Timshel: The MFA Dilemma

“But the Hebrew word, timshel—‘Thou mayest’—that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.” John SteinbeckEast of Eden


I’m wrestling with a decision. What’s happened is a good thing. It’s an opportunity. I’m not kvetching. I’m kveln. But it presents a dilemma, nevertheless. Ponder with me.

In December 2012, I applied to an MFA in Creative Writing program in Seattle, a process I chronicled here: The Things That Come in Threes. I didn’t know we would be leaving Seattle three months later.

In March 2013, the week we moved, I received an acceptance to the program. Returning to the city in six months for a two-year MFA wasn’t feasible and I had to say no. But I was invited to resubmit the same application for consideration for this academic year, so I did. You never know, right?

My present circumstances are no more logistically nor financially amenable to an MFA than they were last year, so when the second acceptance came through, the no had already formed on my lips. But the ante was upped. The admission offer included a scholarship that covers half the tuition. Kveln for sure. But what’s Yiddish for, Ah Jeez. Now what do I do? 

A couple of weeks ago I spent an afternoon-evening on campus, meeting the other Fall 2014 admits, current MFA students and faculty, attending a class, and reminding myself why this seemed like such an amazing idea eighteen months ago. I walked away inspired and excited, but after the glow wore off, I was left wondering if it still is an amazing idea. Not just this program. The whole notion of an MFA in Creative Writing.

I’ve been a runner for about thirteen years. I was a late starter to the sport, certain I’d be lousy at it. Then in 2001, I walked a full marathon. Or set out to. I ended up running a fair bit of it, simply to be done with the damn thing. It was November, it was Seattle, it was cold and wet and dark. I lost a toenail. My thighs were tree trunks after months of tedious training. I thought, “Never again.” I started running instead.

And I got into it. Process and method float my boat, so I learned how to talk fartleks and negative splits and tapers. I plan my weeks around hill repeats, tempo, and long-distance days. I track the number of miles I put into my shoes and replace them on a regular and expensive basis. I own more running bras then the regular kind. I have a watch that cost about a third of a plane ticket to Europe.

And I raced. Mostly half-marathons, several 10ks, a smattering of 5ks, a couple of triathlons. Because that’s what legit runners do. Why else would you run if you weren’t in training for something—had some goal goading you on?

About three years ago, the injuries set in. Every single flipping time I trained for a race, I got hurt. And I’d race anyway. I’d have to take a few weeks or months off post-race to heal, then I’d start training for another event, wreck something, race, and start the whole stupid cycle all over again. I just couldn’t seem to turn off the inner competitor, the one who said, this is what runners DO. You make training plans, you study, do the work, stick with the plan, meet your goal.

I’ve amassed a collection of injury-recovery resources: a boot to stretch out my plantar fascia; another boot for metatarsal stress fractures; there’s a stack of PT exercises for a weak psoas and over-worked hip flexors; ice packs that conform to various parts of the body; a big foam roller for fussy IT bands; a bar that looks like one half of a set of nunchucks to roll over tight calves; custom orthotics for my high arches and to compensate for a left leg that is a blink shorter than the right.

Good God, the hell I’ve put my body through. Why don’t I just find a different sport?

Because I love to run. And most of the time over these past thirteen years, running has been incredibly good to me. I run because it’s what I do.

But I think I’m through with racing. I can’t seem to train without hurting myself.

Thinking about this MFA, any MFA, makes me feel like I’m staring at a marathon training plan. I want to do it so badly, my teeth hurt. I want it because I want it. I want the badge, the medal, the plaque, the 26.2 sticker on my rear bumper (hey, I should have one of those anyway!). I want the MFA to show I had the discipline and the cojones to get through training, all the way to the main event. But I don’t need an MFA to be a writer. Any more than I need a marathon finisher’s shirt to prove I’m an accomplished runner.

To be a runner, I need to run. Check. To be a writer, I need to write. Check. Check. To be an author, I need to publish. Check. Check. Check. To make a living at this, I need to get paid. Alas, No Check. Okay, one small check so far.

The uphill climb: my route home, after running 13.1 © Julie Christine Johnson 2014

The uphill climb: my route home, after running 13.1 © Julie Christine Johnson 2014


There are many important and wonderful reasons writers seek MFAs. They are the same reasons that compelled me to apply to the program, that make my heart ache to say “Yes.” But for who this writer is now, none of the reasons is compelling enough to go into the kind of debt–even with a generous scholarship–that two years’ tuition and living part-time in Seattle would require. None is compelling enough to pull me from the pages that I’ve written, to defer me from my dream and determination to see my novels published.

Last Monday, I–like thousands of runners across the country–dedicated my day’s run to the Boston Marathon, to honor those killed and injured on April 15, 2013, and to support in spirit the runners setting out to fulfill a dream one year later. I intended to do my standard 5-6 miles. At some point, I decided to keep going. In the end, I ran 13.1. There was no finish line to cross, no shirt or medal to commemorate the effort, no bagels or banana or hot soup at the end. There was just my inner crazy person and my steady training to get me through a spontaneous half marathon on two cups of coffee.

