Encounters in Publishing #73: When an MFA Brings Tears

The first time I cried in public, I was on the 6 going uptown just pulling into the Bleecker Street stop.

It was the summer of 2012—my first New York City summer, sandwiched between my two years of grad school in Los Angeles—and I was blissfully ignoring the question that was so quick to fall off people’s lips.

What are you going to do with an MFA in Creative Writing?

At nearly 24 years old, I was happy just interning in Brooklyn at a literary magazine, reading Ginsberg on the subway and hanging out in the New York of Edith Wharton, Joan Didion and Betty Smith.

I wrote a lot that summer in that hot, humid and entirely gross city. I wrote in coffee shops and in apartments as the humidity glued itself on my skin, the smell of trash floating around during the night. But I loved it; especially rooftop nights with a glass of white wine, Burroughs on my lap and you.

I spent many nights working on my collection of short stories that were to be my thesis, as the characters I had given birth to slowly started to look a lot like you.

But then a question fell off your lips—Will you move to New York after you’re done with your MFA?—just five days before I was to board a plane back to the West Coast, and I knew my luck of crying in private had ran out. That was when you left me alone on that train, and I swear you must’ve hesitated for a second not wanting to go, but I just shook my head and the doors closed behind you, leaving my alone with only your scent to remind me not to write about it.

The second time I cried in public was during the winter of 2014.

I had finished my MFA by then—my collection of short stories somehow had morphed into a novella after my willingness to follow my characters throughout their life—and I was living in New York, working as a writer and editor in midtown.

It was February 5, and the polar vortex was relentless, trapping me in a tunnel beneath the city on my way to work. But that night, I found myself on a bus while the snow was coming down so hard, it was painful to cry—even more painful to breathe. I was on the M86 going from Yorkville to the Upper West Side, having just left your apartment with red wine spilled all over your rug as I muttered, “I just need to think about us.”

The only thing on my mind during that bus ride home was the question I kept hearing throughout my two years in grad school.

What are you going to do with an MFA in Creative Writing?

All I knew at that moment was no matter how many short stories I wrote or how much fiction I published, there could never be enough written words to take away the pain I caused you—and I knew then what an MFA in Creative Writing was not.

I’ve landed in London since the last time I cried.

I came for a job where the question, What are you going to do with an MFA in Creative Writing? begs for the answer: I’m going to heal my soul.

The lack of literary writing during the week makes me happy, as I get to write for you on the weekends—because you still very much live inside my heart. And while I now hear a reincarnation of that question (You have an MFA in Creative Writing and work in the financial industry?) I don’t mind. Because the best thing about working in this sector is that I get to write for a living—just not about you. I don’t have to ink words of forgiveness for all those pens I’ve marked with your memory.

Leaving fiction for the weekend has opened another chapter in my life. I’ve started to dabble in personal essays, in creative non-fiction. And non-fiction is another kind of haunting; the king that lives where I live.

In case you were wondering, at nearly 27 years old, I haven’t cried in London yet.

Not in public, anyway.

Descended from Asia Minor Greeks and the Hellenes of Egypt, Neni Demetriou is a fiction writer who fell in love with New York City after living in Los Angeles for two years. She’s currently living in London and working on her novella, ‘I Have Angered Poseidon,’ while tweeting @iNeniSpencer.