The MFA for the Chronically Ill Writer

When I enrolled for my prerequisite language courses in 2013 leading up to my M.Ed., I was headed to grad school for the sake of financial stability. I had served the immigrant and refugee communities for over 16 years as academic support staff across two campuses as well as online. And I loved it. But even working another 15 hours a week at the public library, I was lucky to earn $13,000 a year.

As my health began to deteriorate and I faced rising rents, I knew I needed a long-term plan. Moving from tutoring students and teaching workshops to teaching courses was something many of my colleagues had long encouraged me to do. I looked forward to serving the same communities as an ESL professor, with more ability to advocate for them to administrators and fellow educators. Even my students were excited for me. “Maybe next year you will be my teacher,” they told me.

But the truth was that the M.Ed. was never supposed to be my last degree. Since my early twenties, what I had really wanted to earn was an MFA in Creative Writing. But I hadn’t been able to see a financial path to it. If I had to take out loans, and I knew I might, I would never be able to repay them if my income didn’t change.

So I made a deal with myself. Earn the M.Ed., lean into the work for five years and get a tenure track position. Move wherever I needed to in order to make that happen. Then, begin my MFA by the time I entered my mid-forties. It was straightforward. It was a good plan. It just didn’t take into account that I was about to become disabled.

*             *             *

Over 10 years ago, I began a homeschooled MFA in creative writing. I modeled my curriculum on MFAs at NYU and the U of Iowa. I was confident that one day I would earn an accredited MFA. This at-home MFA was just to bring me one step closer. To prepare me for submitting work and applying to programs. After three years, I almost completed that curriculum.

But after three assaults in my mid-twenties to early thirties, the MFA had to be set aside. I prioritized getting free of the men who had violated my safety. It took years to rebuild my life as I served as my own divorce lawyer, entered therapy, and left unhealthy friendships. For the first time in my adult life, I entered into debt in order to keep myself afloat during the transition and to enable myself to get the treatments I needed. I had no parents or grandparents to fall back on. I had some great friends, but I felt profoundly alone.

And then, chronic illness struck.

Four years and many failed treatments later, I have been coming to terms with the fact that I will probably never earn the MFA in creative writing that I dreamed of. Although I will have my M.Ed. loans almost paid off by the time I’m 45, I have grave misgivings over taking on any future student debt. For many chronic migraineurs, the disease often worsens during menopause. As it is, my income vacillates between $16,000 and $38,000 a year depending on contracts and my health. It’s stressful enough ensuring that I can pay back my loans with that kind of variability. If my health worsens at all, working will be out of the question. Taking on more debt just isn’t responsible.

Second, there’s the problem of pace. Most graduate programs are designed to be completed in 18 to 24 months, requiring roughly 20 to 25 hours of work outside of class. Some universities allow you to stretch that out to three to five years, but some do not. In fact, academia generally regards the more intensive programs as the better, albeit less accessible, ones. Columbia University, for example, requires MFA students to enroll full-time for two consecutive years. The only exceptions are made for “medical emergencies” for which it can hardly be said a lifelong disability or chronic illness would qualify.

The truth is I just wouldn’t be able to keep up. And I’m not alone. Most people I’ve known with severe disabilities wouldn’t even consider such a program. Becoming a one-person drug trial on a rolling basis, scaling back your life during flare-ups, and managing the fallout when a new treatment backfires are just part and parcel of life with a severe disability. “Rigorous” in academia is often coded language for “able-bodied only.”

Even online MFA programs aren’t much better. The pace is often the same, and even if they permit part-time enrollment, it’s doubtful I could maintain the pace. Screentime is my third greatest migraine trigger (bright light being the top culprit). Scrolling alone can trigger vertigo so bad I can’t read or stand up. I can’t regularly commute anywhere on a weekly basis, and I certainly can’t sit for hours and hours in front of a screen without lots of breaks, especially after a workday.

In fact, I can’t function at all five to ten days a month. Another five days, my symptoms interfere with tasks enough that I’m left with about half a day’s worth of functionality, sometimes less. I have to carefully schedule breaks and rest periods so that things don’t develop into a full-blown attack.

All this is to say, most MFA programs aren’t realistic options for me. Or responsible.

*             *             *

But I’ve never been one to just give up. There still had to be a way for me to do something like an MFA that I could complete by my mid-forties. And as my at-home contract work has shifted into greater uncertainty over the last seven months, I have needed something I could control. Something I could achieve.

In short, I needed something to believe in, a way to reconnect with the whole reason I earned an M.Ed. and made this deal with myself in the first place: so that I would have the security and freedom to focus on my writing.

I may not be able to attend an accredited MFA program, but I’ve redesigned the old MFA from scratch. It allows for frequent missed days with each semester set at 25 weeks. I will be taking only one class a semester, with one 40 to 50-minute online lecture each weekend. There are packets, online critique groups for workshopping stories, papers and book reviews due, as well as lectures and assigned readings. And, just as with most low-residency MFAs, I will devote a full week each year to an at-home residency with workshops, lectures, readings, and classes all from my laptop. I’ve designed the program for my specific needs and limitations. It will take me six years. And I just completed Week 2 of my first semester.

This is what my blog is going to follow. This is the journey I’m on. I’ll post my program plan and my syllabi, my reflections and maybe even some of my lecture notes. I’ll keep you posted on what is working and what isn’t, and what I learn—about literature, writing, my own ableism, and migraines—throughout the process. And hopefully, a few of you might realize that you can take matters into your own hands, too. We all deserve an accessible education. If they won’t let you have that, then sometimes you have to build it yourself.

And guys, I’m so excited.

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