An Accident Paid Off My MFA Debt
by Laura Leigh Abby
Just over a month before I entered the graduate writing program at The New School I was struck by a car as I stepped into a crosswalk on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Along with minor abrasions, my left ear was mangled beyond repair, and as I faced a handful of surgeries in the months and years ahead, I worried how these might affect my expensive education. I would plan each surgery around a break from school so that I could miss the least number of classes possible. At the time this was how I connected grad school to my accident, along with the knowledge that I would have to get the hell over it; I had an M.F.A. dream to fulfill.
Prior to this I’d spent the better part of my twenties living out the cliché of a city-dwelling writer: post undergrad, pre-grad school, working odd jobs and rarely finding time to write but still wondering why I wasn’t being published. I’m embarrassed to admit that it took me a few years to realize one very simple truth: no one is going to publish the book you haven’t written. I waitressed in a bar and I drank too much. I pushed my relationship to the brink of its demise, dodging, all the while, the question of when I was going to grow up and get a real job.
Every writer knows better than to take out loans to pay for an M.F.A. program. Loans are illogical. The degree is unnecessary. Loans are going to put us into debt for the rest of our lives. This logic, however, is not often the strong suit of a writer, and fortunately for graduate programs everywhere, most of us do take out the loans, maintaining a complex belief that only the incessantly rejected writer can know, that with this loan and this program, I will be the exception.
A friend from grad school recommended I read Ann Patchett’s new book This is the Story of a Happy Marriage while on my honeymoon. This essay collection explores how it is that Patchett herself became a writer. A woman over 20 years my senior, Patchett’s earliest opportunities pre-existed the time of online publishing for the masses. Her early nineties recommendation that an aspiring writer get her start at Vogue has my millennial eyes widened by an imagined red flashing sign in the doorway advertising unpaid opportunities.
In “The Getaway Car,” an essay about writing, Patchett reminds us of the dangers of M.F.A. programs. I chuckled to myself then read it to my spouse when I got to Patchett’s line, “No one should go into debt to study creative writing. It’s simply not worth it. Do not think of it as an investment in yourself that you’ll be able to recoup later. This is not medical school.” I already knew this going into my application process. I realized I was throwing money away for an expensive and frivolous dream. For reasons I have always known but could never quite convey, it was imperative to me as a writer and a human to experience a graduate writing program. This has been a goal of mine since I was a teenager taking extracurricular writing courses and regularly submitting to Teen Ink. There was never a question of whether I was talented enough or whether I even had anything to write about, there was simply the drive to do it. I would write and I would learn to write at the highest level. In my adolescent mind an M.F.A. would make me a master, and I subscribed to the notion that such a label would help me to believe in my own abilities.
As winter approached in 2010, after the years of random freelance jobs, working as a nanny and maintaining that waitressing gig I kept promising to quit, I was ready to apply to a graduate program. I was settled in New York and did not want to move; therefore my options for a nonfiction program were limited. If I didn’t make it into one of the available few, my dream would have to go into storage for a while.
I was rewarded an itsy bitsy scholarship from The New School upon my acceptance to their M.F.A. program. I took it as a sign of fate that this small sum of money and my emotional readiness had aligned at just the right time. Like waving a 5% Off coupon to purchase a new leather couch, it wouldn’t be much, but my savings gave me validation. I accepted.
I visited the financial aid office twice while I was a student. My first visit was early in the summer before I entered the writing program. I sat with a counselor to go over my financial aid options, and took her advice on how best to apply for loans. I was going into this whole loan thing blindly, as I’d been fortunate enough that my parents paid for my undergraduate education at Emerson College. In undergrad I had their financial support. In grad school I had their blessings.
One year into my two-year program I boarded a bus in midtown as I answered a call from my lawyer. I didn’t like him. Just making reference to having a lawyer made me feel sleazy, but the hospital social workers had insisted this was the best way to ensure my medical costs would be covered. On this particular call the subject was settlement money. I admitted to him, my lawyer, that I had no idea how to decide whether or not to accept. It wasn’t a great deal of money, but there were two things I knew for certain: the money would cover the entire cost of graduate school and I wasn’t sure that I could withstand the stress of a trial. I strained to hear his rehearsed lines. I eyed my fellow passengers. Cell phones on the bus are a pet peeve of mine and so I made a hurried decision as I moved to find a seat in the back. “I’d like to settle,” I told him before ending the call and slipping the phone back into my pocket.
