Alma’s MFA in Creative Writing director Sophfronia Scott offers decision-making advice for students approaching the graduate school application season.
There’s a wonderful quote by the Scottish mountaineer William Hutchison Murray about making decisions. Specifically he’s talking about getting to that first step of a climb. The quote goes like this:
Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative and creation, there is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too.
All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings and material assistance which no man could have dreamed would have come his way.
Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.
Note he says “committed,” which means you have to make a firm decision before the assistance shows up. Why?
Have you seen that movie, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”? It’s the story of a group of British retirees who go off to live in India to spend their golden years. One of the characters, played by Dame Judi Dench, is making the trip because she’s a widow and she has very little money. She’s had to sell her home to pay off her late husband’s debts. Early in the film she’s at the airport with her son preparing for her departure and her son is saying things like, “You’ve never done anything like this before! What’s going to happen to you? How will you get help if you need it?” She finally turns around and responds with something along the lines of, “You have said nothing positive to me. Yes, I’ve never done anything like this before. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I could use some support.”
She has already made this difficult, clear decision. At this point all her son can really do is help her!
I’m thinking about this because it is admissions season for a lot of MFA programs. As the director of the Alma College MFA in Creative Writing I field questions from people who want to know more about pursuing an MFA. In my social media I sometimes see people posting about how they are trying to make a decision about getting an MFA. Recently I read a Twitter post from someone lamenting not having enough time for her writing and someone asked a question about support: “Do you have support in this?”
My guess would have been no, she doesn’t. Not because I think she lacks a caring family or friends like the Judi Dench character. It’s because she hasn’t made a decision about what to do about her problem. It is hard to support someone when the person hasn’t made a decision yet. You could listen to the back and forth of them trying to make a decision, but in order to really help you have to understand clearly what they are doing. And they won’t know what they’re doing until they decide. The decision has to come first.
This writer can keep dwelling on the fact that she doesn’t have enough time for her writing. It’s hard to even make a suggestion if you want to help because you don’t know what will help. But if she decides, for example, that she is going to re-commit to her writing and that she’s chosen to earn an MFA in order to do so, then it will be more evident how to support her, even if she doesn’t ask for it. If she’s a mother, a friend could offer to help get her child on and off the bus on school days she’ll miss when she attends her MFA’s twice-a-year residency. A friend did that for me. Her partner could plan weekend day trips taking the child/children on adventures to give her more time to write. My husband did that for me.
As you can see, I speak from personal experience. I’ll also share this: When you’re in decision-making mode, people will tell you all the reasons why you shouldn’t do what you’re doing. It’ll be hard to understand why you should do something like earning an MFA degree unless you can come to that understanding yourself. I didn’t go for my MFA for years because so many people told me all the reasons why I didn’t need one. But the fact of the matter was, and eventually I came to realize this, I knew why I needed it. So I went for it.
I’m talking about writing here but this can go for any decision making. Murray says that once you move Providence moves with you and all sorts of help shows up that you never expected, but that comes from making a decision. It’s easier for the aid to show up because it’s easier to support someone going in a specific direction. You see what it is that they’re trying to do.
How do you make a strong decision? Yes, you can ask questions, yes you ask for input, but at the end of the day you have to think about why is this a question in the first place? What is going on inside of you? Only you can know that.
Be within a space to know your own mind and think about why this thing you’re considering is important to you because once you know, not only will you get help, but you will know yourself what you are willing to do to make this thing happen.
That’s why I created “Your MFA Decision Journal.” It’s a simple workbook designed to help writers ask the right questions so they can figure out their own answers and make strong decisions based on what’s most important. You can download it here. I hope it helps. Good luck!
By the way, if you do have questions, I hold virtual office hours every week, Tuesdays 2-4pm ET and Thursdays, 4-6pm ET. Just email me at email@example.com for the Zoom link.
MFA in Creative Writing Program Director