An Accident Paid Off My MFA Debt

Just over a month before I entered the graduate writing program at The New School I was struck by a car as I stepped into a crosswalk on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Along with minor abrasions, my left ear was mangled beyond repair, and as I faced a handful of surgeries in the months and years ahead, I worried how these might affect my expensive education. I would plan each surgery around a break from school so that I could miss the least number of classes possible. At the time this was how I connected grad school to my accident, along with the knowledge that I would have to get the hell over it; I had an M.F.A. dream to fulfill.

Prior to this I’d spent the better part of my twenties living out the cliché of a city-dwelling writer: post undergrad, pre-grad school, working odd jobs and rarely finding time to write but still wondering why I wasn’t being published. I’m embarrassed to admit that it took me a few years to realize one very simple truth: no one is going to publish the book you haven’t written. I waitressed in a bar and I drank too much. I pushed my relationship to the brink of its demise, dodging, all the while, the question of when I was going to grow up and get a real job.

Every writer knows better than to take out loans to pay for an M.F.A. program. Loans are illogical. The degree is unnecessary. Loans are going to put us into debt for the rest of our lives. This logic, however, is not often the strong suit of a writer, and fortunately for graduate programs everywhere, most of us do take out the loans, maintaining a complex belief that only the incessantly rejected writer can know, that with this loan and this program, I will be the exception.

A friend from grad school recommended I read Ann Patchett’s new book This is the Story of a Happy Marriage while on my honeymoon. This essay collection explores how it is that Patchett herself became a writer. A woman over 20 years my senior, Patchett’s earliest opportunities pre-existed the time of online publishing for the masses. Her early nineties recommendation that an aspiring writer get her start at Vogue has my millennial eyes widened by an imagined red flashing sign in the doorway advertising unpaid opportunities.

In “The Getaway Car,” an essay about writing, Patchett reminds us of the dangers of M.F.A. programs. I chuckled to myself then read it to my spouse when I got to Patchett’s line, “No one should go into debt to study creative writing. It’s simply not worth it. Do not think of it as an investment in yourself that you’ll be able to recoup later. This is not medical school.” I already knew this going into my application process. I realized I was throwing money away for an expensive and frivolous dream. For reasons I have always known but could never quite convey, it was imperative to me as a writer and a human to experience a graduate writing program. This has been a goal of mine since I was a teenager taking extracurricular writing courses and regularly submitting to Teen Ink. There was never a question of whether I was talented enough or whether I even had anything to write about, there was simply the drive to do it. I would write and I would learn to write at the highest level. In my adolescent mind an M.F.A. would make me a master, and I subscribed to the notion that such a label would help me to believe in my own abilities.

As winter approached in 2010, after the years of random freelance jobs, working as a nanny and maintaining that waitressing gig I kept promising to quit, I was ready to apply to a graduate program. I was settled in New York and did not want to move; therefore my options for a nonfiction program were limited. If I didn’t make it into one of the available few, my dream would have to go into storage for a while.

I was rewarded an itsy bitsy scholarship from The New School upon my acceptance to their M.F.A. program. I took it as a sign of fate that this small sum of money and my emotional readiness had aligned at just the right time. Like waving a 5% Off coupon to purchase a new leather couch, it wouldn’t be much, but my savings gave me validation. I accepted.

I visited the financial aid office twice while I was a student. My first visit was early in the summer before I entered the writing program. I sat with a counselor to go over my financial aid options, and took her advice on how best to apply for loans. I was going into this whole loan thing blindly, as I’d been fortunate enough that my parents paid for my undergraduate education at Emerson College. In undergrad I had their financial support. In grad school I had their blessings.

One year into my two-year program I boarded a bus in midtown as I answered a call from my lawyer. I didn’t like him. Just making reference to having a lawyer made me feel sleazy, but the hospital social workers had insisted this was the best way to ensure my medical costs would be covered. On this particular call the subject was settlement money. I admitted to him, my lawyer, that I had no idea how to decide whether or not to accept. It wasn’t a great deal of money, but there were two things I knew for certain: the money would cover the entire cost of graduate school and I wasn’t sure that I could withstand the stress of a trial. I strained to hear his rehearsed lines. I eyed my fellow passengers. Cell phones on the bus are a pet peeve of mine and so I made a hurried decision as I moved to find a seat in the back. “I’d like to settle,” I told him before ending the call and slipping the phone back into my pocket.

