Dear 2003 Me,
Congratulations! You survived your MFA program. It wasn’t always easy and there were plenty of times that you were sure you were going to quit, but you hung in there, defended your thesis, and you are done. DONE! Go celebrate. When you look back ten years from now, this accomplishment stands out more than any other.
Don’t think I don’t see you side-eyeing that last statement. It’s been a rough journey and your future as a writer doesn’t seem any further along than it was three years ago. There are not a lot of Monster.com job listings in dire need of a fresh-out-of-school fiction writer. The New Yorker, much to your surprise, has not yet begged you for an exclusive. Instead, you got dubbed “Most Improved” at your last workshop and don’t even try to deny you got a little huffy at that.
In time, you’ll come to see it as the compliment that it is. No, you weren’t the best writer when you started, but you worked hard, you kept writing, and you got better. Get used to it. You will never have that moment of epiphany that immediately “fixes” all your prose. The writing journey is a long one and requires hard work. When the changes come, they will be small, seemingly inconsequential, but each one will make your writing a little tighter, your voice a little richer, and your stories a little more structured.
This will all go must faster for the two of us if you keep writing. I know it’s the least of your priorities right now. Writing, you think, can be done later, after you’ve secured a job with decent wages, health benefits, and maybe a flexible vacation schedule. These are all well and good, but are you really longing to sit at a desk and write other people’s letters all day long or are you running from your insecurities? Insecurity over whether you are really meant to write. Over whether you’ll ever be published. You think that if you had a typical 9-to-5 job, then maybe your whole self-worth wouldn’t be wrapped up in the rejection letters that appear in your mailbox daily.
Let me calm your fears:
Yes, you are meant to write.
Yes, you will be published.
You will get over the self-worth thing. Kind of.
You’ll get a job and then another and another and they’ll be fine. But no job will ever fulfill you the way that writing does. You’ll get busy. You’ll take breaks. But every time you’ll come back to writing, either through blogs or story starts or the crazy whim to try NaNoWriMo. It’s in your blood and you won’t be happy without it. So keep on. Quit wasting our time.
One more thing. You’ve been bombarded with opinions about what it means to be a successful writer. Among your classmates it was publication in certain esteemed literary journals. A book deal. A fellowship. For your family, it’s measured by the kind of books you write. One day you will have to tell your mother that, no, you don’t want to write Chicken Soup For The Soul stories and this will be disappointing, but you will both get over it. And finally, society measures success with money and fame. If you’re a writer, go big or go home — NYT bestsellers, movie deals, Oprah, etc.
The thing that you are going to have to learn is that there is no one-size-fits-all definition of success. Buying in to other people’s definitions might make you temporarily happy, but more often than not, it’s just going to leave you with the empty, bitter bite of jealousy and disappointment. Haven’t you had enough of that?
In the end, only you can decide what success really looks like. Now for the confession: I’m not 100% sure we ever really figure it out. Some days it’s enough just to write and be proud of what we’ve written. Some days you ache for publication, for readers, for someone to really get what you are trying to say. But the one thing that continuously makes you feel successful, makes you feel worthy of calling yourself a writer is (surprise, surprise) writing.
So keep going. Write daily. Write blogs. Write shitty first drafts.
Whatever else you do, just write.