Sunday, October 18, 2009


As the first full week of my new part time retail position draws to a close and the two stacks of papers that I have to grade for my classes remind me that they won’t grade themselves, I’m beginning to rethink my old idea that there is no such thing as no time to write. I haven’t been able to find a single second to write in the past week until right now, and even now I’m sort of choosing not to do what I should be doing so that I can spend a few minutes writing this. I’m already so drastically behind in my writing goal for the month that I don’t believe it’s possible to catch up, even if I quit the retail job right now . . . but I’ll come back to that later.

There’s this image that we have of the starving writer. The person so dedicated to writing that he or she behaves totally irresponsibly in all other aspects of life. Makes no real effort to hold down a job. Ignores family and friends in favor of writing. Ignores his or her own physical health, even, and hygiene, all in the name of art. We’ve all heard the stories. People who went on to great success and who will tell you that part of the reason they made it is because they made the conscious decision that writing was more important than, say, earning a steady income.

I always used to think that sort of behavior was utterly unacceptable. Artist or not, there are certain things we all have to do to survive. I thought that these success stories stand out only because these people got lucky. That for every one such success story there were probably hundreds of stories with similar beginnings but that ended with the person starving to death on the streets or at least eventually giving up the dream.

Well I’ve been realizing lately that what those stories are really about, I think, is sacrifice. That sometimes we have to make sacrifices so that we have time to write. It could be sleeping for an hour less, or not going out drinking with your friends on Saturday nights, or not watching TV, or, in my case, not working that extra job to bring in extra money.

This past week and a half, since I started the new job, I haven’t felt like a writer at all. I haven’t really been a writer, to tell you the truth. A writer is a person who writes, and I haven’t been meeting that one simple requirement. And the thing is there’s nothing that I could really sacrifice besides the job. I don’t watch TV. I haven’t been playing video games. I haven’t even been reading. I’ve been working the two jobs, and that’s it. I even had to schedule time to go on a date with my husband, Damien, the other day (and I fell behind on my grading as a result).

I see two possible choices that I can make here. I can choose to be a writer and quit this retail job so that I can have time to write, or I can choose not to be and keep the job so that we’ll have a more comfortable amount of money coming in. Between my meager income as a teacher and Damien’s as a TA, we make enough to scrape by. It’s a tight scrape and it will involve a lot of other sorts of sacrifices, but we’d have enough for all the basic stuff you have to pay for to get by.

And I’d rather be a poor writer than a financially comfortable nothing.


PancakePhilosopher said...

Hi there,

You don't know me, but my name's Andy (senior in college, Writing major) and a couple days ago while Googling for more stuff about the MFA program at UAF--which I'm interested in applying to--I cam across MFA/MFYou and your newsletter, had my interest piqued, and started reading. Thanks for sharing your experiences: I think I have a better idea what to expect from UAF. I mean I'm thinking of and applying to other places, but I feel a strong pulling toward Alaska. Maybe I'm over-Romanticizing it. But I was wondering if you'd have any advice for someone who wants to sign on for the MFA at UAF and who's never been to Alaska?

Ashley Cowger said...

Hi, Andy. Thanks for reading. I can't say enough about UAF; I think it's a great program and I really do owe what little success I've had so far to my experience there.

As far as living in the far north goes: some days it feels like Alaska is exactly as romantic and wonderful as you imagine it is, and then other days (when it's 50 below zero outside, the roads are iced over, and you have to go to the bathroom in an outhouse because most of the cabins available for rent don't have running water) you wonder what could have possessed you to leave "civilization."

If you're the type of person who really likes nature, then you'll probably love it in Alaska. The northern lights. Mount Denali. Moose all over the place. The most beautiful sky you've ever seen. But during the winter the darkness and the extreme cold do get to some people. A lot of grad students actually leave during the winter break, so they miss the worst part of the darkness and the cold. I stayed during the winters, though, and I didn't think it was too bad. There would maybe be about one week every winter where it was so cold and so dark that it was hard not to feel depressed, but for the most part you sort of just get used to it, and the summers are so sunny and warm (but never hot) that you're kind of willing to put up with the winters.

Justus said...

I would add to that, also being a recent graduate of the UAF MFA program: there has been a fair amount of faculty turnover in the past few years, but I think the writers who are there now will be there a while. Different faculty have different approaches to classes and you're likely to click with some and maybe not others, but they're all approachable, friendly, and well published writers. I know some of my favorite experiences with professors didn't rate at all for other students and vice versa, but there's no way to know exactly what it will be like and how you'll fit with the program until you're there.

As far as the climate goes, I opted to pay the extra expense (maybe a couple hundred bucks a month) to live in an apartment with running water, and although it meant I acquired more debt while I was there, it always seemed worth it to me to not have to use an outhouse in the middle of the night when it's fifty below zero. But others like the romance of the wild.