A check arrived not long after that conversation and once I’d deposited it into my bank account I took my second trip to the financial aid office on 5th Avenue near Union Square. The counselor eyed me incredulously as I asked his advice on the best way to pay off my student loan, in full, as soon as possible. I felt my heart beat quick as I made the call that afternoon, “I’d like to make a payment,” I spoke to the female on the end. “Great, and for how much would you like to make that payment?” I smiled unintentionally when I replied, “The entire remaining balance.” Without a “wow” or a gasp, or any surprise whatsoever, she took my debit card information and I made a payment for $31,381.88.

My friends from grad school were careful with dispensing the word “lucky” when we discussed the possible benefits of my misfortune. “Well, now you have some great material,” they’d say, or “Well at least you got to pay off your student loans. Such a silver lining.” I was married a few months after graduating from The New School and I was relieved to enter debt-free into my union. I think back to when I took out those loans a few years ago and I wonder if things do happen for a reason. Don’t get me wrong; getting hit and maimed by a car was one of the worst things that has ever happened to me, the results of which have changed my life profoundly, in ways I may not even discover until years from now, but I am a struggling writer without a steady income. I hate that I am financially reliant on my spouse. I don’t know what I was thinking when I took out nearly fifty thousand dollars in student loans.

Chad Harbach, a writer who received his M.F.A. at the University of Virginia, published an essay—now a book—on the conflicting culture of the American literary scene. In MFA vs. NYC, Harbach insists that “MFA programs themselves are so lax and laissez-faire as to have a shockingly small impact on students’ work—especially shocking if you’re the student and paying $80,000 for the privilege.” I consider my own lax program. I consider an entire thesis semester in which we were not required to enroll in a single class. I consider the opportunities that the school offered its students, almost all of which were optional.

My M.F.A. experience was the Hail Mary pass that I needed it to be. In my late twenties I was able to refocus my professional aspirations and gain tools to help me achieve my goals. I became a better writer, a better reader, and a better woman. This happened because I forced myself into situations in which I had to interact with other writers. Among my professors and fellow students I was in a place—both physically and theoretically—in which we all had a similar goal. I took out student loans that I expected to be paying off for the rest of my life, and I would do it again.

I have friends from the graduate program, of course, who also took out loans. They did not get hit by cars and receive monetary settlements out of court. They too are struggling writers who are either not getting paid or are getting paid to work jobs unrelated to creative writing. Some of them regret taking out loans. Some do not. Most of us are hopeful that with time and diligence we may be able to make careers out of our unpaid writing opportunities.

For most of my life I’ve been doing things without worrying too much about the consequences. Going to grad school was one of those things. When my parents asked me how I would pay off the loans I shrugged, “I’ll figure it out.” If things do happen for a reason, it’s only in the past few years that I’ve learned the trade-off is not always fair.

If I could go back in time, knowing what I do now, I would make some minor changes. I wouldn’t have stepped into the crosswalk that afternoon. I would carry my debt and complain about the constant rejection, the lack of paid opportunities and the massive loans lurking in the shadows of my life. Chad Harbach makes a case that “MFA programs today serve less as hotbeds of fierce stylistic inculcation … and more as an ingenious partial solution to an eminent American problem: how to extend our already protracted adolescence past 22 and toward 30, in order to cope with an oversupplied labor market.”

As I approach 30 with few paid opportunities on the horizon I’m inclined to agree with him. Ann Patchett urges us, wisely, to heed her advice. “If you plan to roll the dice, thinking, Well, surely I’ll get a big book contract at the end of two years that will cover the loan I’ve taken out, the chances are excellent it’s not going to happen.” She’s right. You probably won’t get hit by a car either. But you might.

 

 

Laura Leigh Abby is a freelance writer and blogger at 2Brides2Be.com. She lives in New York City with her wife and their two Pomeranians.

