Of Students, Faculty, and Post-MFA Expectations by Lisa Romeo

While attending a low residency MFA program, I fell a little too much in love with my faculty mentors. The on-site residencies encouraged students and faculty to eat together and to travel together from hotels to the residency location, so a certain kind of beyond-the-workshop-table camaraderie developed. My genre, creative nonfiction, had relatively few students starting together each semester, the overall program wasn’t huge either, and this, coupled with frigid January weather in Maine that kept us all huddled together near fireplaces, meant a family-like atmosphere prevailed.

My mistake was thinking that would continue after graduation.

Yes, I’m still in cordial if sporadic contact with several faculty members (though not the ones I would have guessed), and some have been extra kind and generous in helping me develop my post-MFA writing career. We’ve met up at conferences, they’ve given glowing references, and most recently, provided positive endorsements for my forthcoming book.

But for several years I was sad, and sometimes even a little bit angry, that this wasn’t the case with all of them.  Hadn’t they all cheerily commanded us (okay, at the post-graduation party where wine was flowing), to “keep in touch”? Weren’t they always telling stories about former students who now sounded like friends?

Partly, my disappointment stemmed from the natural post-MFA letdown, as the little family of in-real-life supporters and literary taskmasters I’d so lovingly watched coalesce around me, vanished from my calendar. Sure, Facebook and email kept some of us virtually connected, but after such an intense couple of years, there was bound to be let-down, as they moved on to new students, and I went—home.

At first, I tried keeping in regular touch with faculty members who, post-MFA, I mistakenly began to think of as peers, or at least equally interested friends. But as overtures went unreturned, I had to admit that I’d gotten it wrong; at a masterclass given at a conference by one of my former MFA professors, he couldn’t recall that I’d ever been his student.

Five years went by, more. Meanwhile, my MFA peers—students across all genres, with whom I’d gone through the program—grew into the strongest, most diverse, satisfying, wonderful and on-going community of friends, both virtual and in person. This, I came to see, was the real and perennial fruit of the MFA tree.

But then something occurred that altered my perspective about those faculty mentors: I was teaching in an MFA program myself, and had the true, real, and wonderful pleasure of watching a class of students—whom I’d worked with from the start—graduate. Then, the next year, another graduation, and the following year, another. I was beginning to understand that part of my role, my responsibility even, was not to become every graduate’s friend, and not to encourage continuation of the teacher-student role.

Sure, it’s been fun to connect on social media with former students I helped nurture as a teacher, and it’s lovely to run into them on occasion. But to maintain my energy for current students, the alumni-mentor relationship must evolve. Sometimes, some faculty-student pairings need time apart after such an intense few years. Time is a factor, too. Like most who teach, I’m working multiple gigs, and like my students, clearing time and mental space for my own writing.

Then, there is simple arithmetic. When I add up MFA students, undergraduates, and non-academic writers I’ve taught, I see how impossible it would be to keep up. I recently ran into a former student at a restaurant, and drew a complete blank. In the moment, I was mortified; later I knew it would happen again. And I’ve been teaching only eight years. What of my own MFA mentors, some with decades of teaching, meaning hundreds, maybe thousands of students in their wake?

Post-graduation, dynamics must shift. Yes, I’m still my former students’ cheerleader; just this year, I recommended one for an editing job (she got it), one for a teaching gig (she’s interviewing), connected another with a post-grad internship (not that time, but oh well). But I also know that in most cases, I need to push those little birdies out into the wider literary world and encourage them not to look backward toward the nest.

Now I see the pattern of my own interactions makes sense. I’ve kept in closer than usual touch with two former MFA mentors—one who recruited me for my MFA teaching job and another who has repeatedly recommended me for writing gigs and other opportunities. These are, I now know, professional relationships, not friendships, though we’re friendly and we like one another. But they are exceptions.

The MFA workshop leader who once pushed me so far, I was sure I’d fall into an abyss—and then caught me just as I discovered what I was capable of: he and I are in occasional touch, but we are not pals. But here’s the thing: we’re not foes either. We’re fellow literary professionals—he with a lot more experience, me still with a lot to learn, but catching up—but we are, always, teacher and former student, and we need not be drinking buddies to be supportive. When I emailed him not long ago to ask if he’d read my book manuscript, he couldn’t have been more gracious, and his blurb is one of my favorites. I’m grateful, I know he knows it, and I’ll be happy to reciprocate in some way at some future date.

Time has demonstrated that it’s fine not to be in regular affectionate touch with most of the MFA faculty members. They’ve already fulfilled their obligations as teachers, motivators, and supporters, and that’s enough. They were the people from whom I learned so much, whose intense gaze on my work over weeks or months or two full years forced the growth that I hadn’t ever thought possible. Now approaching ten years later, if we’re sometimes in touch, that’s just an extraordinary bonus.

Lisa Romeo

Lisa Romeo is the author of Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir of Love after Loss, (forthcoming from University of Nevada Press, May 2018). Her work is cited in Best American Essays 2016 and has been published in the New York Times, O The Oprah Magazine, Brevity Journal, Under the Sun, Full Grown People, and many other places. Lisa is thesis director for Bay Path University’s MFA program. Visit her website.