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what i learned from the bennington mfa tagline change
writing on writing
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When I first began my MFA at Bennington their tagline was simple: Read one hundred books. Write one. On the cover of their website, they showed an array of book covers written by impressive names (Jenny Boully, Melissa Febos, Lisa Brennan-jobs, and others). Wow, I remember thinking to myself. Maybe it really is that easy.
Part of my hopeful delusion was rooted in how I ended up at Bennington, to begin with. And so, dear reader, here’s the story:
In the two years after leaving New York in 2017, I spent most days working on a memoir. If you follow me on Instagram or know me personally at all, this is not a surprise. I talked about it constantly. I posted about it constantly. I won grants to write. I attended conferences and workshops. I worked really hard. I wrote the goddamn book. It was wonderful.
And then, I tried to publish the memoir. I began that process after three drafts of the memoir when lots of people told me it was time to send it out into the world but the real reason I went out looking for an agent was that I wanted to publish a book. The problem was that the publishing industry didn’t want to publish my memoir. At first, it was funny. Then it was frustrating. and finally, it became heartbreaking. I felt like I had failed at something monumental, as though the two years I spent writing the thing were wasted.
My story about being a writer could have ended there. I could have taken that box filled with notes and drafts and research books, put it in my attic, and moved on to something else. Maybe there’s an alternate universe version of me out there who’s a competitive cyclist or travel blogger.
I applied to graduate school instead. I applied to almost ten schools and ended up selecting Bennington because the low-residency program meant I didn’t have to leave the Berkshire life I was just starting to build. And, of course, the tagline. I was ready to read one hundred books but, more importantly, I was ready to write one more.
I spent the first six months of the two-year Bennington MFA program writing a new book. This one was different, it was fiction. But to be honest, it wasn’t really fiction. This new book was told in the first person (like the memoir) and told the story of a college-age girl who is living in Madrid (something I did at 21). I figured most authors I knew published semi-autobiographical work as their first novels. Thankfully, my second-term advisor read the first sixty pages of that novel and told me the truth. The story was boring. It read like a journal. And, most importantly, she knew I could write something better.
So I scrapped the second goddamn book and moved to something completely different. Under the suggestion of my advisor, I started writing short stories. I started writing short stories told in the third person and in the past tense. I started writing about people who weren’t me and stories that weren’t ripped from my journals. And with this new form, I was given a gift. Suddenly, I didn’t have to write a book. I only had to write glimpses into the lives of fictional people without the pressure of producing The Next Great American Novel. I was free.
My one-hundred-page creative thesis for my master’s in fiction at Bennington is seven short stories. It’s not a book. It’s seven small different things that happen to sit next to each other in a bound cover. I like it that way.
Somewhere in the two years I was there, Bennington changed its tagline. The website now says something simpler: Read. Write. Be read. The promise of the school isn’t for all its graduates to leave with their first publishable book and, in my opinion, that’s a good thing. Friends at school often asked if I was upset my memoir wasn’t published. My answer was always the same, I am incredibly grateful it didn’t. When I go back and read parts of that book I’m so proud, but I also see all its flaws. I see myself working out what it meant to be a writer. And, I see myself learning that being a writer doesn’t mean being a published writer. It means reading. It means writing.
I graduated from Bennington a little over a month ago. In these six weeks, I haven’t written anything. Instead, I’ve read and napped and watched a dozen movies and knit a sweater I promised my husband I would do a year ago and, most importantly, thought about writing. I’m working out in my head what I want to do next. What I’m trying to remember is, it’s not going to be The Next Great American Novel. It might not even be my first novel. And that’s okay. All that matters is I keep going. I try to keep the pressure light. And don’t write anything too boring.
PS. I know I promised the best books I read during my time at Bennington but this is already a beast of a newsletter so I’m saving that one for another time. Stay tuned Miss Minutes. ⏱️👀
*bonus new* things I love from the internet
it’s pisces season babies
“How to be a better movie watcher, according to film critics” from NPR (please tell me if you have a letterboxd account. i am letterboxd curious.
“36 hours in Madrid” from the New York Times.
Our mom is getting divorced via The Cut.
Like what you see?