The Master Of Fine Arts

by Jonathan Padua


To show: On the first day of workshop the first thing the professor explains is that in true literature there are no happy endings. There can be bittersweet endings. There can be tragicomic endings. Most certainly there will be sad endings.

To tell: No gets out of this program alive.


Struggle with duality.

You must open up your soul. Your heart must be unlocked and eviscerated, mined for nuggets of truth and sorrow, the bloody remains left for carrion birds. Every memory must be recalled, molested, touched in unwanted ways. Here’s an important lesson in contrast: there is a sinister meaning under every sunny image, a sunny meaning under every sinister image.

You must harden your soul. Every secret put to paper will be scrutinized. Your classmates will snicker. In red ink will appear the words, Fake! Not buying it! So pointless! You must bare your teeth like a cougar, drip saliva onto the page, and rewrite.


In seminar, the professor poses the question, What is the duty of the writer?

A blonde woman from Texas speaks loudly, It is to marry art and commerce into something that the public will buy in mass quantities.

You love her more than anyone else in the program. In workshop, she gives you flippant, derisive comments on the stories you submit. What your stories really need, she writes in her responses, is more space aliens. Why don’t you do more space aliens? When you speak to her after class, who are you and how did you get from there to here? she blows cigarette smoke in your eyes, the sting of it excruciating, exquisite.

Baby, oh baby. Yes. Material.

December, January

Go home for winter break. Get stoned by yourself on the balcony of the second floor of your house, exhaling blue smoke into the blue twilight. Under the glow of Christmas lights, you feel five again, loose limbed and pliant, stupidly giddy with the scent of pine in the air. Smile in your sleep. On New Year’s Eve you kiss no one, not even your own ass goodbye as you head back to school, back to that frozen urban tundra, back to that workshop.

February, March

A classmate introduces you to post-modernism.

It is a disembodied fist on a dirt road, index finger protracted, pointing towards the sunset, like a compass, like an accusation.

It is a broken light bulb lodged in a ceiling too high to reach.

It is during workshop when the woman from Texas dumps the contents of her purse onto the table, a compact, a tube of balm, a wallet as fat and heavy as a brick, faded receipts and gummy bills fluttering down like dirty secrets, her screaming across the room, This, this is what your stories look like!


It is the cruelest month.

In the darkness, in the glow of your laptop, read the news and expand your grief:

Bacteria and viruses are getting smarter. The sun is more cancerous. The weather is apocalyptic. A famous author publishes a book about people eating, gasp, other people.

Everywhere, across borders and skins, people are dying unjust deaths.

When people ask about your well-being say, Research.


The best you have: A man falls asleep and falls in love with his dream, unsure of which world he has created and which he has left behind. It’s lofty and indulgent and narcissistic and the worst part is, you fucking love it. Call it a memoir.

June, July, August

Back home, your father parades you to his friends like prized livestock, like rare jewelry. My son is going to be a doctor, he says, and when you try to correct him, try to explain the dull intricacies of your degree, this Master of Fine Arts, he pinches you in the side.

Later you tell him, I’m not going to be a doctor, dad.

What? he says. Something inside him deflates. His face begins to melt right before you. Wait, he says. What?

Your mother says little except when she peers suspiciously at the bags under your eyes, asking, Are you on drugs?

Your friends don’t recognize you anymore. Across bar tables and in the passenger seats of speeding vehicles they look like they are mourning. Dude, they whisper, so that’s what it’s like to get off drugs.


To show: Who is this person, this character, this narrator, now? What place, a place full of bear traps stuffed with blue cotton candy, are you headed to? When will that pinprick of white light, when will it expand into something resembling salvation? Where are you going with this? Why did you do this to yourself?

To tell: I don’t know how.

JONATHAN PADUA recently completed an MFA in Fiction at NYU, where he received the New York Times Fellowship. His work has appeared in pindeldyboz, Fugue, and other places.

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