Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Moment I Got My MFA

I hadn’t expected to care that much about earning my Master of Fine Arts in creative writing degree. Sure, I felt pride for the two years I dedicated myself to the work. But, I didn’t think the three letters “MFA” on my résumé, the validation that I finished what I had started, or the brief ceremony at which I would wear the goofy “hood” would matter to me.

When the thirteen of us went backstage at Freeport High School on the night of Saturday, January 13, to dress in our academic regalia, my heart rate began rising. It wasn’t even related to the Eagles taking the lead over the Falcons. In fact, for probably the first time in my life, an NFL Playoff game was being played and it didn’t enter my awareness. I looked around the spacious and brightly lit room at my friends to whom I’d become so close. Some were dressing while others were already dressed and snapping selfies. All were smiling. That’s the thing about occasions that are bittersweet: the joy is overpowering until the end when the pain takes over.

I had been wrong about this ceremony not mattering to me.

Benjamin Rubenstein backstage before ceremony to receive Master of Fine Arts in creative writing
Jan. 13 at the Freeport Performing Arts Center at Freeport High School. Photo by Nikki Sambitsky.
Minutes later, we lined in alphabetical order. I had the honor of squeezing between Irish and Rollerbitch, whose husband was in the crowd on the other side of the curtain we were facing. “He put up with so much over the last two years,” Rollerbitch said.

She and I hugged. I would have said his time caring for their two young kids and four dogs while Rollerbitch isolated herself to write was over, but I hoped not. We were writers, which meant we would have to keep writing.

The line moved. “Walk slowly,” YouSeriouslyCan’tFormatThisThesis?, the administrator of our Stonecoast MFA program, said. “So you can take it all in.”

We walked out of the room we dressed in and right up to the purple curtain. We were standing on the wooden stage. The lighting was dark, so I focused my awareness. When Irish was next to walk to her seat, I thought about how fast the last two years flew. My first writing workshop in January 2016, when I was so overwhelmed, felt like it took place earlier that morning. Some teachers of writing say that every story is about either sex or death, and I realized this story was about death. I had just turned 34, and two of those years flowed together like one Alex Cross book into the next. All of a sudden, one-seventeenth of my life became two singular and connected moments with infinite related and unrelated moments in between.

Irish looked back at me and smiled. Then, she started walking, and I moved a few steps forward.

I imagined if I was 80 like my talented friend who had just taken her seat, time still wouldn’t matter. The moment was all that mattered, which meant the length of our lives didn’t matter because life itself was just one moment in time and not the accumulation of 16 or 34 or 80 years.

Sex or death.

My turn was next. I started walking, slowly, and took my seat next to Irish.

We heard speeches from some classmates; our dean; Justin Tussing, the director of our program; and Jim Kelly, our Hugo Award-winning teacher, who said that a good teacher hopes for his students to surpass him or her. Then, David Anthony Durham, another teacher who writes science fiction, took the stage. The students returned backstage and lined up again in alphabetical order before our final walk as non-masters.

David has a tradition at graduations of reading each student’s name and some lines from that student’s thesis. First up was our friend, CameInLikeAWreckingBall, who led us across the stage to receive our diplomas (or, really, a paper that basically says, “Your diploma is coming in the mail in six to eight months!”). This happened eight more times before David called Irish's name and read a line from her speculative fiction story about using human blood for ink.

I stepped forward once again. David said, “Benjamin Rubenstein.” I walked up three steps to the stage. Then, David read lines from the first chapter of the novel which I’m halfway through writing: “They believed in me. ‘You’re the man,’ Josh said. ‘Now go be the man and get us two packs of Black & Milds Original flavor.’”

My feet moved me towards the other side of the stage towards my sort-of diploma. Walk slowly, I thought, followed by, Don’t trip. My former teachers and classmates who will graduate over the coming two years cheered from their seats in the audience. Also from somewhere in the audience, a dog barked (long story). And, I took a mental snapshot of the feeling because I never wanted to forget that moment. It was was g-damn awesome.

Rollerbitch walked next, NotTheGreatestThesisFormatter walked after her, and then the dean spoke. “On behalf of the board of trustees and in accordance with the authority vested in me, I hereby proudly confer on each of you...your Master of Fine Arts in creative writing and all its honors, distinctions and privileges.”

Then, like a roller coaster that happened to last for two years, the moment was over.
That night, we drank tequila and celebrated, and the following day we trickled out of the Harraseeket Inn in Freeport, Maine, one at a time. CameInLikeAWreckingBall was the first to leave so he could care for his flu-stricken son back home in Portland. He wrote on our closed-group Facebook page, “This experience has been as formative and special as any in my life.”

I thought about his words on my way home to Arlington, Virginia, and all last week. What he said was true for me, too, but why?

Now, I understand. The joy of our experience at Stonecoast extends so far beyond the work, the three letters “MFA,” and any one particular moment. Stonecoast fostered a tight-knit community where we “get” each other in ways that people outside the community may not. In that regard, the Stonecoast community is similar to the young adult cancer community, which is remarkable since our journey to becoming writers is not a matter of life and death…just don’t tell Irish I said that because I like my blood.

So, here’s to my residency group at Stonecoast. We call ourselves Milk Pants Stonecoast Firsties, and soon enough you’ll know who some of us are.
Milk Pants Stonecoast Firsties
Milk Pants Stonecoast Firsties before graduating with our Master of Fine Arts in creative writing degrees. Missing from photo: Graveserenader, the already-famous member of our group.

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