A dispatch from Ann Arbor, where Jordan Hamel is a Creative Writing MFA student at the University of Michigan’s illustrious writers’ workshop.
My name is Jordan Hamel and I am one of God’s most annoying creatures, a mature student. Formerly a Wellington public servant writing policy by day and poems by night, I now find myself stripped of my structure and stability and thrust back into Uni life halfway across the world.
Ann Arbor, Michigan is a typical American Midwestern college town – think Dunedin but with rich teens driving around in range rovers and frat parties. Its most famous for its football team (the mighty Michigan Wolverines), its football stadium (modestly named “The Big House”, its capacity of 108,000 makes it the third largest stadium in the world, despite Ann Arbor only having a population of 120,000) and, weirdly enough, its Creative Writing MFA.
For the uninitiated, an MFA is a Masters programme designed to give you time and space to write and work on a project that will eventually become a manuscript and then a book. To my knowledge, Aotearoa has two Creative Writing Masters programmes (which appear to always be in a healthy rivalry if not all-out war): Bill Manhire’s IIML Masters of Arts and Paula Morris’ Masters of Creative Writing at Auckland University. Neither programme offers much funding, which means the class make-up will likely consist of early 20-somethings who are willing to keep racking up their interest-free student loans, and bored retirees who want to write their memoirs.
America has dozens of MFAs but only a few are funded. In the case of the University of Michigan, funded by a mysterious Mr Burns-esque figure and the programme’s namesake. The Helen Zell Writers’ Program was allegedly set up to rival the neighbouring Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which was being funded by the CIA during the Cold War (true story). The HZWP has been home to literary giants like Jesmyn Ward, Celeste Ng, Franny Choi and now me, for some reason.
It still bewilders me that it ended up being cheaper to pack up and move to the middle of nowhere Michigan and study creative writing than it was to do it in my hometown. A Masters is by no means the only way to grow your writing practice, far from it, but I wonder how many New Zealand writers give up because they don’t see a feasible path to further education. I apologise, the brief of this essay was to describe a day in the life of an MFA student and this is becoming a diatribe about sustainability in the arts, let me get back on track.
I wound up in Ann Arbor eight months ago. When I first moved here, I had no friends, literally none. I don’t know if you’ve ever moved somewhere where you know no one, but it’s terrible. I walked around alone all day, I ate alone, slept alone, went to the cinema and watched Minions: The Rise of Groot alone. I downloaded an app that sold itself as “Tinder for friendship” and deleted it because everyone wanted to play board games with me. I always fancied myself as someone who was “good at being alone”, and I thought I was, but turns out I am terrible at it. I feel the most alone I have in years. This feeling lasts forever. More accurately, it lasts about two weeks, at which point my new life begins.
Fall descends upon Michigan, the academic year begins and finally I meet my MFA cohort; an eccentric bunch from a range of backgrounds: ex-dancers, tech people, journalists, community college battlers, nepo babies… they’re all here, writing their little stories and poems. We spend our first night together in Ann Arbor’s one queer nightclub toasting tequila shots in memory of our programme benefactor and founder Helen Zell (we later learn she is still very much alive).
Unlike the New Zealand MAs, the age range here is much smaller and I find myself as one of the oldest people in the program. Luckily I’m able to hide this behind a fondness for heavy drinking and a mysterious foreign accent. People seem impressed that I’ve already published one award-losing book, even if it was only published in a country no one can point to on a map. We all fall in love with each other immediately, the prospect of forging a new literary community after losing my old one feels possible all of a sudden.
Like any student anywhere, a day in the life of an MFA student will come across as overly familiar to some and infuriatingly luxurious to others. I didn’t study creative writing at university, I came into this environment as an outsider from the oft-neglected world of spoken word. This is my first time in a formal workshop environment. For those who are also new to this, the workshop is the beating heart of a creative writing course. Even though students are blessed with opportunities to meet with fancy visiting writers, agents and editors, the workshop is where the magic happens, a chance to have your work rigorously dissected and to dissect the work of others.
