MFA Kung Fu

30 October 2019 on Storystorm  

At the end of the summer, when the New Hampshire sky was a bright blue, I started my MFA program in creative nonfiction. When preparing for this new adventure in my life as a writer, my friends, who attended graduate school in creative departments, gave me advice. Most said it was going to be challenging. My partner, George, explained that getting a creative degree is like training in Kung Fu.

“You’ll do Cobra Style, but they will beat you with Tiger Style,” he said, “and once you learn Tiger Style, and use both, you will become the Kung Fu champion.”

In a way, I wanted the program to run me into the ground a little. I expected Tiger Style to be a thousand reading assignments that would keep me up until two in the morning and maybe I wanted to slave away writing story after story, my eyes twitching with fatigue. It makes sense that this was my idea of Tiger Style, because all I knew from before this experience was how to work hard, drink too much coffee, and nap at times when I shouldn’t be napping.

Some programs offer that approach to Tiger Style with academic readings and hectic word counts. University of New Hampshire’s approach was a softer Tiger Style that would require an equal amount of concentration.

It started in a poetry class. The program recommends writers to take classes outside their genres. I was totally cool with this because I needed to learn this new skill, but I was also not a poet. My work thrives on voice and less on body, and poetry was all about that body-ody-ody. The class began with sketching trees and continued with finding leaves that inspired us. I was confused--weren’t we supposed to be reading collections of Sylvia Plath and learning iambic pentameter? I went home that day frustrated, not sure how I would complete my collection of essays in two years if I’m just wandering around sketching nature.

The next day was a Research for Creative Writers class. This had a more severe style of Kung Fu that I was used to. There were two reading assignments per week that needed to be discussed, and heaping piles of research that needed sifting. It was as though this class was asking me to throw some punches and smash some cinderblocks, and the poetry class was trying to teach meditation necessary for the big fight.

I’m not sure when it became apparent that I needed both of these approaches to succeed. During the first month, I took nature walks to ignite my creative thinking. While walking, I started to hear my creative voice again. There it was telling me what to write, inspiring me with concepts and first lines. I would stare at the sky and quickly write down my new idea in the notes section of my phone. Trees were starting to tell me stories. They were so proud and beautiful, and I couldn’t help but sketch and snap photos.

When the trees changed color in October, I became obsessed with collecting leaves; often putting the beauty in my jacket pocket and, days later, finding them crumpled up. I cursed myself for not taking them out sooner and putting them in my journal.

Maybe Tiger Style isn’t about memorizing every line of Infinite Jest or even understanding the complexity of James Joyce, though there’s certainly room for that in reading the experts. But maybe Tiger Style is more about paying attention to your mind, and the spaces around you. When does inspiration strike, and is there enough space for it to grow? With these approaches, I’m learning how to nurture my creative mind, and how to control it. I’m learning what it needs at all times. I’m learning when it needs to be forced to work hard and get the job done, and I also when it should watch bees for an hour and write about it. The MFA is the perfect space to remove myself from the world we live in and listen to the writer voice inside me.

I’m glad I learned how to chill out, observe, and write. I like to say I have the best of both worlds (shout out to Hannah Montana). I’m still very much doing my Cobra Style because it is engrained in me. But Tiger Style is so fun to try to master: the mediation, the high kicks, and failing to do either of those things. Maybe one day I will use both to become the Writing Champion of the World--but for now it’s all about paying attention.

Lindsey Wente is a first-year MFA student in Creative Nonfiction at the University of New Hampshire.

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