Yes, even if there's a toddler in your lap.
2016, Archives, January 2016, The MFA Years

You Should Still Be Writing

(Yes, even if there’s a toddler in your lap.)

In fact, I’m still writing, even though I produced three stories this past semester. Or rather, I’m still revising a lot and writing a little bit. You see, story one was pretty blah when I turned it in to workshop, so I rewrote the crap out of it (blogging about the process here). Since then it’s gotten one or two tiered rejections from journals, but mostly form rejections. Meaning it still needs more work. I’ve been puzzling over the old comments and experimenting with cuts all through winter break.

Story two sprung from my head fully formed, has gotten almost all personal rejections, and has been a finalist in two contests. I’m proud, but I’ve known all along what’s wrong with it, why it was getting rejected and only making it to finalist and semi-finalist rounds. It was in the second-person POV, which was not working. Everybody told me it was not working, but I was feeling stubborn. This break, I placed the story in the third-person.

Story three was especially challenging for me because 1) I had tried to pack so much action in, some bits read like more of an outline than an actual piece of fiction, and 2) it was workshopped, and comments were written, during the last week or so of the semester, when everybody would rather have been napping. Fortunately, I’ve got friends to look this stuff over during the break and my own good instincts to tell me when I need rewrites. Now I’d say the thing is publishable (although very long, so it’s been a challenge to figure out who might publish it).

At the same time, I’m working up the first drafts of a fourth story, another of those sprung-from-my-head-fully-formed stories, which is a nice change of pace. I wrote most of a personal essay (my first ever!), but it needs follow-through on the last couple of sections, then probably a bunch of edits for coherence. I’ve reworked a flash piece, adding to the ending and deleting an early unnecessary paragraph. I’ve futzed around with a poem that feels almost there, if I could only figure out how to break a line, haha.

What is the point of this tedious list? The point is that I keep writing when nobody’s making me. I keep writing even when I don’t have a deadline, a graduate school demanding I turn something in.

Let’s go out on a limb here: If you’re reading this blog entry on this website, you’re almost certainly an applicant. (Or you’re my dad. Hi Dad!) You’ve almost certainly spent the past several months obsessing over your work, editing and editing and then maybe editing some more, no end in sight with the edits. You’re probably burnt out on statements, be they statements of purpose or personal autobiographical statements or worse, those fellowship application statements for which you must discuss your life challenges and contributions to diversity. (Guess what, adcoms? I hate telling you about my life challenges!)

I know it can be tempting when you are this burnt to just not write for a while. Resist that temptation.

New work is good. You want new work. You might not get in anywhere, and developing new work will make it possible for you to reapply next year. You might get in somewhere, and in that case you’d better get some new work ready to show people this fall.

New work is good for reasons having nothing to do with the MFA itself. Let’s say you would like to be a widely admired writer with stories and/or poems in all the Big Deal litmags. You might find, with goals like this one, that you have to actually write said stories and/or poems first, before you place them in The New Yorker. Or let’s say all you really want is to get pretty good at your craft. People typically accomplish this sort of thing via practice—you still have to write an awful lot to get to the height of your powers.

But right now, I think the most important part of writing for you—and me, and all of us—has to do not with career concerns but with managing our very human craving for clearing hurdles and getting positive feedback. The sense of accomplishment that springs from crossing an item off a to-do list can be addictive, in the sense that there are plenty of people out there who reorder their lives around this system of task/reward, task/reward, training themselves out of self-motivation and spontaneity. You might experience a surge of joy at admission to a well-funded or prestigious MFA, or a good showing in a contest, or getting your work accepted by a magazine you admire, or just polishing off and sending out the last of your grad school apps—but the flipside of that joy is the little voice in your head that says, “You’ve earned a break. You have nothing to prove for a while.”

Don’t listen to that voice. Writing is not so unpleasant that you need to earn breaks from it. You weren’t writing to prove anything in the first place.

It’s my contention that we should all be writing as if there were never any applications or assignments or submissions to begin with. If this means writing every day, then kudos on your productivity, but it could also mean freeing yourself from that anxious obligation to write every day, allowing yourself to write once a week because you’re not agonizing over deadlines.

Write the stuff you wanted to but couldn’t until now, because you were too worried about making some strangers on an admissions committee love you enough. Be goofy with it. A novelette about a cashier at a grocery who’s possessed by a dybbuk, which is actually her recently deceased great-aunt, and anyway Aunt Tallulah really loved pickles so now the cashier is stealing like a dozen jars of kosher dills a day from the Kroger where she works while also plotting revenge against Aunt Tallulah’s double-dealing ex-boyfriend? Sure, write that. Or actually don’t, because it was my idea first. But do write joyfully; write because you want to. Do not allow yourself to fall into the habit of treating your craft like a chore that you are relieved to put aside.

None of which is to say you can’t give yourself a break or a reward for all the sweat you put into apps. Absolutely be nice to yourself right now. Allow yourself that extra episode of Star Trek: Enterprise (T’POL WAS UNCONSCIOUS ALL ALONG!!!). Buy a chocolate chip cookie and a giant chai latte and go for that righteous sugar coma. If you have a kid, get the kid a cookie too.

You’ve done good. I am here on the Internet giving you invisible fistbumps.

Now get back to work.

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