I worry about students. I’ve been teaching for less than a year, but already I’m getting ready to say good-bye to graduating students who seemed, when I arrived at the Stony Brook Southampton MFA in Creative Writing & Literature, to be as permanently settled into the machinery of the program as the other faculty members. I knew in theory that students graduate and new ones replace them, but the reality of it comes as a shock, as has the realization of what so many students have given up in order to pursue lives as poets, novelists, short story writers, filmmakers, playwrights. A staggering number of times in recent weeks, I’ve had conversations with students about how to live post-MFA, as in: how to pay off loans, how to pay rent, how to survive without health insurance, or eat, and how to motivate oneself to work when terrified about all of the above. These are graduating students of all ages and backgrounds, some of whom gave up truly lucrative careers to try their hands at writing and others who have never done anything else but scrimp in the name of art.
Look, I don’t have an answer, or a secret bag of money to hand out when things get rotten, as they very likely will. And I know that not everyone is going to suffer for the cause and end up reaping the benefits in the long run. It’s a tough, tough world and this is a different kind of suffering, one that doesn’t make for news photos or Pulitzer Prize-winning journalistic study. And I think I admire the graduating students even more for the bravery and commitment they evidence in the face of it: the excitement about each other’s work, the reading they do and the enthusiasm they muster for every aspect of creative life. To become master of a craft, one needs persistence and confidence. In the long run, these two traits trump basic talent in the race to pay the rent.