“You can’t really know what it is to want things until you’re at least 30. And then with each passing year, it gets bigger … because the want is more, and the possibility is less. Like how each passing year of your life seems faster because it’s a smaller portion of your total life. Like that. But in reverse. Everything becomes pure want.” —Greta Gerwig, ‘Mistress America’
When we are young, we are told that nothing greater exists than the measure of our possibility. Impatient, we spend the beginning of our lives wanting to be older, desperate to be legal, to escape our home and all the remnants of our childhood as if we’re convicts on the lam. When we finally arrive at adulthood, we pause, look around, and wonder if all this — the bills, cramped apartments, roommates and their strange nocturnal habits, our desire to staple passive-aggressive all-caps emails to our employers’ heads, the crippling realization that we might possibly drown in our student loan and credit card debt, and let’s not forget the Odyssean commute and the strangers who enrage us even before our day has officially begun — was worth fast-forwarding through our youth, forever embalmed in nostalgia. Was all the rushing worth the reality of a life where unlimited possibility is often compromised by the necessity of pragmatism? Shouldn’t we have clung to the days longer and loved them a little harder?
At the midpoint of my life, I think about this often.
I’ve been writing for as long as I could remember. My first publication was in second grade—a haiku in which I likened my mother’s voice to thunder. Before I was 10, I’d seen junkies overdosing in parks, bodies carried out on stretchers; cocaine on glass tables and heroin shot into abscessed arms; The Shining in a movie theater; my neighbor Sylvia, who subsisted on cans of sardines and died alone in her bathtub; my other neighbor Sam, the old crack addict, who walked with a cane and told knock-knock jokes; and my mother’s face slammed into a wooden coffee table by a man she thought she loved, a man who, in a few months time, would be dragged out of his car by two men while everyone sat on the stoop, watching the beat-down. Inside, my mother smoked a Kent 100 down to the filter.
It didn’t happen. Forget it. Don’t think about it. This is how it is.
From an early age, I was taught that fear and vulnerability belonged to the weak. Better to swallow your voice than to cry. Better to lock your pain away than to endure it. Better to write than to speak. So I spent much of my early childhood alone and silent, but I was writing. Paper had become the provenance of my freedom, and I wrote about all the things I had felt and seen with a calm detachment that, looking back as an adult, bordered on disturbing. Writing became a refuge, a way in which I could make sense of what was happening around around me. Writing was also a refuge from my shy, introverted, and awkward personality. Frequently the target of high school bullies, I replaced their cruel, daily taunts with daydreams of me enacting revenge against them or crafting a version of myself where I’m surrounded by invented friends living our best lives. Mine was a fiction where I was pretty, popular, and normal; my days were unblemished and uncomplicated and the endings happy. But I couldn’t reconcile the imagined life lived in my head with the real sorrow I committed to paper.
I have this problem, still.
In college, I discovered new (and more effective) ways in which I could escape — I drank more and wrote less. I switched majors from psychology to finance, because I was raised to believe that money was a deliverance; it relieved you of struggle and laid happiness at your feet. I abandoned short stories for internships at investment banks, and the one story I wrote and submitted to the literary review was met with an incredulous response from the editor, who stopped me on my way to the cafeteria to ask if I actually wrote the story I submitted. He couldn’t believe that a baseball cap–wearing finance major could write like this. After the story was published, the editor cornered me again and wondered why I hadn’t written more. “You’re really good,” he said.
I laughed and said writing stories about my mother wasn’t going to pay the rent.
For nearly three years, I played the part of the woman wearing dark skirt suits who spent her days plugging numbers into spreadsheets and evenings binge drinking with clients. I held positions at Chase and Morgan Stanley Dean Witter (as it was called back then), and I had more money vested in my 401(k) at age 23 than I do now. Yet I hated everything about my job, from the patrician snobbery of the boys’ club to the stockings that made my legs itch. I was reprimanded for wearing a long floral skirt; I was ushered into conference rooms, where my manager and I discussed my “attitude.” I needed to be a team player in a company where the head of my department was cheating on his wife with the head of HR. The same department head who asked me after a client dinner whether I was a virgin, and if I was, he would be more than happy to change that—a comment he would later dismiss as a joke, but I wasn’t laughing. I was fed up with banking, bros, and navy blue skirt suits. Three years out of school, I started filing applications to graduate writing programs. I had my bosses pen letters of recommendation because they thought an MFA was a degree in finance, and when I was admitted to the Columbia program and subsequently resigned, everyone wondered why I was pursuing a degree in writing because, come on, Felicia, writers don’t make money.
