notes from a creative writing PhD candidate
Well…that was rough.
I’ve just completed my first month as a PhD candidate in the English/Creative Writing program at the University of Missouri. I took a couple years off after my MFA before returning to academia (a welcome, and much-needed, break), and the transition hasn’t been the smoothest. Friends and former professors warned me that the PhD is a completely different animal from the MFA, and I believed them–the coursework would be more intense, I’d be expected to attend readings and colloquiums and various department meetings, and the reading load would be heavier than ever–but, woah. A totally different animal indeed.
We’re required to take three courses, plus a 1-credit “Introduction to Graduate Studies in the Humanities” seminar, as a first year Phd Candidate at Mizzou, in addition to teaching two undergraduate courses. I’m taking a creative nonfiction writing workshop with the talented George Hodgman, a visiting professor who has worked in the magazine industry for decades and whose memoir, Bettyville, is one of the best books I’ve read this year. (It’s about moving home to Missouri from NYC to take care of his dying mother–poignant, sad, hilarious at times, but just all-around lovely prose. Highly recommend it.) I feel at home in this class; there are only five students, and the structure mimics most of my MFA course experiences (although with a shit ton more reading–one-to-two books of essays per week, plus our own manuscripts and their revisions).
Then there’s The Missouri Review, where I’m completing a year-long internship reading, evaluating, and editing pieces for their annual contest (submit your fiction, nonfiction, and poetry here!) and going through various magazine/web content. I even had the opportunity to read and record a short story for their audio program, an experience I really enjoyed. Again, not totally out of my element–I have about 20 pieces to read a week, but with my previous editorial experience at Phoebe, I can handle the submission volume fairly well. Speer Morgan makes the class incredibly interesting; we spend time each meeting discussing various topics in the history of publishing, the development of the short story, and so on.
Here’s the killer: linguistics. I’ve never had linguistics before, and it’s the most difficult course I’ve ever taken in my entire life. It’s a mandatory requirement, and I just wanted to get it out of the way. In class I nod my head during lecture, made up of about 40 students or so, and am like, “Yeah! I get it!” and then I crack open my homework later that day and just keep saying “What the–what the fuck?” over and over again. My section is based on the “History of the English Language,” and I thought it would be more of a, oh, I don’t know, history class; instead, it’s like math with words. And I really, really suck at math. Learning the phonetic alphabet, juggling unusual vocabulary like “fricative” (that’s fun to say) and “allophonic” (also fun) has me furiously making flashcards and study guides with a fervor I haven’t possessed since I was an undergrad. It’s super fast-paced, and while I find my professor hilarious and engaging, the material is completely foreign. I’ve struggled to maintain a passing grade the past month, and it’s only getting more and more challenging. The past week I’ve been memorizing this gem of a chart:
Uhhh…..yeah. FML. Now we’re moving into Old English (then Middle, and then Modern Day) and when it comes to studying in the evenings I just want to sit on my couch, drink a bottle of wine, and cry into my (dry, dull, gigantic) textbook. Believe me, it’s already happened on a few occasions. I’ve never felt more unintelligent, more intellectually frustrated, in my entire life.
But that’s a good thing. Because it’s only going to get harder. Once I found my groove–around week three of the program–I settled into a productive, manageable rhythm. I learned to wake up earlier, actually set an alarm even if I didn’t need one, and get my TMR submissions out of the way first on days I’m not teaching. I go for a run or a walk with a friend (exercise has been crucial to maintaining my sanity), and then I work all day until dinnertime. New rule: I don’t work after 6 p.m.; I’m too tired, and it’s a reward of sorts, and I need a few hours before sleep to mentally wind down, cook a meal with my boyfriend, or just watch something dumb on my laptop (Broad City, people–what have I been missing!?). Sometimes I’ll read the required text for Hodgman’s workshop before bedtime, but that’s just pleasure–right now we’re tackling John Jeremiah Sullivan‘s Pulphead, and I’m loving it. (GH’s reading list, while dense, is awesome.)
There’s no doubt in my mind that I made the right choice in pursuing my PhD in Creative Nonfiction Writing. I’m writing more than ever–just not on this blog, ha–and have found a community and a city in which I feel supported, encouraged, and happy. Columbia is a liberal haven in the midwest, and I’m grateful to have ended up in such a funky college town. My classmates and I know each other’s struggle, and we’re there for one another in and out of the classroom. Here, I am home.