An Eloquent Defense of Writing Degrees (Not Written By Kimmery)

This week’s topic is “MFA and Writing Classes” and I’ve got precious little to say here. It’s probably glaringly apparent I don’t have an MFA or a graduate degree in writing. I’ve taken no writing classes either, although I have signed up for a few sessions at various conferences. When it comes to writing, I’m an autodidact. I’m also fond of doing things the hard way: I don’t outline, pre-plot, or follow any kind of beat sheet or formula. Consequently, The Queen of Hearts exists in approximately 1000 different drafts, many of which bear very little resemblance to the finished novel.

Therefore I decided to interview someone who DID make the decision to pursue a formal education in writing: one of my beloved writing group members, Bess Kercher, to explore the differences between her background and mine.

KM: Why go back to school?

BK: When my children were small and I was fully immersed in stay-at-home mom mode, I was surprised (and dismayed) to realize that while I often loved the ability to be at home with my small children, there was no denying that something important was missing. My intellectual self was MIA and I was desperate to get her back. While up and down with the kids in the wee hours of the night I’d search the web, looking at work options and at the possibility of going back to school. But where to go? What to study?

I kept coming back to a program at Queens University of Charlotte – a great school in my neighborhood – and read and re-read the course descriptions for the master’s degree in Organizational Communication. While that degree was new to me, the ideas and goals of the program echoed much of the work I had previously done in the non-profit sector. I saw how the classes combined practical communication skill building with a theoretical exploration of how we connect as human beings. I knew this was the place for me.

But then I had to apply. It took me six months to complete my application. Panic set in – of course I wouldn’t be accepted. And if I were, at that rate it would take me roughly three years to complete the requirements for any one course. This was surely going to be a disaster! But it wasn’t. I worked out a plan to attend one class a week in the evening. With the help of a wonderfully supportive spouse and my always enthusiastic mom, who provided childcare while I was in class, I graduated three years later.

KM: Lessons learned?

BK: Two important things emerged from my grad school experience. The first: a rekindled love of writing. I had to write a lot for my program, and with every additional paper or project I became more addicted to the process of creating. I loved my program and how it changed the way I looked at every day life. And instead of being a disadvantage, my SAHM status actually opened up the creative process for me – I wasn’t constrained by narrow research projects strategically positioned to address existing professional questions. While many of my peers were writing about and for their jobs at Bank of America or Duke Energy or Carolinas Healthcare System, I wrote papers about Robert Earl Keen as the persuasive wise fool and about Sarah Silverman’s use of the superiority theory of humor; I deconstructed my favorite Mommy Blogger, and tried to answer crucial life questions like Will my marriage survive my husband’s love affair with his Blackberry? Communication theory helped me make sense of the world – and celebrated the role of story telling as a way to connect and thrive as human beings.

Through writing my research papers, I came to connect with my own creative process, and to trust it. Often there were multiple ideas and parts of an argument swirling in my brain – almost, but not quite, within reach. I would read and read, write drafts, craft the sections that I could – while the piece that would click the rest of the puzzle together remained elusive . . . until it didn’t. I would sometimes dream the answer; sometimes it would hit in a massive a-ha moment. This was excellent training for the future aspiring novelist, to trust the process and not give in to despair. (A highly recommended coping mechanism was naming incomplete and frustrated drafts ugly and even obscene names, and then correcting them once inspiration struck. So happily, A Complete Pile of Stinking Horseshit was eventually reborn as Word Unplugged: Transcending the New Social Communication Contract.

A second and enormously important gift from my program was finding my people. After struggling with loneliness and self-doubt in young motherhood, I found a tribe of artists and thinkers and amazing creators who inspired and supported me. This was a critical lesson to learn as a writer; that while much of the work had to be done on my own, it was made infinitely better when shared with my graduate school community. They lifted me up and cheered me on. My first professor was also my last – her constant encouragement, insistence on setting the bar high, and generous mentorship made me such a better writer (and mom and human!) A classmate who was nothing short of brilliant was always available to battle writer’s block and thesis panic with humor and insight. And after we graduated, two classmates surprised me with a personal blog they set up for me, to encourage me to keep writing. I will never forget those special people, and have embraced similar communities of practice moving forward – through conferences, writing classes, professional organizations, and most importantly, my writing group Between The Sheets.

KM: Tell us how your educational experience impacts your writing now. Any final thoughts?

BK: The last semester of my program was the hardest. Instead of my manageable one-night-a-week routine, we had class on Saturdays, often for the whole day. And almost every time we met we had a presentation or paper due . . . while we were working on our final thesis projects. As hard as that was, seeing my school experience through to the end implanted something in my creative muscle memory that I access again and again while navigating the highs and lows of writing. I know it can be done. I know I can do it. Perhaps today my novel should be called Disastrous and Highly Unfortunate Word Vomit . . . but I know some time soon it will emerge victorious, like the day my babies and husband and family and friends lined the aisles cheering while I marched to the stage in cap and gown to accept my New Writer Me degree.

 

Bess Kercher has always been interested in people and their stories. She has been shaped by her experiences first working as an advocate at a women’s shelter and also as a non-profit development officer, roles which helped her recognize the power of storytelling and the ways it empowers people. She has contributed her stories to The Charlotte Observer, skirt.com, Huffington Post, and Tikkun Magazine, among other publications. Turning the know-it- all “mommy blogger” stereotype upside down, she hosted several blog series for CharlotteObserver.com including Worst Mom Ever, Team Mom, Miracle on Curbstone Street, Because Friends, and the weekly parenting blog A Few Good Moms: Can you handle the truth? She recently completed a middle grade novel and is pursuing publication. You may read her work at www.maemucho.com.

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Kimmery is the author of The Queen of Hearts (2018, Penguin). She's also a doctor, mother, author interviewer, traveler, and obsessive reader. You can read Kimmery's book recommendations and reviews at kimmerymartin.com.

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