I’d made money, and I wasn’t happy. I wanted to be a writer; I wanted the prestige of an Ivy. My wants were pure and palpable and, I’d soon learn, misguided.
In the spring of 2000, when the writer Judy Budnitz phoned with the news that I’d been admitted to Columbia’s MFA program, I thought it was a prank. My admissions application included references from bankers and a large, rambling essay about my mother. I hadn’t yet received an acceptance letter from the admissions office, and I’d never heard of this Judy Budnitz (a writer whom I would come to revere), so it took three phone calls to finally convince me that this was real. People actually liked my work.
Come fall, I arrived, petrified, on the Morningside Heights campus. During orientation, I was surrounded by mostly white, affluent college graduates who hailed from Princeton, Bowdoin, Yale, and Harvard — English or creative writing majors who lived to rhapsodize about Joan Didion and obscure 14th-century poets. With a requisite eye roll, they’d talk about how they’d done workshop, and then proceed to rattle off an exhaustive list of contemporary writers I’d never heard of. When asked about my influences, I replied with Virginia Woolf (nods) and Bret Easton Ellis (strained silence). Only one other person, who became a close friend during that time, said she also loved Bret Easton Ellis because his writing reminded her of Los Angeles, of home. Behind her back, fellow students mocked her uptalk and penchant for tight clothing, and she knew it. “So what if I’m a blonde from Newport? I’m just as good of a writer as they are.” We’d laugh, “Uptight assholes.” But really, we were misfits in a writing program filled with jaded college grads who wanted an ICM agent, a six-figure book deal, and an internship at the New Yorker.
Although Fordham has one of the few business programs where a liberal arts education (classes in, for example, philosophy, theology, social sciences, and literature) is embedded in the curriculum, I felt light-years behind when I started my first year at Columbia. I hadn’t read any of the authors everyone casually name-dropped, I didn’t know the language of the mechanics of writing (structure, point of view, tense, story arc, character development, voice), and I wasn’t used to the cold butchery that was workshop. Until then, few people had read my stories, and I wasn’t accustomed to having my work torn apart with their words. That first semester, I sat mute in class and watched everyone else speak what I assumed to be an alternate version of the English language. I felt perennially trapped in a Twilight Zone episode where everyone was hyperintellectual and took pleasure in inflicting psychological torture on those who weren’t part of their invisible club.
After the first month, I felt what Junot Diaz expressed so eloquently:
“I didn’t have a great workshop experience. Not at all. In fact by the start of my second year I was like: get me the fuck out of here.”
Workshop. Ah, workshop. Workshop was like sitting through a botched surgery where the attending doctors learned their trade by binge watching the Discovery Channel. I wrote thinly veiled short stories about my life, which were summarily dismissed — my characters were unrelatable, unlikeable, unbelievable. Borderline annoying. Meanwhile, I wanted to shout, “HELLO! THIS HAPPENED TO ME!” But I couldn’t because I had to wait until everyone in the room finished wielding their scalpels before I could respond. By then, I was mostly catatonic from the massacre.
Faculty pitched workshop as a forum where we could hone our craft before the cruel world shits all over it, but workshop was a feeding frenzy for starved cannibals.
Some of the feedback was helpful, and some of my peers, in their written critiques, were kind in educating me on my story’s mechanical issues and plot fault lines. But what I mostly remember is how students savored eviscerating one another’s work in a tone that balanced boredom with condescension.
One workshop, which was evenly composed of traditional story writers and “line writers” — students obsessed with the likes of Ben Marcus, Gary Lutz, and Amy Hempel and believed that innovation on a line level was superior to traditional character and plot development — felt like a semester straight out of Battle Royale. From across a table, experimental writers practiced their extravagant sighs in response to the chapters I’d submitted from a novel that had nothing to do with my life, a novel whose characters would resurface in my second book, Follow Me into the Dark. They countered with, “Family stories are over, Felicia. They’ve been done to death.” Back then, I was writing nothing new, according to my peers. Plot-driven stories were boring, played out—yawn, can we move on?
I spent most evenings after workshop crying on the corner of 116th Street. I cried more during that first semester than I had during the whole of my childhood.
Useful criticism isn’t a subjective evaluation of whether you like someone else’s work — that’s a matter of taste — rather, constructive feedback is supposed to be in service of the writer in moving the work forward. How are you helping someone who writes thrillers by telling them to write romance novels instead, simply because you enjoy reading a good love story and still sleep with the lights on? Workshop is supposed to be about advancing someone’s work by giving them tools, insights, and ideas, not pushing one’s personal preferences or agenda.
