Reading in Bars Is the MFA I Never Knew I Needed


Picture courtesy of my friend Jonny Arcilla. When asked what he thought of Live Lit he answered, “It’s a lot better than I though it would be.” That’s a glowing review right there.

After my first attempt at grad school ended up being a letdown, I hemmed and hawed about getting an MFA in creative writing. I’m still hemming and hawing, to be honest. The reasons why I haven’t pulled the trigger are many: academic fatigue, my desire for more work experience, the tedious application process, my low tolerance for dealing with lit snobs and the cost…oh my, the cost! The reasons for why I haven’t completely discarded it are just as varied. In the meantime, while my hesitant mind kept going back and forth on the subject, my vulnerable heart fell deeply into Chicago’s Live Lit scene. And recently it’s become apparent that reading stories in bars in front of strangers is giving me some of the benefits I was looking for in an MFA program.

Let’s start with deadlines. I’m the flakiest of flakes when it comes to my own needs and desires, but give me an authority I’m forced to yield to and I’m the busiest bee in the whole factory. It’s why I’ve always been a terrific student. I yearn for that shiny gold star, the big red A+, the pat on the head for handing in work in the time alloted. A hard set deadline is the engine that puts all that in motion. I’ve never been more prolific than at this moment, when I can’t back out of my show commitments. It’s true that other projects are sometimes put on pause to fulfill them but the alternative usually is me ignoring my laptop for long stretches of time. Believe me, I’ve tried cutting back on storytelling in order to focus on things like novel manuscripts. It doesn’t work. I thrive when I have 50 things to do, not 1.

As for feedback, there is nothing like the cold silence of an audience to let you know that your little darlings must be killed, chopped up, and buried to never be heard from again. Terrifying? Well, the other side of that coin is hearing their comforting laughter or that almost astral energy emanating from your cells when they’re in the presence of friendly bodies that are mesmerized by everything you have to say. The question of whether a piece works or doesn’t is answered swiftly, directly and unequivocally. No polite rejections or approvals.

When it comes to networking–that dreaded word which evokes the awkwardness of forced socialization with the sleaze of backroom negotiations–, Live Lit is the only kind that doesn’t make me feel like an inept mafioso. The art form allows for a sense of community. You are, after all, sharing honest and intimate details about your personal life. For the most part, you’ve aired your dirty laundry before you properly introduce yourself to other storytellers. Telling strangers about the time I sneaked into a club during my senior trip or ranting about the trials of having a strange name has opened up more opportunities than my credentials or my (tiny) number of publications.

Will I ever go the traditional route? I don’t know. Probably not any time soon because there are other goals I want to pursue that don’t allow for the kind of stability needed to finish a degree. For now, I’m perfectly content ordering a beer, going up to that mic and telling a story.