The MFA Graveyard

MFA Graveyard

by Tabitha Blankenbiller

This June I had to uninstall Timehop from my phone. The app, which collects a This Day in History of past Facebook, Twitter and Instagram posts, is usually good for a quick narcissistic thrill. It resurrects the immaculate homemade key lime pie from 2012 I forgot that I made, or reminds me of the anniversary of buying my favorite pair of knee-high boots. This spring, however, scrolling through the minutiae of four, five and six years ago felt like tiptoeing through a graveyard.

In my mind, I catalogued the faces smooshed into selfies and group shots by fate, like an aging relative sorting photo album ghosts.

Clarissa. Fiction. Went off to Italy to study ancient textiles.

Melanie. Memoir. Teaching ukulele lessons to Gwen Stefani’s children in LA.

Allegra. Poetry. Husband finished medical school; decided not to put up with Submittable ever again.

And on the other side, those who hadn’t so much departed the literary rat race as ascended to a higher plane of existence.

Jessica. Fiction. In her fifth printing with a publisher my mom has actually heard of.

Leah. Essays. Has to juggle lunch with Roxane Gay between cocktails with Lena Dunham.

They smile and hashtag blessings with all the joy of people who have untangled happiness. Hopelessness no longer tethers us together the way it used to, when we were just tiptoeing into the Business of Writing and compared rejection notes from all corners. Publications, workshops, scholarships, jobs. No one wanted us. The difference is that at some point in the last half-decade, many of them stopped taking the abuse. They’ve closed up punching bag shop. Another subsection has proven that this was what they were born to do, giving credence to my theory that if you’re ever going to do this, you’d have done it by now. Meanwhile I’m still on the phone to my mom hearing her wonder “why do you put yourself through this?” They’ve cracked the riddle. They’ve stopped or they’ve succeeded.

Like that crotchety relative, I’m becoming less and less effusive with my MFA talk. My tenure in grad school is slipping from “just got out” to “a few years ago” to “a long time ago,” and my enthusiasm for the experience has followed. It was the best decision of my life has become I wish I would have done things differently. There’s a bar graph correlation between the endlessness of a student loan payment and the ephemera that came with the experience. The initial inspiration has been squandered, the opportunities spent. The friendships faded.

During low-residency craft talks, our faculty advisors gently hinted at reality outside our incubator. Inconvenient facts, like agents weren’t waiting in the parking lot to sign us after commencement, and most of the thesis projects we were killing ourselves over would never see a shelf outside of the university library archive. “This is a tough business,” they said, “and it is a business.”

In my MFA, I was the cheerleader. I wore the uniform that never fit in high school or college. It was the first time I felt qualified to walk up to anyone in a school nametag and strike up a conversation. “Hi! Where did you come in from? What’s your genre? Who are you working with? What’s your dream? Want to be best friends forever?”

We all seemed so destined for the same boat. No matter who I cornered in the karaoke bar or lunchtime cafeteria, we shared a cozy Venn diagram of common aspiration. We were the same Play-Doh lumps of social anxiety and sentence love counting down the minutes until Katherine Dunn gave her craft talk.

I brought cupcakes for Orientation Day. I made breakfast burritos for my residency roommates. I snapped all those pictures of us loading up the winery trip bus and stuffing falafel into our faces. We’d need them after all, when the Pulitzer committee wanted to run a slideshow on our legendary literary friendships. I knew, even in the coziest glows of that MFA farmed family, that this was an unsustainable high. How could we possibly scatter back around the country and world and stay, as we vowed, in touch? I’m optimistic but I’m not delusional. Still, I can’t shake the mourning over who I’ve lost. I can’t help feeling like I’ve failed.

* * *

This essay has been sitting in my Documents folder, unopened, for six months. The reason has been, I was unsure where I stood. As the gulf of years between my June 2012 graduation yawns open, so do the poles between Successful Published Writers and those who have decided to Pursue Other Interests. I have one foot on each side, and I’m still not sure where I’m going to end up.

Three of these months in, I ran into my MFA program director at a Portland writing conference. My heart melted; she’s the literary mom I’ve always wanted to make proud, to add to her collection of graduate books proudly displayed on floating shelves around her Pearl District office. I gave her the rundown of the last year or two since we’ve spoken: yeah, I’m still writing. Essays out. A small press collection in the next year.

