Tag Archives: community

On Snow and Fiction

{Written for a guest post for The MFA Years, a blog following the experiences of first year and second year MFA candidates in poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction.}

When I travel north from the South, the South in the winter, the South that is grey-and-brown bleary and blurred with a sleepy, grungy sort of winter, the snow is captivating. The similes have all been written: snow like glitter, snow like a blanket, soft snow, white as snow, pure and sparkling. And it is enchanting, it is, this soft, unadulterated substance that dusts the earth.

Over winter break, we drove the 14 hours north (from my school, in South Carolina, to home in Chicago). We slowly progressed towards the cold.

I let myself be enchanted by the snow this year. It’s been a while. As we neared the Chicago suburbs, I pressed my face against the glass of my passenger seat window. I giggled involuntarily at the scene.

It is magical, mystical, and that, I think, is in the soft covering. The suppression, the gentle blanketing. Overnight, in a few hours of tufts drifting down, the world is clean and new. It’s pure and sublime.

It’s not us.

While watching the evening snowfall through my window, something struck me: the fleeting nature of this enchantment. Temporary, this purity, this glittering drifting veil.

This year has been ugly. It’s been full of anger, full of discrimination and shame and ugly words and harshness. And this ugliness isn’t done. Our nation has healing to do, but it also has work to do, hard work to bring about justice and care and to fight for those who can’t fight. I don’t think what we’re seeing is a turn for the worse; I think it’s an uncovering. The exposure isn’t something to fight. We should not wish to blanket the ugly—we should embrace this uncovering, painful as it is, so that we can fight against what is ugly underneath and work toward growth. I won’t assume for a second to know how to do this, but my vote would be a return to our humanity and commonality.

What the snow does: it covers those grey sidewalks with their flattened, darker-grey gum patches. It covers the dog shit in the parks, the mucky puddles in parking lots. It covers with white, with pure, with intricate designs of crystal. If only our society had a reset like this I thought while watching this snow float down, my face pressed against the car window.

But no. Covering doesn’t heal; blanketing doesn’t repair what’s underneath. Snow is temporary, and it soon melts. It is plowed so that we can get on with our lives, so that we can get on to our jobs and our endlessly busy schedules of do-see-make. It becomes sludge, and then it is gone. We’re left with what’s uncovered.

I’ve been grappling, in this difficult year, of what the role of a writer should be in a broken world. I’m in graduate school for my MFA in fiction—to what purpose? Why write things that don’t exist, people who haven’t been born, events that have transpired? What’s the point?

Art can make an impact. Art can certainly be a catalyst for change. But when the ugliness and brokenness is deeply ingrained in society, we need more than a gentle catalyst.

In my MFA program, I’m surrounded by observers, feelers, thinkers. Writing requires examining and imagining. Within the fiction discipline in particular, my peers are habitual empathizers. We spend our time crafting voices and characters often vastly different than ourselves. We use our own experiences as insight into the human condition. We feel, we observe, and we write.

The weeks after the election, my classes were quiet, heavy, shaded by fear. Heavy with the fears of my cohort, but also heavy with the fears they observe in all of society.

Writing, to me, is about shedding light on the human condition. It’s about what we have in common, the good and the bad.

“We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are,” says Anne Lamott of writers. Sometimes, the understanding is uncomfortable.

In some senses, maybe we artists are a little like snow. We offer a moment to focus on something carefully created instead of what’s unpleasant and present.

This, though, like all covering, must be temporary. What I write will be likely forgotten, and that is okay. It’s okay as long as, somehow, what I write also illuminates a commonality. Humanity, all of us, we fear. We experience joy and pain and confusion. Art reminds us of that; fiction reminds us of that.

Effort will be necessary to change this splintering country, so necessary, but it’s also crucial, I think, to remember how much we have in common. As I continue my MFA, that will be my focus: the human condition and our universal ability to sympathize, because like it or not, we’re not as different as we’d sometimes believe. I think fiction proves that.

USC community

I’m heading into my third week at USC, and as the youngest in the program, I’m just now shaking off my quixotic vision of my future as a writer. Grad school is going to be tough. Picture this: working a full-time job. Then add coursework. Tutoring as well. Oh, also, you’d like to dedicate hours a day to your writing. (If you didn’t catch the parallel: that’s my life.)

Who knows how I’ll juggle it. But I will. And I *hopefully* won’t forget that these three years are nothing short of a privilege.

Columbia, as a city, has yet to capture my heart. It’s hot. Oh, it’s hot. And because Columbia is the state capital, it’s had years and years to expand and seep into the area surrounding the city. Concrete sprawls everywhere, holding the vicious heat in like an oven. The streets are disjointed and sporadic; I’ve lost my confidence in my own navigation abilities. And parking at USC is terrible. Ask anyone. Faculty, in particular, love to tell you how terrible parking is.

Minor complaints aside, I’m eager for these next three years. I chose the University of South Carolina because, when I visited back during my months of decision-making, I was struck by the sense of community within the writer cohort. It wasn’t an illusion.

We’ve set out to be writers–the most difficult, taxing, perhaps ludicrous, maybe worthy thing that we could purpose to do. Without a community who has committed to the same level of insanity, I venture that we’d be lost. I’m already infatuated with the Carolina creative writers and the family that they form. They’re a fascinating, inspiring, talented group. And I’ve somehow fooled them into pulling me into their circle.

At USC, not only are English grad students on the same academic team–faculty, too, are dedicated to our professionalization and general growth. “We’re not in the undergraduate business of making it difficult for you to get a degree,” one prof said. “We think of you as future academic peers, and we’re going to work alongside you to help you achieve that.”

USC is among the top 25 Creative Writing programs, but, to be sure, it isn’t Iowa or Michener. That said, I’d personally award bonus ranking points to the program because it is, in the true sense of the word, collegial. A harmonious, united, reciprocal collective. That’s a quality difficult for Poets and Writers to rank, but one that should be at the forefront of MFA program criterion.

This writing business–it isn’t done alone. I’m not the first to say so, and I won’t be the last.

Deciding where to study for an MFA is an overwhelming and complex decision. Somehow, I landed here, where I should be. My advice to those still in the process: find a student, or two, or four, within the programs to which you’re applying. Ask them about the environment in workshop. Ask them whether they get drinks with their cohort after class. Ask them if the program feels like home.