It first struck me to apply for an MFA in creative writing while looking at nude images of airline passengers.
After spending most of my 20s doing some traveling, getting in trouble and bouncing around from job to job, my pinball had finally sunk: I was about to make my 5-year anniversary working for the Transportation Security Administration at Chicago’s O’Hare airport, the first milestone of what was threatening to become a career. It was a job that had me looking for terrorists in security lines and searching for phantom blocks of C-4 amid mounds of dirty carry-on underwear. I hated it. Most of us did. Ever since airport security went federal back in 2001 the consensus among officers had been that the only good thing the War on Terror had turned up at the airport was eye candy: youthful passengers shedding jackets, sweatshirts, belts, shoes— the Freedom Strip Tease of post-9/11 travel. The only thing I liked about working the airport was the Motown they played at the T3 Chili’s Bar & Grill.
It had been one ethically questionable directive after another. Up until 2010 we’d been giving enhanced screening to nearly everyone with Middle East-issued passports in what amounted to de facto racial profiling. I can pass for Middle Eastern, and so during some of the full-body searches I found myself trying to avoid the red-hot eyes of men in white ankle-skirting robes—silent glowers of perceived betrayal—my conscience contorting itself into the same guilty sentence each time: You’re meting out the same thing your father escaped.
By the time the Underwear Bomb Plot of 2009 hit the headlines there had been a crackdown on the profiling, but the organization had gone the other way: every man, woman and child was now being indiscriminately placed into nude radiation scanners. My job was to view those nude scans of the traveling public—ghostly images parading across my screen in a tiny back room, legs spread, arms raised; bastardized Vitruvian men and women captured in front-and-rear snapshots—America’s private piercings and secret cellulite revealed. It felt wrong: nude images of little girls standing on tip-toe, arms overhead shaped into diamonds for the x-ray-machine-as-ballerina scout; hunched-over bodies of old men captured off-guard, mouths agape like something out of Edvard Munch; mastectomied women with pixelated dead regions on their chests.
The public could smell the indignities in the air; they hated the machines, hated us. Some of them came through the scanners wearing T-shirts with messages printed in metallic-based ink: READ THE 4TH AMENDMENT, PERVERTS. There was the woman who stripped nude right on the checkpoint to protest the invasive security measures. Most common were the passengers who raised both middle fingers while undergoing the nude scan to show us how they felt. One time we got three middle fingers in a row, right down the line of computer monitors: jackpot pull on a slot machine, high fives all around.
It was all that time spent looking at you nude, America, that made me realize I had to make a career change. I had to get into position to put it all down on paper.
The test proctor at the GRE center was the kind of woman who could smile at a funnel cloud. A cheerful and sharply dressed black lady who glittered all over—silver-filigreed dress pants, pearl earrings, sparkly teeth—when she told me to take everything out of my pockets and assume the position, the order felt like it was coming from someplace shiny.
“I do this, too, sort of,” I said, as she waved the handheld metal detector over my body.
It didn’t dawn on me why all the tight security until I was seated in the testing room. I heard something behind me and glanced back to see a girl leaning forward, face just a few inches from the screen, fingers plugging her ears. She was whispering to herself, turning the test questions over in her vacuum. Fellow writer. I’d talked to her out in the waiting room. She was preparing to apply for a Ph.D in English literature. She was sure that this GRE would mean the death of her career if she failed to score higher than the 96th percentile on the verbal, 5.5s on the analytical writing. Looking around I saw that the other testers were equally intense. I realized I was sitting at the mouth of a cave inside which I’d never really been before: the high-pressure world of academics. In high school I ran with people whose interest in literature ran about as deep as Iceberg Slim, and whose knowledge of math was confined to the number of pounds in a kilo, grams in an ounce. Undergrad life for me had been about the same. I felt closer to the proctor watching over us than to the people around me taking the test. Most of these kids were testing to kill; would smuggle in performance-enhancing devices and sabotage their neighbor’s keyboard if they could. I panicked and began to fear that my laid-back 30-year-old ass was going to get eaten up in the face of that test—those questions that demanded mathematical operations I only dimly recalled from hung-over mornings in high school Advanced Algebra. Luckily, I came out alive—a quantitative pass, qualitative success.
