Byline: James B. McGirk
Chronicle Review photo illustration by Robert McGrath
Graduate school is hard on couples. Temptation abounds. You live in penury among ambitious young (for the most part) adults, speaking a peculiar argot, attending what feel like mandatory social events and excursions steeped in alcohol, with superstars dropping in and strutting among you. Plus, there are all those fraught moments that only a fellow student -- another insider -- can help you soothe. Meanwhile, your significant other is very likely supporting you, often at a less-than-ideal job in a less-than-ideal place. Resentment builds. Sloughing off a partner is easy and commonplace.
Still, my partner, Amy, and I decided to extend our poverty-stricken, high-pressure lifestyle: After she graduated from Yale's School of Art with an M.F.A. in painting, I entered Columbia's M.F.A. program in fiction writing. Maintaining a relationship through two back-to-back M.F.A. programs wasn't easy, but people don't enroll in graduate school because they're satisfied with their lives. At programs like Yale's and Columbia's, which feed their alumni into the marketplace with some consistency, the infantile fantasy of emerging from your chrysalis into a glamorous life in the arts seems plausible. That expectation, of course, compounds the pressure.
At Yale, Amy's painting cohort was smaller than my writing program -- about 20 students to the 70 in Columbia's fiction program. The painting studios were on-site, open all hours, and the artists always there. The point of a studio program is to learn to internalize criticism and place your work within the context of other art or writing. Critiques at Yale came in two brutal varieties: the...