Update: I took this post down shortly after I posted it because of the overwhelming support I received from my MFA community and the encouragement to send it out for publication. Sadly, it’s been rejected thus far. However, I think it’s still the bee’s knees, so I’m reposting it now here.
As my career as an MFA student comes to a close this week, I’ve been thinking back over the major things I’ve learned from doing this program. What is low-residency? Where exactly in Florida is Tampa? Is there a depressingness limit in fiction, or can I just completely throw my characters under the bus all the time? While it’s true that my writing has grown and changed significantly in the past two years, my own character as a person has made what might be an even more noteworthy transformation.
When I started the University of Tampa Low-Res MFA, I was sick. I was fighting a crippling case of PTSD and social anxiety that made so many of the functions difficult to attend. So often, I knew there was nothing to be afraid of, but I would still be terrified. I had panic attacks during readings and heightened opinions during lectures that I awkwardly spurted out whenever I was certain it was reasonable enough to share. I was a big advocate of trigger warnings, and trigger warnings on everything. I thought they were necessary to create a safe space — and by that I mean an emotionally safe space where one is not subject to the terrors of trauma and able to talk but only when willing about said trauma. I wanted someone, anyone to take care of me and coddle me so that I could write and keep calm and not feel like my skin was going to crawl off my bones every ten minutes. I’m not sure I was pleasant to be around.
Trigger warnings are the internet hallmark of safety. They say, “We’re going to talk about heavy shit right now, so if you’re not down because of a past experience, that’s cool, but if you are then be kind.” For many people who are sick like I was sick, this is pivotal. This allows you to know what’s coming with enough advance that you can choose to opt out if you’re not up for it. I wanted those warnings so that I wouldn’t have to experience the kind of discomfort that could so easily lead to a panic attack. I was here to learn, after all, and if I couldn’t have a safe space to learn, then how would I ever function.
I really applaud my first two mentors for putting up with me, because I’ve come to realize after much reading, thinking and listening that safe spaces in school are the opposite of what I needed, and I think they might be the opposite of what most people need. I needed a place that was unsafe where I could be exposed to my triggers over and over again and still have a community to fall back on.
An MFA program is an inherently dangerous space for someone who lives on the line of a trigger warning. It is a hotbed of opinions, thoughts and lies, of lived experiences and family histories. It is a subtle but strong sense of community, like the subtle but strong caramel lattes they make at Oxford Exchange. In a low-res MFA like mine at UT, this is concentrated into short, electric bursts of residency that bring eighty-odd writers together for so few days, there’s hardly time to ever dislike anyone or form cliques. We talk politics almost as much as we talk craft, and we talk the politics of craft. Our peers write YA or science fiction or murder mysteries or anthropomorphic dogs, and through them all we engage in a commentary on the current state of American culture. Many people write rape stories. Many people write war stories. I can’t count the people in my program that have been at war, deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan, or even just living in the Middle East during the height of conflict–and they have stories to tell.
I remember that one of our evening readers in my first term read a story about war wherein a female journalist was brutally raped. The author was a faculty member, someone I have since gotten to know well and feel a paternal affection towards. At the time, though, I was working through the aftermath of both the abduction attempt when I was seventeen and the controlling and sexually abusive boyfriend I’d been with for some months in college. That story, which came with no trigger warning, sent me flying into such terrible flashbacks of being sexually assaulted that I was quickly in a complete panic attack. I quietly got up and left the room, then locked myself in a bathroom stall for twenty minutes until I had calmed down enough to go back.
The next day I found out that a huge group of women had taken offense to the story and walked out of the reading, and when I talked with those women, I totally understood it. I was right there with them, not an appropriate piece to read, not something that can be presented to an audience without some kind of forewarning, not this, not that. What it boiled down to, though, and what I didn’t yet hear, was “not for a man to tell the story of a woman being raped.”
We had a seminar later that week (was it the next day? I don’t remember) about writing the Other, and whether or not stories should be off-limits to people based on who they are. Did that author have the right to write that story about the journalist being raped? Yes, so long as he wrote it well. If we only ever write what we know, what characters are like us, how will we ever develop our skills as artists? How will we ever develop the empathy that is so essential to writing fiction? When we put things off-limits to other writers based on their sex or skin color, we chip away at the core humanity of the writing life.
Whereas before I’d felt an angry camaraderie with the other women who’d walked out of the reading, now I felt a deep sense of guilt. Had I left that reading because I didn’t want to let a man tell that story? What would that say for my feminism? No, I thought the writing was good and the characterization on point, but I was having a panic attack and needed to leave. By the time the next residency rolled around, the topic of the Other and readings and trigger warnings came up in my workshop group. We discussed what happened at that reading, and I shared about my panic attack. In that situation, I was sick and needed to take care of myself, but those women who weren’t, I decided, should have stayed. They should have been willing to engage with that topic and that reading. However, I still believed in trigger warnings, the good they could do, the safety they could provide.
I didn’t see how easily they become an escape from the conversation entirely. If that reading in my first term had come with a trigger warning, then perhaps some of those women who got up and left might not have bothered to come at all. Perhaps they would have used it as an excuse to avoid confronting difficult subject matter. Perhaps is a very big ocean, perhaps the reaction would have been the same or perhaps they would have all stayed, but something in me doubts it.
There were more readings that made me uncomfortable, more readings that I felt needed trigger warnings, but with each controversial assault-filled reading came an earnest conversation with somebody, different people and often in private, about warnings and safe spaces and whether or not they should be considered so pivotal. And what I noticed over time was that, without those trigger warnings, I was becoming less and less likely to flash back, less and less likely to panic whenever my triggers came up. I’ve even found myself to be much more greatly triggered by things that do have trigger warnings, the bold black TW now a sign that “Shit’s about to get real and we don’t really want you here if you’re not done dealing with your problems.” That trigger warning that I once saw as an invitation to engage in a safe discussion now became the most exclusionary text I encountered.
Now in my fifth and final residency at the UTMFA, I realize how important it was for me to be in an academic program without trigger warnings, where nobody else was going to take care of me. I definitely received empathy and sympathy from faculty and peers alike, but even in my early terms when I thought I needed it, nobody ever coddled me. Nobody ever willingly let me disengage. I can see now that academia, MFA programs, my MFA program are inherently unsafe spaces, and that they need to be in order to teach writers how to grow.
Safe spaces are essential for the healing process, but school can’t be that place, and you can’t expect school to be that place. And you certainly can’t expect or ask others to not trigger you in any way, shape or form at all, which is what I wanted going into my first term. If you do, how will you or they ever learn the empathy required of a good writer? And how will you ever heal?