Your Family Away From Home

Your Family Away From Home

Half of my cohort meeting for the first time at a GSO-hosted event.

Half of my cohort meeting for the first time at a GSO-hosted event.

So you made it! You’re in a new MFA program, you’re meeting new people, and you may even be in a new city. It’s fun and exciting and fast – until you realize you’re starting this new chapter of your life, and you don’t know a single person, and you have major writer’s block and do I even like the snow? 

Well, that was at least how it was for me when I started the program last Fall. I moved from Texas – my mom and I traveled the entire 19-hour drive in two days – and I had so much momentum to get going. We moved all of my stuff into my tiny studio apartment, then she left, and I was so pumped.

But then the momentum wore off. In fact, I felt like I was going backwards to an extent. I was in the city a month early, so I thought I’d for sure have time to stock up on some writing before the semester began, you know, have fresh material in my pocket for that first day of workshop. But I couldn’t write a single thing. I tried prompts, dream journaling, exploring a park for that creative spark – nothing helped. There were only  a few days before the semester started, and I began to panic.


Here is my blank word document from that first month before classes started.

Turns out, I shouldn’t have been worrying. When my cohort and I all met outside of our workshop classroom on that first day, I found out a lot of them hadn’t been able to write either because of nerves or time constraints or what-have-you. My relief was palpable. Already these people got me. And it helped that they had all uprooted their lives to come to Chicago, too. It was like dominoes – one thing after another that we all had in common.

Through that first semester, we were shy, like most people thrust into a new environment with new people and a new set of goals. But slowly, just as the weather started to cool, we started to warm up to each other. We put together meet-ups at coffee shops, just to hang out. We planned “Pie Parties” in the fall so those of us that couldn’t go to our respective states for Thanksgiving would feel more at home. Almost every Wednesday night we traversed from the classroom to the Harrison “L” station, laughing and giddy from that post-workshop high.


I wrote some of my favorite pieces during that semester. Specifically during one of the Saturday afternoons when a handful of us met at one of our apartments, intermittently chatting and writing. It made writing fun, and as any writer will admit, sometimes writing is miserable. You have to find those people that push you to do it, and then make it fun when you’re finally doing it. Finding people that also provide you with coffee and snacks when you’re writing is a plus, too. (In fact, demand it from them!)

I guess what I’m trying to get at is: your cohort can become your family away from home. They may have a lot of different interests than you, but you all share the passion for writing. You all love books, too, because good writing comes from frequent reading. So start there. I love nerding out with my cohort over literature and short stories and movie adaptations, etc. etc. etc. But those conversations inevitably lead to other things, like hobbies, and home life, and significant others, and maybe even sports! (My cohort usually just tolerates my sporty side with endearing smiles and blank nods, but maybe you’ll have more luck ;) )



Casual BBQ on one of our balcony porches in April.

So take advantage of these people you’ve been put together with! Start a Facebook group and add everyone. Exchange phone numbers. Follow each other on social media platforms. Invite each other to readings and events around the city. Do it all. I promise the bonds you form will fuel and support you through the entire program. If you need encouragement, they’ll give it. Feeling blue? They’ll cheer you up. Missing home? They’ll give you familial comfort so sincere you’ll wonder how it is that you’ve only just met each other.

Even if you’re not as sentimental as I am, it’s great to be close with your cohort. At the very least, your work will thrive from the relationship with them – even if it’s purely an academic one. They’re here at Columbia because they’re smart and have a knack for writing. Trust their opinions and comments.

Good luck, and have fun!