A check arrived not long after that conversation and once I’d deposited it into my bank account I took my second trip to the financial aid office on 5th Avenue near Union Square. The counselor eyed me incredulously as I asked his advice on the best way to pay off my student loan, in full, as soon as possible. I felt my heart beat quick as I made the call that afternoon, “I’d like to make a payment,” I spoke to the female on the end. “Great, and for how much would you like to make that payment?” I smiled unintentionally when I replied, “The entire remaining balance.” Without a “wow” or a gasp, or any surprise whatsoever, she took my debit card information and I made a payment for $31,381.88.
My friends from grad school were careful with dispensing the word “lucky” when we discussed the possible benefits of my misfortune. “Well, now you have some great material,” they’d say, or “Well at least you got to pay off your student loans. Such a silver lining.” I was married a few months after graduating from The New School and I was relieved to enter debt-free into my union. I think back to when I took out those loans a few years ago and I wonder if things do happen for a reason. Don’t get me wrong; getting hit and maimed by a car was one of the worst things that has ever happened to me, the results of which have changed my life profoundly, in ways I may not even discover until years from now, but I am a struggling writer without a steady income. I hate that I am financially reliant on my spouse. I don’t know what I was thinking when I took out nearly fifty thousand dollars in student loans.
Chad Harbach, a writer who received his M.F.A. at the University of Virginia, published an essay — now a book — on the conflicting culture of the American literary scene. In MFA vs. NYC, Harbach insists that “MFA programs themselves are so lax and laissez-faire as to have a shockingly small impact on students’ work — especially shocking if you’re the student and paying $80,000 for the privilege.” I consider my own lax program. I consider an entire thesis semester in which we were not required to enroll in a single class. I consider the opportunities that the school offered its students, almost all of which were optional.
My M.F.A. experience was the Hail Mary pass that I needed it to be. In my late twenties I was able to refocus my professional aspirations and gain tools to help me achieve my goals. I became a better writer, a better reader, and a better woman. This happened because I forced myself into situations in which I had to interact with other writers. Among my professors and fellow students I was in a place — both physically and theoretically — in which we all had a similar goal. I took out student loans that I expected to be paying off for the rest of my life, and I would do it again.
I have friends from the graduate program, of course, who also took out loans. They did not get hit by cars and receive monetary settlements out of court. They too are struggling writers who are either not getting paid or are getting paid to work jobs unrelated to creative writing. Some of them regret taking out loans. Some do not. Most of us are hopeful that with time and diligence we may be able to make careers out of our unpaid writing opportunities.
For most of my life I’ve been doing things without worrying too much about the consequences. Going to grad school was one of those things. When my parents asked me how I would pay off the loans I shrugged, “I’ll figure it out.” If things do happen for a reason, it’s only in the past few years that I’ve learned the trade-off is not always fair.
If I could go back in time, knowing what I do now, I would make some minor changes. I wouldn’t have stepped into the crosswalk that afternoon. I would carry my debt and complain about the constant rejection, the lack of paid opportunities and the massive loans lurking in the shadows of my life. Chad Harbach makes a case that “MFA programs today serve less as hotbeds of fierce stylistic inculcation … and more as an ingenious partial solution to an eminent American problem: how to extend our already protracted adolescence past 22 and toward 30, in order to cope with an oversupplied labor market.”
As I approach 30 with few paid opportunities on the horizon I’m inclined to agree with him. Ann Patchett urges us, wisely, to heed her advice. “If you plan to roll the dice, thinking, Well, surely I’ll get a big book contract at the end of two years that will cover the loan I’ve taken out, the chances are excellent it’s not going to happen.” She’s right. You probably won’t get hit by a car either. But you might.
Laura Leigh Abby is a freelance writer and blogger at 2Brides2Be.com. She lives in New York City with her wife and their two Pomeranians.
Photo by: Aaron