote based on the first story I had ever written in that green notebook for my classmates’ critiques.
I had almost given up on the MFA program because I was getting my degree for all of the wrong reasons. I still struggle with having confidence in myself and my writing, but I know I am getting better, better at writing and better at staying true to myself. And I owe it to the green notebook. Even though I threw it away all those years ago, the memories of writing my first story in there have never left my mind. I used to be embarrassed at my teenage attempt at writing, but now I look back with fondness and inspiration. It is because of those memories that I feel at home in the writing for children MFA program and am glad that I fixed my giant mistake.
Guest blogger Jean-Paul Bass recently decided to quit her job to focus on writing full-time and she swears she doesn’t miss having a regular paycheck at all. She is currently working on her MFA in fiction and writing for children at The New School. If she could finish her memoir about growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, before graduation, then she would be quite satisfied with herself.
Photo Credit: Jean-Paul