Photo by: Aaron

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7 Comments / Post A Comment

guenna77 (#856)

do not EVER feel ‘sleazy’ or bad about going to a lawyer and enforcing your rights. the biggest difference between haves and have-nots is that the haves use ‘agents’ – aka, experts acting for them: the lawyers, accountants and business managers – and have no bones about their agents getting every single penny for them that they can.

Poubelle (#2,186)

@guenna77 Seriously. I got to that part and was like, “why are you feeling sleazy? You’re not the one who hurt a person with their car.”

facepalm (#4,409)

@guenna77 Bravo I couldn’t agree more and think you just nailed it with this comment.

beastlyburden (#6,122)

I dropped out of an MFA program because I couldn’t deal with the mounting debt. I’m still not sure how I feel about it. Some days, I really regret saying no to that particular set of hopes–especially when I hear about old classmates who are doing fun writerly things, like publishing or fellowshipping or teaching. Other days, I feel incredibly grateful for my cozy, conventional life, in which there’s always enough money for my needs and wants.

yulya (#1,996)

thank you for writing this! I’m sorry to hear about your accident. I was in a similar situation and my settlement could pay for grad school a few times over, but my program is the kind where they (miraculously!) pay me to be here.
I’m so very glad you were able to use the money to get what you needed for yourself. I’m trying to come to terms with doing that also, but everything seems simultaneously so trivial and so big. so worthy and so undeserved.

jquick (#3,730)

The author sure likes to write. This is a very long article to convey a short message.

I never comment on the internet, but felt compelled to create this account after reading this piece a couple times with a bad taste in my mouth. I fear that if I dig into the specifics of bugs me about this narrative, I’ll just end up making what will read as personal attacks on the author, and that’s the last thing I want. What I DO want, however, is to throw out a few points in defense of “sleezy” personal injury attorneys everywhere.
1)You, as a non-corporate entity, have the deck stacked against you. If you are injured, be it car accident, slip and fall in the grocery store, or plugging in an exploding toaster oven, you’re going to be getting a lot of heat from insurance companies whose job it is to make sure your pain does not cost them one penny more than can be wrested from their tight grasp. A lawyer runs interference. We keep people from talking to you while you’re recovering, and we act as experienced intermediaries to try to keep you from getting shaken down when you’re at your most vulnerable.

2)Your lawyer works for you. You call the shots. If you don’t understand what’s going on, ask your lawyer to explain it. If your lawyer doesn’t explain it well, ask again. If you don’t like how your lawyer treats you, *find a different lawyer.* This is complicated stuff, and you are entitled to understand what’s going on. Your lawyer’s job is to negotiate for you and, if you decide to, go to court for you. Your job is to communicate with your lawyer. We can’t represent your interests if you don’t communicate your interests. Even the best of us cannot read minds. Probably.

3)When I present a settlement offer to a client, they are seeing a sheet of paper with a bunch of numbers on it (“$X to Dr. Y, Z, etc…”), and they are often eager to get to the last number on the line (“When the above payments have been made, your settlement amounts to $.”). What they may not realize is that each of those numbers represents a great deal of man hours from myself, the other attorneys in the office, and our support staff- calling hospitals to keep bills out of collections, negotiating with doctors to reduce your bill, sometimes reducing our own fees to make sure you have something in your pocket to show for your pain and suffering. The bulk of my day is spent wrangling medical fees and trying to persuade insurance adjusters that their computer-generated estimate of what your pain is “worth” is not sufficient. There’s a lot of back in forth in there that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. It’s tedious, it’s infuriating, and we live for the days when we can call the single mom with two kids to tell her that her check is finally in and she can breathe easy about this month’s rent.

4)As in any profession, there are going to be bad apples. Maybe they’re bad people, maybe they’re bad at their job, or maybe they’re just bad at communicating. Whatever the reason, they’re not great representatives of the career. It’s unfortunate that attorneys seem to have so many of these (or at least more vocal examples of these), but most of us want to do a good job for our clients- we just might need a little help on your end.

TL;DR, not all lawyers are bad and you’re not a bad person for getting compensated for your injuries!

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