But workshop made me tough. Now I don’t flinch when I read negative reviews or get upset when people say they hate my work. Instead, I home in on the feedback that will make my next story, essay, or book better. I focus on the people who get what I’m trying to do instead of trying to convert the masses.
While other workshops during my time at Columbia proved helpful for my writing, they were also an uncomfortable display of faculty favorites. Everyone touts the advantages of making connections at MFA programs, of gaining access; however, I felt like I was part of a coterie vying for the affections of a published author who held the keys to the proverbial publishing kingdom. Mentors are powerful in the sense that they can offer insight from experience and perspective, and while I studied under remarkable authors and journalists, I watched many of them cleave to miniature versions of themselves.
The anointed students got the special after-office-hours insights and meaningful connections, and while I couldn’t help but feel envious, I was reminded of the fact that you always have to fight hard for the things you want. I didn’t get an agent, a book deal, and jacket blurbs because I graduated from Columbia — I earned all of these things by writing cold query letters, spending years on my manuscript, publishing a literary magazine, taking a marketing job in publishing to understand the business of books, sending fan letters to authors I admired, and going to countless readings, book launches, and events even though I felt like an outcast who tried too hard to be cool and all the cool kids knew it.
At a party, a friend introduced me to a lit-mag editor who had acquired some minor fame, someone with whom I’d spent a semester in workshop. He looked through and around me, acting as if he’d never met me, searching instead for more impressive people in the room. His rudeness embarrassed my friend. I waved it away, saying, he knows me; I’m just not connected to anyone at Knopf or the Paris Review.
After my first semester at Columbia, I took a leave of absence because I had a drug problem. I remember hearing the gossip and invented stories that followed. I also remember walking home from work one day and seeing two of my “friends” standing and laughing outside the front door of my apartment building. It was like high school, only we were 25-year-old adults pursuing graduate degrees. When I returned to the program a few years later, I was guarded and not as receptive to making friends as I had been. While I worked full-time and took out student loans to pay for my tuition, many of my classmates blew off classes that their parents bankrolled. Rarely did I go out for drinks after workshop; I was there to finish my degree and work on my book.
That’s the thing about my MFA experience — it shone a light on just how uncool I was. All for the low, low price of $130,000 in loans that I’ll be repaying from the grave. Meanwhile, I wondered why I needed to be cool to tell a good story.
Here’s the $130K rub: What made me a better writer? Writing groups with regular people.
These groups were retired men in their sixties and seventies who wanted to write about the wars they’d been through and the people they had loved who were no longer living. These were second-generation immigrants who wanted to pay homage to their families by telling their stories. In one group, both a mother of an addict and a brother who cared for his disabled brother his whole adult life broke down in tears during workshop because this was the first time they had shared their stories with anyone. They felt safe. Some of the people in my groups went to college. Most didn’t. But we all came together because we wanted to share our work, learn from one another, and maybe make a few friends along the way. At first, I came to workshop armed and ready for battle, but I soon learned that one could receive impassioned, constructive feedback without being patronizing. The people in my writing groups encouraged me to abandon the novel I’d delivered as my Columbia thesis because it was clear to them my heart wasn’t in that story. My real story was what got me into Columbia in the first place — my mother.
Better to speak than to be silent. Better to write the words that had been buried for too long. My writing groups’ kindness gave me courage, and I think that’s what was missing from my shiny, overpaid Ivy League experience — empathy, compassion. Perhaps we were blinded by our ambition, youth, unlimited possibility, and want.
Do I regret my Columbia experience? I do, especially when I have to write a $900 check every month to Navient and Sallie Mae. People talk about the privilege of MFA programs, of attaining Virginia Woolf’s room of one’s own, but not working for two years was an impossibility for me. I didn’t have parents subsidizing my expenses — my backers were interest-bearing federal and private loans. People talk about the connections one makes at MFA programs, but I’ve stayed in touch with fewer than a handful of people from the program, and everyone I’ve met has been a result of my hard work outside the program. In the end, all I needed was discipline, a library card, and a few good people to read and give feedback on my work.
“There’s no one way to become a writer or to measure the success of a writer.”
I recently read these words from an excellent essay debating the value of an MFA, and I’ve also read arguments from writers who found their MFA experience to be invaluable. When people ask me if they should get a graduate degree, I hesitate in giving them advice since everyone’s path is singular and unique. Do you have the money and time to pay for a graduate program? Will you be comfortable paying off loans for a long time? Have you explored the flexibility and affordability of low-residency programs or writing workshops? Because while the MFA is one way to a writing life, it’s not the only way, and it certainly wasn’t my way.
How do you get good at writing? You read. You write. You edit and refine, and then you keep on writing.