Students ask whether or not they should get a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing in order to become a writer and I say Absolutely not. No MFA writing program will make you a writer. Only you can do that. If you’re serious about writing, an MFA might be right for you. But, I suggest asking yourself a few more questions about your own life before filling in the application.
After college, I didn’t go to an MFA program; I just wrote. Michelle and I were involved in the politics of the time—it was the 1980’s, Central America was in the center of the news. I was in an M.A. program in English literature, a truly worthless degree on the market today, I don’t think many colleges offer them anymore. But it wasn’t worthless, not for me; that program, the in-depth study of literature, taught me to read deeply.
After graduation, I applied to Ph.D. programs and got into one by the skin of my teeth. We had also applied for work in Nicaragua, during the Sandinista-Contra war. The job was to report on Contra atrocities against civilians. It was either more academic studies, or grassroots work. We got the Nicaragua job and took it. And that, as old Mr. Frost would say, made all the difference.
I moved to Central America for personal as well as political reasons. That region is one of my roots, one that I didn’t know as well as I needed. I plunged myself into my own culture, one that I had lost living in Gringolandia. Revolutionary Nicaragua ignited the Latino in me. There is simplicity in revolt, clarity, I know what I must do. I was drinking coffee in a village in northern Nicaragua, sitting on a chair in front of a friend’s adobe shack, her name was Mercedez. She was a true Sandinista revolutionary and a lover of Castro. Michelle and I had been living in her country about six months. I said to Mercedez, “I just want to write. Nothing more.” And she, being Nicaraguan and thus a genetic lover of poetry, said “Go for it.”
And there was so much to write about! Michelle and were walking along a mountain road when a battle between the Sandinistas and Contras broke out in the valley just below us. Tracer bullets: I still see them, those intermittent red hot projectiles that burn bright so the solder can see where he’s shooting. Hundreds of tracers flicked across the valley from both sides. We couldn’t see the soldiers because of the brush and forest. But those tracer bullets still cut across my vision; and the blasts of automatic rifles pop in my ears.
Once, we walked toward a village that the Contra had burned down. We got lost, which is really a stupid thing to do in a war zone. It was early morning, around seven. We sat on a rock and drank water from a canteen. Blue sky, the sun was just coming up; it was quiet, I don’t remember making a noise, but those parrots, oh—they were hiding in the brush just below the lip of the dirt road. They burst into flight, in a flat formation; it looked like a giant green flag swooped over us, with two hundred specks of red on each beak and yellow tips on their wings.
I have watched children die of worms. I have placed them in their coffins and nailed the lid shut. Babies who died before their first birthday, nameless, because the poor know there’s a good chance the kid won’t make it to one, so, why give him a name? I have watched Mayan old men plant multicolored candles on graves, with the four colors of corn scattered over the loose dirt, and dance and pray in Q’eqchi’ for the soul of the murdered man to reach Mayan heaven whole, and not like the machete-wielding death squad had left them.
Had I gone on to get that Ph.D., or had I decided to get an MFA in creative writing, I’m sure I would have found happiness. But I wouldn’t have found myself. I wouldn’t be able to speak, or read, or write, or publish, fluent Spanish. I would have little to no understanding about the suffering and survival of the poor and the oppressed, which, the moment I write that, I cringe.
Later, I did get an MFA. It was not at all the high point in my life. It was a strange place, after having lived in Latino worlds for so long. I’m glad I went; but it wasn’t fun; in fact, sometimes it was downright painful. Those two years studying creative writing was ruined, I suppose, by a life fully lived. More on that in upcoming essays.