“I should be doing more though,” I told her. Outlining my novel. Pursuing a column. Reviewing books. Attending every meeting and mixer held in Portland every night. Hitting all the magazines and journals they shelve at Powell’s Books with all the ferocity of a mediocre white man.

“You’re so hard on yourself,” she knows. She reminds me that I am young. She reminds me that many students, in any program, never publish a book at all. “We all have our own pace.”

She’s brilliant and she’s right. But my pace was not supposed to be “takes a fucking decade to get my shit together.” As I’ve cycled through two agents and mounting manuscripts, I’ve watched as fellow graduates net major representation, release Big Six titles, get write-ups in the LA Times, and slip into those rooms where it happens.

On both ends I feel strange and out of place. I have to sidestep talking too much about writing with those who are no longer pursuing it full-tilt because by that measurement, I am still active, still querying, still forcing myself to sit at this desk on as many nights after work as I can stay awake. How can I say I’m not doing anything when there is slow, microscopic movement forward? I sound like an asshole.

But with those scraping the echelons, I feel small and pathetic. What do I have to offer? I have no good advice on how to handle requests from BuzzFeed for interviews. I’m not sure how one handles a publisher who wants to put a hideous, clichéd stock photo of a woman’s back on your cover. I am not overbooked. My email inbox is very handle-able.

When I was in high school, there was a guy in my class who could rock a cowboy hat and played guitar. This had huge cachet in my hometown, a logging community in the foothills of Mt. Rainier. He wrote a song called “In My High School” that landed him a record deal with a country label, and they filmed a video at a different high school that was much more photogenic than ours. He closed out all our school assemblies, our graduation, and the next year played across from New York’s Dean and DeLuca on the TODAY Show. Everyone in town effused about how famous he was going to be, how proud he was going to make us.

And then, he disappeared.

“He didn’t disappear,” my mom corrects me. “He’s living in Nashville. He got married and had kids. He’s ghostwriting songs for different artists. He seems very happy.”

I can’t imagine a worse fate. What’s the point of a dream if it doesn’t come true?

* * *

When I started this essay, I thought it was about the other people I know and how disconnected I feel from them. It isn’t until now, sitting here on a day when my house is buried in a rare Oregon snowstorm, cut off from all people in my world that I realize what should have been obvious from the start—this is about feeling disconnected from myself.

I haven’t lost touch with people because they’ve found that they cull more joy out of music or raising children or traveling to new continents. Or because their stories are getting the attention they truly deserve. It is my relentless insecurity in my own achievements that keeps me from reaching out, from accepting that all forms of evolution are worth celebrating.

It is that scared, desperate girl who doesn’t revel in the honor of being selected to moderate an AWP panel, but spends the first two minutes silently counting the people who showed up in the room.

The one who sees how many people Liked her latest essay on Facebook, then scrolls down in the feed to see how it stacks up to the publication’s other features.

The one who panics when she sees how long it’s been since she last had something out, certain that the literary community will forget she ever existed.

I make excuses for why I’m lonely because the truth—that I’m jealous and afraid—is ugly. Envy is frowned upon in our communities; it’s not constructive, it negates the idea that “we’re all in this together.” It is difficult to own up to an affliction that we spend so much time deriding. But how can we expect to avoid resentment, even if we possess the grace to mask it for the sake of those we truly do love and admire? When we have expelled so much of our time, energy, money and hope on a pursuit with a finite amount of opportunities and openings? When the gloss of Twitter and Facebook make every “and so…this happened!” seem so easy.

Those who have signed the deals and relocated to the stratosphere remind me of what I haven’t accomplished; those who have moved on to their own iterations of happiness make me wonder if my ambition will forever block me from fulfillment. I remain a zombie between them, still unsure whether to retire into the grave or make another run at the light.



Tabitha Blankenbiller is a graduate of the Pacific University MFA program living outside of Portland, Oregon. Her work has been featured in a number of journals including The Rumpus, Hobart, Electric Lit and Brevity. Her debut essay collection “Eats of Eden” is forthcoming from Alternating Current Press in March 2018. She squanders productive time Tweeting @tabithablanken.

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