PancakePhilosopher said...

Thanks for the info and advice. I'm definitely applying there; I've even corresponded a little with Gerri Brightwell through email. Only thing I'm worried about is money: I don't have much of it at all. Some programs, upon giving you a TAship, cover all the costs of schooling...does UAF do the same, or does it just cover a portion of the program's costs for TAs?

By the way Ashley, when you made yourself write at least a couple hours evey day during your time at UAF, I'm assuming that was stuff for your workshops and thesis and such? Being an undergrad writing major, I'm trying to set a similar goal for myself, though I'm not sure if I should have it be non-school-related writing or include school-related writing. Though I suppose ANY writing can be good practice, whether it's academic or not...

Ashley Cowger said...

Hurray that you've gotten in touch with Gerri! I adore Gerri!!! The UAF TAship covers all of your tuition but it doesn't cover your fees, which if I remember correctly amount to something like $500 per semester. But you also get a stipend, and it's a decent stipend considering the fact that you only teach one class per semester and you only work as a tutor for five hours a week. You also get free health insurance, which is a HUGE bonus, in my eyes, and not all MFA programs offer that.

I figured any and all creative writing that I did, whether it was school related or not, should count towards my writing goal. I didn't count working on essays or things like that, though. One of the nice things about grad school is that there isn't really much of a distinction between the creative writing that you do for school and the stuff that you do for yourself. It's sort of assumed that you're writing stuff on your own and that that's what you'll be turning in to workshop. Every now and then you'll have a specific assignment but even then, writing is writing , like you said. It's all good practice.

Justus said...

I'll add a couple thoughts about the TAship. Depending on how you view it, it can seem great or less than fantastic. If you consider the fact that it covers full out-of-state tuition, then the value of the TAship is extroardinary for merely teaching one class and tutoring in the writing center. But the stipend itself only stretches so far. As a full time student and a new teacher, you won't have much extra time, so working a second job is difficult (I only managed it during part of one semester while I was there). But the actual money you make to pay your bills with is right on the edge of the poverty line. Considering that the cost of living is high in Alaska, it's difficult to actually survive off of the TA stipend. Each month, about 80% of my stipend went directly to rent and utilities. Then by the time I bought groceries, I was pretty much out of money. So things like books became extra expenses. Gas, car insurance, occasional fast food splurges, school fees, tuition for summer classes--anything beyond minimum survival pretty much broke my budget. You can avoid some of those issues by having a roommate who splits the rent with you (having a spouse with a decent job like Ashley had is a great way to go) or by working some other job that pays well during the summer. In the end, what it amounts to is that you can go through school and basically survive on the TAship, but doing so without taking also out some loans is tough.

Justus said...

Whoops. I had a misplaced modifier there. I meant "without also taking out," not "without taking also out."

PancakePhilosopher said...

Thanks for the tip! Even if the TAship DID cover everything admirably, I still think I'd try to get a roommate somehow: I've gotten so used to someone else being around that now I'm uncomfortable when I'm completely alone. I mean I do like being alone part of the time (for instance, I'm alone now; the roomie's out and about) but it's nice to know that someone is always nearby. I feel sad now when I know I'm totally alone. And such a huge leap as going from Western PA to Alaska--and adjusting to the weather, the seasons, the culture, the program, the living situation--would be extremely tough if not impossible for me to handle on my own. So, if I get accepted to the program, I want to try to see if I can get a hold of some other guys that might be going into the program as well and ask if any of them would be interesting in rooming together and sharing expenses.

I mean, I know I COULD do it on my own, but I also know that it would be extremely difficult socially, mentally, financially, and emotionally. I would rather have someone else around to ease my insanity. But we'll see how it plays out I suppose.

One other place (of several) that I'm applying to is a university in Wales, so I'm torn about the two places. On the one hand, Alaska has that wonderfully primal, unspoiled beauty about it, the sense that people haven't been here that long, and those who have have lived in close harmony with nature. (Of course that may not be true at all and just my overly romantic sentiments). On the other hand, the Wales school is rich with culture and history and its own type of natural beauty (there's even a ruined castle nearby). So I feel torn. But whatever place I get accepted to and also gives me the most aid will probably be where I end up going. I'm a romantic but I need to practice being pragmatic: I'm already up to my eyeballs in debt from college and I'd rather not add to that if at all possible.

And it doesn't help that I've gotten great encouragement from both places...both programs look great, and the locations are perfect for me in opposite ways, and I've corresponded with faculty and staff from both places and they all were helpful and nice and enthusiastic. Meh...we'll see what happens.

Hope you feel better, Ashley! Being sick is the pits no matter where you are or what you're doing. (Unless you're 12 and under the covers at home enjoying mother-made tea and watching cartoons.)