I was keen to get into the MFA Creative Writing Program at Columbia. Overly excited, I raced up the campus steps, idolizing everything of the brilliant open space, sat in a long bright room and read through the hand-outs with a hundred other hopefuls. What a place, I thought. Wouldn’t it be great to be here.
The panel of faculty and administrators arrived and explained, “We are intensive and demanding, but it’s worth it in the end.” That seemed vague but still quite fine. I was sure they were right.People asked questions. “What’s the difference between a MFA in Creative Writing and a PhD with the same focus?” The panel looked at itself and finally offered, “I don’t know what a creative writing PhD is and since we don’t offer it, I would have to say that a MFA is better.”
A young woman then asked if she might be able to extend the program from two years to three years, in consideration of being a parent or having a job. “This would be very, very unlikely.” Translation: NO
Well, I thought, too bad for her. And one less person for me to worry about.
The administration concluded their remarks with this: “Writing isn’t a race. It’s a contest.” This got a nervous laugh.
The panel switched to a group of MFA students who made things much worse.
“There are lots of great programs out there. I mean, you can be in a cornfield, which is very nice, or you can be in New York, which speaks for itself. Where else can you go to MOMA on your day off?” He was on a roll. “The program at Columbia is lavish. I was just talking about artichokes with my professor. I really was. I feel like I have the golden Willy Wonka ticket and I have to wave it in the air.” His peers offered little more. “You’re totally tapped into that really rich network,” a narrow-faced girl gushed.
“It’s really amazing,” a recent, bearded graduate summated. “You’ll learn a ton of things.”
And then this anecdote was delivered, meant to be inspiring but having the opposite effect. “I was freaking about the cost. I mean, I couldn’t stop thinking about the money. And so I went to the director and told him about my stress, and he said, ‘You can leave, if you want.’ That’s when I realized I didn’t want to.”
“You can check out, but you can never leave.”
I wasn’t feeling as keen about all this, but nevertheless went down with the other hopefuls to listen to visiting writer, Ben Lerner, downstairs and watched a young couple whisper and kiss in the theater.
I read The Columbia Spectator; the cafeteria “received only ten violation points from the city”, while the football team had lost again, although “the margin wasn’t as bad as last year’s 69-0 blowout.”
I turned to the classifieds; the ads were sparse – a single apartment listing, just one thing for sale – and then a surprising focus on donors of eggs and sperm.Four of the thirteen ads, in fact, were of the egg and sperm variety, 31%. I thought about this as I watched the young couple suddenly left as Ben Lerner arrived to speak of the “vision of the virtual” and “the tragic limitation of words”. It was after his third use of fecund and dozenth citation of ekphrastic that it hit me. This was an egg factory of the future! Not only was this institution enticing the brightest of the bright, but it had the audacity to charge them into penury, forcing many to sell their eggs and sperm for the privilege! What evil genius!
“They want our eggs?!?”
I left, my coat and bags in a messy bunch, briefly scanning for the young lovers in the night, thinking that they must have made their escape from the compound, their eggs and sperm intact.