After the GRE I spent most of my time preparing materials and looking at MFA websites. My favorite part of the entire application process was reading the sites’ FAQ sections. There is something satisfying about the FAQ section of an MFA website: the promise of discovering that all your questions about how to make a career out of writing have already been asked, and the possibility of finding that the answers have all been herded and arranged into one neat column.
IS IT POSSIBLE TO GET AN MFA IN CREATIVE WRITING WITHOUT GOING INTO DEBT?
Oh fuck yes. I first started shopping programs thinking I would be lucky if I could get an MFA in creative writing for less than $30,000; thank God a friend of mine introduced me to the world of fully funded MFAs. If you play your cards right, you can get the degree for free and actually receive a livable salary for two-to-four years, as though pursuing an MFA in creative writing were a real job, or something. I know, it sounds ridiculous, but it’s true. At the very least it’s a two-to-four year break from having to spend your days scanning crowds at airports looking for fucking terrorists and patting down people’s crotches.
WILL I KNOW THE POETS & WRITERS RANKINGS BY HEART AFTER I’M DONE APPLYING FOR MFA PROGRAMS?
Fuck yes again. You will be able to regurgitate the Poets & Writers rankings of creative writing MFA programs like a successful 5th-grade recitation of the 50 U.S. states (always starting with Iowa). Then your world will be flipped upside down when you discover that the latest rankings have been published since the time you sent your applications out—number 15 is now 28—leading you to wonder just how much currency should be lent to those rankings. It seems to me that they’re a good point of orientation when first setting out to do your MFA shopping, but once you’re on the ground with offers and all the specifics on the table, the rankings take a back seat to the actual logistics of the thing.
IS THE CREATIVE WRITING MFA RUINING WRITERS AND LITERATURE AS WE KNOW IT?
Hell, I don’t know. People love to spin their wheels endlessly in debate over this question, along with “Can Writing Be Taught?” I’m just starting this MFA, so I’m not sure whether or not it will bring about my wholesale destruction. But look: I doubt it. If a writer is mediocre or talented going into an MFA program I doubt that three years of sitting around in a circle of other writers is going to change things very much either way. At the very least, it will give writers three years of not having to do things such as pat down people’s crotches and puzzle over nude images of passengers with rare genetic disorders ballooning between legs.
IS IT TRUE THAT MFA APPLICANTS CAN BE FOUND SCROLLING THROUGH THE COMMENT SECTIONS OF MFA BLOGS AS THOUGH SEARCHING FOR A MISSING LOVED ONE AMID THE RUBBLE OF A TORNADO-SWEPT VILLAGE?
Absolutely. Try as you might to avoid getting sucked into this vortex, it is unlikely that you’ll be able to escape the pull entirely.
WHAT PART OF THE MFA APPLICATION IS WEIGHED MOST HEAVILY?
When composing your writing sample and statement of purpose, you must be pure in heart and soul and mind, lest your entire application burst into flames upon being glanced at by the MFA program’s readers.
In talking to other MFA applicants I met in Chicago, I heard the application process compared to having a baby: nine months of fretting over catalogs and brochures, dreams of the best, nightmares of the worst, breath arrested in hopes of a healthy outcome; the MFA baby dominating breakfast, lunch and dinnertime chat; talk of GPAs and writing samples poisoning bedside and water cooler conversations until the applicant’s friends and family are wishing for swift death.
I applied mostly to three-year MFA programs in the South. In reconnecting with my father I’d discovered a lot of southern family members I never knew I had. I’d also learned of some interesting stories within the family that I would love to get down on the page. Getting closer to my father’s birthplace would be good for my writing, as well as providing a nice reprieve from the northern winters.
