Reading Life After MFA

I’m not the first to say that reading and writing felt impossible after completing an MFA program: one comprehensive exam and a thesis defense later, I needed distance from all academic literary endeavors. I also felt the urge to leave Reno, the city I’ve called home for the last ten years. This summer I packed a single suitcase, left my library of grad school texts, and relocated to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

While any move comes with a degree of loneliness, I am thankful for the space to become reacquainted with my reading self: who am I outside the MFA? Committee-approved texts set aside, what books do I consider to be life-giving? I’m on a pilgrimage, if you will, trying to re-discover why I love reading in the first place.

My love of literature took root in a public library, so it only made sense to visit one. I first went to the main branch of the Carnegie Public Library, which opened in 1895. The building piqued my interest at first glance: gray sandstone steps, arched doors, and Corinthian pillars gave the entrance a stately air. An inscription above the doors—Free to the people—softened the look.

The entrance to the Carnegie Library made me think of my favorite Emily Dickinson poem, which describes the gift of reading: “This traverse may the poorest take / Without oppress of Toll— / How frugal is the Chariot / That bears a Human soul.” Thousands of books waited behind those doors, and I could take any number of journeys. I thought of the library entrance as an estuary—that point where a river meets the sea. An MFA in creative writing gave me ample time to hone in on specific interests, but I also learned that being a good literary citizen means reading widely. I could think of no better tribute to my training than to open myself up to different genres and subjects.

This newfound freedom paralyzed me at first. I experienced some cognitive dissonance while browsing through titles. One part of me rejoiced in checking out books without wondering how they would fit into my reading list for comps. Another part of me imagined what a writing workshop might say about my selections: dare I get caught reading a novel that sounded like a cross between Twilight and Tuck Everlasting?

Against the critical voice that told me to be wary of sentimental prose, I selected a novel by Samantha Sotto: Before Ever After. This title appealed to the idealistic side of me that craved blissful endings, no matter how unlikely. Sotto’s novel didn’t fail to deliver on “happily ever after,” and, to borrow Joan Didion’s phrase, I didn’t mind a good dose of magical thinking.

I broke the ice on my post-MFA hiatus, and my stack of library books grew taller: from memoir to young adult fiction, each text challenged me to let go of the compulsion to analyze and read between the lines. I sighed. I wept. I wrote down quotes that moved me. As a good friend of mine once said, “If the universe has something to show you, it will. You don’t have to worry about being in the right place at the right time.”

On that note, I found that books have an uncanny way of speaking to us. At the peak of my self-doubt this summer, I lingered on these words from Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love: “To stop talking for a while, then, is to attempt to strip away the power of words, to stop choking ourselves with words, to liberate ourselves from our suffocating mantras.” This quote reminded me that I have to live with my own voice, no matter where I move in search of a fresh start. When I fail at self-love, the universe nudges me through people, experiences, and words.

Once I open myself up to what the universe has to teach, the words start to come. I journaled while reading Gilbert’s memoir, and this private act of writing led to a couple of new poems—the only two drafts I’ve written since graduation. My critical voice says that I’m working at a pathetic pace, but I’m trying to give that voice less room to talk.

What I do know is that my reading self needs to thrive in order for me to write. While I value the community and the skills that I gained during my MFA program, now begins the process of becoming a reader and a writer outside the academy. Ultimately, my reading self is the sum of all my experiences: the young girl who sought fairytales; the high school student who surveyed the breadth of American literature; the undergrad who fell in love with contemporary poetry; and the grad student who worked to contextualize her place in the canon. If my five-year-old self could speak to me now, she’d tell me to find magic again. By allowing myself to be enchanted by words, I hope to settle into that place where all my reading selves coexist.   –   Joanne Mallari

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