Linkage: Writers on Post MFA despair

A friend posted this on Facebook and, since it’s relevant to my last post, I thought I’d share it here, too.

What’s the Point? Five Writers Offer Lifelines for Post-MFA Despair.

Maybe you thought there would be more by now. Maybe you thought, by this time, you would have “arrived”—whatever that means to you.


Call this the “falling into the crevasse” experience. Like the tumble off that first mountaintop, it’s going to claim some (professional) lives. But some writers will climb on out. How do they do it? Are there any lifelines out there?

Spoiler: yes.

More personally, I found myself in a mini-funk about a week and a half ago. I left the Sara Zarr workshop inspired and excited, and used that to fuel a week’s worth of revision. Then I hit a stumbling block. My plot holes seemed too big to overcome. My prose sounded flat and uninspired. Watching a Nashville marathon was way more appealing than facing  the page.

Even through I’m climbing out of that crevasse now, many of the linked tips resonated with me. I’ll be hanging on to them for next time. And wondering…

How do you recover from a writing funk?

After the MFA

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 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.

2013 Me

Wrestling with the Real Writers

My productivity last week centered on typing the first draft of a story I wrote last month. I write longhand. My very first writing teacher said that was a huge waste of time and thus began a long string of advice from writing teachers that I have ignored.

For me, writing longhand is soothing. There’s something about putting pen to paper that allows me to shut off the editorial noises in my head and just write. Typing is for revising and editing. But most importantly, notebooks do not have the Internet and so I can’t click off my story and onto Facebook or Good Reads or chat or any of the other million ways the Internet tempts me to not write.

It’s probably a good thing that most of my work is taken up by mere typing because last week kind of sucked as far as creativity goes. It seems I have some demons to deal with and I’ve been facing them pretty much anytime I sit down to write.

My MFA program cultivated a certain amount of elitism amongst its writers. Between the 40 or so of us in the fiction program, there were unspoken guidelines about what made you a “real” writer[1] as opposed to someone who would leave their MFA and go work in technical writing for the rest of their lives. (Since I have already lost my “real” writer status by doing just that, you’d think I have nothing else to lose.) Real writers, for instance, wrote literary stories. They were usually about drugs and sex and parents and death. The stories were edgy, sometimes violent, and usually involved taking drugs at 12, midgets, monkeys, and other extraordinary elements. They read Borges and Lovecraft and nothing else published after 1975. They didn’t come to readings because they were too busy writing (or thinking about writing while down at the bar). Generally, a lot of the stuff they wrote was very good.

If you didn’t fall into this category, they didn’t quite know what to do with you. When I started the program, I tried desperately to fit into this category. But I developed my love for reading and writing through contemporary fiction and (cough, cough) chick lit. I didn’t grow up with drugs or violence and the story I most enjoyed writing was the anti-love story. In the autumn of my first year of the program, one of the “real” writers who was in her last year at the program suggested I look into romance writing. She did so after she’d sat in on one of my workshops and in a tone that left no question about how little she thought of my work.

I went home, cried for a little while, read through my New Yorkers and Best Americans and resolved to write a better workshop story. I don’t think I ever earned the approval of my peers, but I improved my sentences and my characters. I became a better writer, even if what I was writing wasn’t what I loved. In the end, I liked the stories I was writing and I thought I was doing a pretty good job at them.

And now? I was at a reading a few months ago for the winner of a local short story contest. As the first place winner read, I grew increasingly annoyed. There was the down-and-out protagonist. There were the drugs. There was the fantastical event that existed more in obscure imagery than in clarity. It wasn’t a bad story, it was just the exact same story that I’d spent three years reading in the program. And the epiphany here is more about me than about the story I was hearing: I am simply not interested in the literary genre anymore.

The struggle comes, though, that literary writing is pretty much all I’ve ever known. Prior to the MFA, I had three stories in my name, one of which, I still work on from time to time. I’m having a hard time letting go of what I should be writing and focusing on what I want to write. Of course, the minute I start thinking about what I want to write, I find myself drowning in my own prejudices and elitism.

I’m starting small, but I’m changing that. Last night at the bookstore I bought a couple of books that looked good. They aren’t on any literary lists. They will probably not win any major awards. But dammit, I’m going to start reading what I enjoy again. With any luck, it won’t be a long path back to what I enjoy writing.

[1] For the record, I hate the term real writer. Do you write? Then you’re a writer. I have no idea what qualifies you to be real.