In visiting the schools into which I’d been accepted I noticed that apologies for appearance seemed to be threaded through most of the MFA programs: sorry our English department appears to be housed in a Quonset hut, we’re working on that; pay no mind to the unsightly college town cradling this place where we stand; sorry this is the field upon which you’re going to depend for sustenance the rest of your life, but here we are; sorry we appear to be a program composed of alcoholics right now, we don’t normally drink this much, but be forewarned—we are a program that can drink pretty hard (from what I was able to gather, all you MFA programs out there “do not normally drink so much,” yet can “drink unusually hard when it comes down to it”).
I was told by numerous people to enjoy the MFA program courtship while it lasted because it would likely be the last time I would get to feel so precious and pampered: chauffeured around campuses like a neurotic little egg.
There was definitely the feeling that I was trading in one brand of absurdity for another, going from terrorist-hunting at airports to being a full-time MFA candidate. Many of the prospectives had researched us all by way of Googling our names off the CC’d acceptance email, surveilling their fellow prospectives’ writers’ bios. Where the government life I’d chosen to leave was one of languid ass kissing, academia and publishing promised a world of frenzied and highly competitive ass tonguing. And hanging over my head the whole time was the question of the soundness of my decision to go from being a federal employee with a guaranteed path to a pension and lifetime health insurance to being a struggling writer and teacher. I am sure that scraping together a living as freelance writer/editor/teacher will not prove easy, if even possible.
There was a beautiful wacky feel to some of the MFA directors, like Willy Wonkas reigning over havens hidden from the real world; I met some interesting people while out drinking on their towns. In Oxford, Mississippi a vaguely familiar man showed up next to me at a bar. We talked for a little while and I realized that he was Stephen King’s son, also a writer. Like the child burdened with the knowledge of a button he is not to touch I realized there was no way around it: sometime in the course of drinking with Stephen King’s son I was going to ask him some dumb-shit question about Stephen King.
I fell in love at first sight with a few current MFAers and prospectives, both men and women: those beautifully nervous and awkward souls devoted to making beauty from words. I definitely experienced the revelation one hears so much about regarding the benefits of an MFA in creative writing: the feeling of being surrounded by like-minded people. I was finally around men and women who wanted to use words to interrogate more than just the hijab as hijacker. I was fortunate in that the hardest part about my application experience was choosing which program’s offer to accept—an embarrassment of riches the likes of which I’m sure I’ll never see again. The April 15 deadline loomed on the horizon with something like the dread of having to break up with six groups of thirty-six people.
I decided to go with the University of Mississippi in the end, for many reasons. There are a lot of cool and talented people at Ole Miss, both emerging undergrads and hovering overgrads. Oxford has a pulse and a solid arts scene. Memphis is nearby. And, of course, the funding was definitely there. But the final factor guiding my decision was the feeling of being near family in Mississippi.
In Clarksdale, just an hour outside of Oxford, is an entire exhibit dedicated to my father at the Delta Blues Museum, along with a few people who spent their careers running into my father on the blues circuit.
I met my cousin Leroy Harrington for the first time the other day, 80 years old and still going strong over in Jackson, Mississippi. He laughed as he told me about the days when they used to call my father “Jackboot”; turns out everyone among my father’s Mississippi people know him only as “Little Jackboot.” About a month ago my father finally told me how it was that his mother died: she was murdered, shot by a jealous woman in a crime that the Macon police never saw worthy to investigate. Being in Mississippi, I am now in position to research county records and conduct on-the-ground interviews. There is the feeling that my true exploration of my roots—that this column itself—is just beginning. I now live just an hour away from where the Southern crossed the Dog.
At a bar in Oxford a series of old men leaned over to take me into beer-breathed confidence:
“I knew your father way back when. Watched him play in this bar many years ago, right over there. Tell your daddy I say hi.”
“Eddy Clearwater’s son, huh? Yeah, everybody knows The Chief. What’s that you’re here to do? Study how to create some writing?”
“I remember seeing your father on the cover of the first issue of Living Blues magazine.”
I finally settled on the question I wanted to ask.
“Does it ever feel off-putting when strangers come up to you asking you about your father? A feeling of being sort of invisible?”
He eyed me skeptically, probably thinking I was taking the piss out of him. Then he agreed to play ball.
“Yes,” Owen King said, “Sometimes, it does.”