After two semesters I learn that a workshop can be an intense place, often beneficial but sometimes detrimental, with capacity for damage in place of improvement, drama disguised as rigour. Top tier MFAs like Michigan, Iowa and NYU are rife with stories of toxic competitive environments and while there is no shortage of budding writers here who would rip my spinal cord out of my skin Mortal Kombat style for a two-book deal, for the most part this programme has felt more like the Breakfast Club than the Hunger Games. Although ultimately, I think it’s impossible to escape the crabs in a bucket feeling of being a writer, writing and fighting for scraps, even within the comfort of academia.
Speaking of scraps, it’s comforting, in an incredibly morbid way, to realise that even in the biggest literary market in the western world, poetry is still laughably low stakes. The bleak reality of this hard ceiling forces poets to view publications and books and awards as tools to get the next “thing” – a fellowship, a residency, an assistant professorship, something, anything to keep the wheel turning and the dream of a life of creative freedom alive.
Being full-time in this world for nearly a year has started to recalibrate my brain accordingly. Halfway through a two-year degree and the impending inevitability of returning to reality has started to weigh on me. I’m not particularly interested in returning to a nine-to-five job, to lunches on the Beehive lawn and jamming myself onto the number 25 bus, but I don’t really know how to carve another path. (Reader, at this point you should be starting to realise this is a pitch, disguised as an essay. I’m looking for wealthy patrons to give me a living wage to write and read and just generally keep me in the lifestyle I’m accustomed to. If this is of interest to you, please get in touch.)
I saw recently that the latest Creative New Zealand funding round closed in fifteen minutes. I was shocked but not surprised. The other day, I googled “Creative writing teaching opportunities – New Zealand” the only search result was a picture of Bill Manhire pointing and laughing at me. I’ve come to realise that if I want any semblance of a future in the writing world, I probably can’t live in New Zealand. Yes, creative writing is an equally unsustainable and underpaid career path here, but in a country this big, there is at least some opportunity, however opaque and competitive. Maybe if you want a career in creative writing, the simple answer is you can’t afford to live anywhere.
I apologise, this has become a diatribe about the lack of sustainability in the arts again, goddammit. What does a day in the life of an MFA student look like? OK, here it goes:
8am – Wake up, try to write in bed, check American Twitter to see if anyone I love or hate has achieved anything significant.
8:30am – Have breakfast in bed, featuring the worst coffee and toast I’ve ever had.
9am – Go to the student gym and get body conscious around all the ripped 19-year-olds.
11am – Figure out what I have to read and give notes on in workshop that day. Flagellate myself for being a poor Aotearoa creative ambassador. Have another terrible coffee.
12pm – Meet my friends for lunch at Panera or one of the equally bland and nondescript food chains that dominate this milquetoast town and complain that we have workshop in four hours.
2pm – Read my friends’ work, allow myself to briefly indulge in earnestness, remember how lucky I am to be here surrounded by these talented freaks, try to suppress the inevitable imposter syndrome.
3pm Have an ill-advised third coffee, have a nervous breakdown, check NZ Twitter to see if anyone I love or hate has achieved anything significant today.
4pm – Go to workshop, face the terrifying reality of being openly perceived by your peers, listen to them interpret and debate your silly little words, try not to sink below the desk, wonder if creative writing is a pointless dalliance of the privileged, wonder if you’ll have a role in a post-revolution communal society.
7pm – Finish workshop, go get $2 pizza slices and drinks at Bill’s Beer Garden, complain about workshop.
9pm – More drinks, more complaining.
10pm – Stumble home down the streets lined with teens playing beer pong. Chase the squirrels and groundhogs and other mammals that we don’t have in New Zealand, crawl into bed, check Twitter a final time, take [redacted]mgs of Melatonin, remember how lucky I am that the most stressful part of my day is discussing writing with friends, remind myself not be an ungrateful little shit, remind myself that this is the opportunity of a lifetime and I shouldn’t waste it, panic that I’m wasting it, fall asleep.