How Does it Feel to Have Earned an MFA?

“How does it feel to have earned an MFA?” It’s a question I have heard frequently from well-meaning people, and I have had no answer.

Vermont's Lake Champlain, my escape after graduation. I've fallen in love with it, to the consternation of my wife, who would prefer me lust after a body of water a bit closer to northern Virginia.
Vermont’s Lake Champlain, my escape after graduation. I’ve fallen in love with it, to the consternation of my wife, who would prefer me lust after a body of water a bit closer to northern Virginia.

It has been exactly one month since I received my diploma in front of my wife, daughter and son in the grand chapel of College Hall at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. I blogged that day that I couldn’t really process what I was feeling: “I need some perspective, some time to absorb what I have experienced the last two years.” I now feel a month isn’t long enough to fully process it, but I know writing about it can help, so I’m going to attempt to distill some of my thoughts here. I hope they will relate to anyone who has undertaken a major project as part of a mission of personal growth.

  • It feels unreal. July 6th, 2013, began with me waking up in a hotel room with my family, who had arrived the afternoon before. I then gave a 45-minute lecture; attended my final MFA workshop; had lunch with my family and a fellow graduate and his family; participated in graduation; said my goodbyes at a reception in the art gallery below the chapel; drove with my family to a lake house rental on Lake Champlain; purchased some groceries at a gas station convenience store; and grilled hot dogs while smoking a cigar as the sun set over the lake. A week later I was back in northern Virginia with all of the realities of life–day job, bills, home maintenance–awaiting me. It’s been too long since I earned my bachelor’s degree so I can’t really remember my emotions that day, or what it felt like once I was no longer on campus. But I lived at that school for the better part of four years. I was only in Vermont a total of 50 nights in two years over five residencies. As I’ve written in my MFA Nugget series from those residencies, the experience is surreal. Now it seems unreal.
  • The descent from our rental house to Lake Champlain. What fun we had carrying a large wooden canoe down those stairs. Perhaps fun isn't the right word.
    The descent from our rental house to Lake Champlain. What fun we had carrying a large wooden canoe down those stairs. Perhaps fun isn’t the right word.

    It feels worthwhile. I don’t want to leave the impression that the program hasn’t had a positive impact on me. It has in many ways, most particularly my writing. My improvement is tangible to me and to others. I left VCFA with a draft of a memoir I never could have crafted without the program. I’m also seeing the impact on my day-job output, which is good because I’m paid for that writing. What I’ve gained from the program is more than just improved writing, however. Pursuing a full-time graduate program while working full time requires time management. Over those two years I developed a schedule that is brutal yet survivable. It allowed me to produce the 30 pages of polished prose required by my advisor each month. And it is that schedule I am now following to revise the memoir to a publishable state. I blogged about my fear that I would stop writing after earning my MFA, as so many do. I honor those who need to step aside and regroup creatively after such an intense program. For me, I feel like I waited 20 years to finally do the program, so my week at the lake was enough of a reboot.

  • It feels inspiring. I didn’t actually take a good look at my diploma until I was preparing for bed that first night at the lake house. Things were too crazy for me to take the time to do so before then. When I did I puzzled at it. I’m not used to seeing my full name spelled out, nor seeing it on parchment above a seal. I have friends who seem to collect advanced degrees like I collect prints of antique maps. But I had in my adult life started and then left two other Master’s programs, one in political science and one in business. I’ll just say it: I’m proud of myself for sticking with it this time. I’m using my daughter’s employee discount at an art-supply store to have it framed, and when I’m feeling insecure about my writing–which, being an artist, means I’ll feel that every day–I’ll look at that diploma and remind myself of what I am capable of when I stick with it.

Perhaps I’ll revisit this subject next summer, when I find myself wistful for Vermont and I see in my Facebook feed VCFA students I’m now friends with preparing for their own graduation. For now, however, I have a memoir to finish.

23 thoughts on “How Does it Feel to Have Earned an MFA?

  1. Finishing a project always has a surreal quality to me, and the bigger the project, the more surreal. I still feel shivers of “this is slightly bizarre” when I look at my diploma for law school and the one from the InterPlay Leadership Program.
    Congratulations on finishing, on deepening your work, and building a schedule. May the next phase in your life be meaningful, productive, and fun.


    1. Thanks! Hope your study is going well. I’m halfway through what I hope will be the manuscript’s final revision; it’s going really smoothly. I’m particularly proud of how ruthless I’ve been in cutting. 🙂


  2. Congratulations, Patrick – it’s been such fun following your journey via your blog. And since I live on the shore of Lake Champlain, I’ve particularly enjoyed your growing fondness for it. I have no doubt you will continue writing – it’s clearly as much a part of you as breathing. So put aside the worries and just keep on doing what you do so well. And thanks for taking the time to reflect/share your thoughts.


    1. Thank you, Sarah, for that encouragement. It means a lot, coming from a writer herself who has done so much to support other writers. I’m glad you’ve enjoyed the journey to date, one that will continue. And let me express my sincere jealousy that you get to wake up to that magical lake every day. Say hi to “Champy” for me!


  3. Found your blog today. I’m halfway through a MEd (Curriculum Studies with a focus on Creativity). I too have abandoned other grad studies, but am sticking this one out, even though I probably will retire next year as I finish the degree. It struck me that what I am really doing is recommitting to a creative life as a musician in this transition. I hear myself saying crazy things like “I have spent 50 years reading music, from now on I am going to play without notes” and that is scary and exciting at the same time.
    Thanks for throwing your experiences out into the world; your “message in a bottle” washed up on my “shore” today and it was a welcome affirmation of the creative life.


    1. Sue Ellen, thank you for this comment. It’s helpful to know that others find value in my bottle messages. What a great way to enter retirement, with a creativity-focused degree fueled by curiosity and a desire to try new things. I’m happy for you, and can tell from this comment that you will stick with this program. Kudos.


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  6. Patrick, simply put—your words move me. You’ve also created a desire to know your family. Regardless of life’s struggles (and we ALL have them), you are blessed in many ways, and from what I gather, you live a grateful life—as it should be! 😀


    1. If you can’t be grateful for what you have, what’s the point of living! 🙂

      You know, I do keep my family out of this blog for the most part, but they are a critical component of my path on the artist’s road. They do have a presence in the memoir I recently completed–my teenage daughter is present for an entire section of the book–and as it happens I’m in talks with a publisher as we speak about possible publication. So stay tuned on that front.


      1. Honestly, I think it’s wise not to use your blog as a journal of family life unless it’s in ways like this, but I get the sense you’re just all really good people I (or anyone) would enjoy knowing 🙂 That’s what I meant, just so you know!

        And GOOD LUCK with your talks!!!!!! I would be first in line to buy that book, believe me! And I’m not one to read memoirs! 😀 (I focus mostly on kidlit and barely have time for that! lol)


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