I came home, propped up my weary legs, and I began to write. It was then I realized the same grit I’d used that morning to keep running was the same I’ve called upon to achieve my greatest dream–seeing my words reach a wider audience through publication. I’ve managed this far without the stamp of validation an MFA could give.

Let’s see how far my legs can carry me through the ultra-marathon I started when I wrote the first words of a novel. Now that I’ve got two behind me, I feel I’m just getting warmed up.

Hey, thanks for helping me get this sorted.  … Timshel. Thou Mayest. And Thou Mayest Not.

16 thoughts on “Timshel: The MFA Dilemma

  1. Maybe I’m biased, having just finished a class in short story writing with good teachers and a handful of MFAs and wannabes, but I think the decision to write rather than study is a good one. Your writing has passed the test of being published. Maybe it’s like a marathon. Good to learn how to run, but to finish the marathon, you have to run a lot. Period.


    • John, thank you so much for the perspective and the encouragement. I think it’s about finding the balance. I want the greatest mass of my time to be spent DOING the thing, with injections of classes/workshops/conferences to keep me engaged in a community, to jolt me with inspiration or new challenges. But you’re right- I think my way forward is a commitment to the page, not to a degree. Peace and great writing mojo to you! Julie


  2. Julie, This was an awesome blog. I could relate to your dilemma. I liked how you sorted out your choices to pursue an academic path as a writer vs. being a career writer as you were writing your blog. I love the running analogy. I believe as a writer we should follow our passions. Do and write about what excites us. It’s also wise to know ourselves and what is best for us in our lives. I like to study the craft of writing through classes and books, but that’s only going to take me so far The act of writing is where I will be exercising my imagination, my skills, my talent, and experiencing the tribulations and the exultations of following my inherit desire to tell a story and explore the inner workings of imaginary people and myself. I want to submerge myself in the world of writing. No matter what path we choose, each would have it’s benefits and it’s drawbacks. What’s important is you’ve chosen the choice that’s right for you at this time in your life and at this point in your career as a writer. Your opportunity to make this choice and to follow the path you’ve chosen and to take responsibility for that choice can serve to empower and to motivate your discipline as a writer. The act of sharing your crossroads and your process in deciding what road to take as a writer on your blog is both inspiring and empowering to me as your reader. Best Wishes in your journey as a writer.


    • Oh my heavens. I nominate you to be my spiritual advisor! Thank you for the beautiful words of support and encouragement and for drilling down to the marrow of my dilemma. I wish you grace, courage, and inspiration on your journey and I’m delighted to discover your blog. Warmest regards, Julie


  3. I’ve hovered over doing an MA but have never been in the same place for long enough. A friend did one, she finished it with a lot of contacts. But we are both still inching forward along the publishing trail. Go with what your gut tells you. 🙂 SD


  4. I wanted to encourage you to just grab the opportunity when I first started reading, but the more I read the clearer it became that you’re already an accomplished writer who’s clearly going places. Congratulations on coming to the right decision for you.


  5. We are who we say we are. If you write, you are a writer. Your work is the proof of your title, profession..whatever you want to call it … Academia is so often overrated … keep running on the track your on … write on I say!! 🙂


  6. I’ve wondered the same thing for myself. The money part and the time stops me. But you are already DOING this thing – you captured the interest of an agent AND a publisher at the conference you went to. I think it might be already happening for you. Whatever you choose, it will be the right thing. I really don’t think there’s a wrong answer here except to stop writing, which somehow I do not think you will ever do.


    • I think that’s it, Margaret. I’ve asked myself, “is it just the money that’s holding you back?” and I don’t think that’s it anymore. It’s stopping the flow-it would feel like an interruption. I’ve no doubt beautiful things could come of it, but I think I might actually be content where I am, and that’s huge in my peripatetic world.


  7. Dear Julie,

    I too was conflicted. When I started reading your blog I made the decision for you that you should accept the MFA offer. I’m 70 years old and have too many regrets on opportunities lost. However, having finished, I agree with you. Perhaps the degree is not the answer. You write wonderfully as it is. So forget the painful feet, knees, whatever and do what you do best which is to write.


    • Bob, thank you for taking this journey with me in the course of a blog post. I think I started and ended at the same places as you! I’m so grateful for your wisdom and counsel. And your kind, kind words.


  8. Wow Julie, I honour and admire your grit and determination. I’m happy to allow one of my characters to jog in the mornings, but feel no compunction to discover what it feels like for myself. Sometimes the imagination is enough!

    And sometimes we have to finally, truly listen to what our inner voices are screaming at us. I think you know where you’re going; maybe not exactly where you’ll end up, but you have a pretty good idea what the terrain is going to look like. You have the map, your heart is the compass; do you really need a GPS [MFA] as well? Sometimes we carry too much baggage on our trips!

    Still, I understand your dilemma – I too dream, yearn, want more than anything in the world to study for an MFA, but it ain’t going to happen for me, not in the next decade anyway. I wouldn’t dream of advising you what to do, except to say, you know, you really do. Trust yourSelf.


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