Robin Black’s debut novel, Life Drawing, is an Indie Next pick for August, and on the long list for the Flaherty-Dunnun First Novel Prize. Claire Messud calls it “at once quiet and memorable.” Robin’s story collection, If I loved you, I would tell you this, was a finalist for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize. Her stories and essays can be found on The Rumpus, O. Magazine, and The Chicago Tribune. And if you are giving any thought to MFA programs, this post is for you. – Meg
By the time I applied to the MFA program at Warren Wilson College, I was just shy of forty-one years old and had been writing, after a long, long hiatus, for a little under two years. I decided on an MFA because I very much wanted to learn more craft – for which I’d discovered a strange love. All talk about such things as narrative distance and point of view felt like my native language to me. I couldn’t get enough.
But there was something else as well, what I still call the Wizard of Oz syndrome. I wanted the professional stamp. (If you have a Diploma, you must be a Writer!) I had been home with my kids since having my first at twenty-five, and I had come to recognize the dismissive way in which my claim to be writing was met by almost everyone. It was a dismissal that came with the unspoken words materializing in the air: “Oh, how sweet. You’re a wife and mother, and now you’re trying to write.” They might as well have pat me on the head.
And the biggest problem with that reaction was that I half believed the attitude behind it myself. It was incredibly hard to take myself seriously, especially as the rejections for my early stories began to arrive. And arrive. And arrive.
I didn’t stop writing though, even with my doubts. I was writing all the time – and I do mean all the time. My husband and I would go out for dinner and he’d catch me drifting away: “Are you writing?” he’d ask; and the guilty answer was invariably “Yes.” So, I was putting in the time, working away, but I just couldn’t imagine the path that would emerge connecting me, sitting at my desk making up stories that journals would reject, to me, as one of those august and seemingly god-like creatures: An Author.
Whatever the path, though, I thought some structure would help. Structure and a little institutional back-up for the identity I was trying to achieve.
On the first day of the program, a late June day in 2003, I woke up in Asheville, North Carolina, checked out of the B&B where I’d spent a couple of nights, and drove the fifteen or so miles out to Warren Wilson College. The campus was breathtakingly beautiful, a real working farm, and an old one with enormous gnarled trees dotting the backs of the fields, all stretched out in front of distant mountain views. I couldn’t remember ever being more moved by a landscape – or ever being as excited to be part of a place.
As I approached the buildings, I started to see what looked like giant yellow sticky notes posted everywhere, scrawled with the letters MFA, and then arrows. Then MFA Parking, and a final arrow.
I parked. I sat looking out at the campus, the portion in front of me, a formal garden, a manicured emerald lawn. I took a deep breath, got out of the car, turned to enter the building that was festooned with balloons and a few more MFA signs, took maybe five steps, spun around, got back in my car, turned on the engine, and drove away.
It was one of the strangest and in some ways one of the most honest moments of my life. This panic I felt. This sudden tear in the fabric of my resolution and my confidence. An absolutely pure emotion, leading to the logical next act.
I drove over the roads I had just been on, but in the opposite direction, and, in a true mental haze, I followed signs for a Museum – or maybe just a store – of Appalachian Folk Art. I parked, and went in, with no hesitation, no return to my car this time. No problem! I was good at being an observer and a consumer. What I was struggling with was. . .
I honestly didn’t know. I couldn’t sort it through. As I looked at the quilts, and a collection of finely honed wooden hats, I ticked off the anxieties I might be feeling – social, professional, missing my family; but nothing resonated. My panic had lacked any content.
Fight or Flight? It had felt that primal; and I had chosen flight.
The clock was ticking though, the afternoon nearing its deadline for checking in; and I had to either go back, or give up and drive the twelve hours home. There was no middle ground between facing down whatever fear I’d felt and giving into it. No middle ground, and really no choice. For all I had tried to turn back, in reality there was no turning back. There was only moving forward. And I knew it.
When I remember that day now, when I see myself in the car again, driving past those same fields another time, following the arrows, finding some parking, and this time walking into the building, into a new era of my life, there’s a twist. Though I know that it was pure panic I felt that first time, it doesn’t always seem like that now. In my mind, in my memory it often feels more like a kind of tribute I paid to the momentous nature of what I was about to do. As if I returned to my car to give myself just a little more time to be the me I knew so well, before stepping into a completely mysterious role.
But whatever it was I felt, panic or awe, within hours, I was immersed, surrounded by other writers, and on the path that I needed to be on, the one I hadn’t been able to imagine, not always a smooth or easy one, but the right one for me. – Robin