2017, Archives, October 2017, The MFA Years

Strategizing for Second Year

Image: Shemsu.Hor

The countdown has begun. After a summer of traveling in Europe, teaching ESL classes, seeing the utterly inspirational musical Hamilton, and generally avoiding writing despite my desire to get ahead, I’ve started my fall classes and I finally have the motivation to do what I came to grad school for: write. I’m in my second and final year of my MA in creative writing at UC Davis, which means between now and May I need to write a thesis. I’ve decided to make my thesis a collection of short stories. Compartmentalizing my thesis into smaller, doable tasks— writing one story at a time— will do wonders for my mental health. Or at least that’s what I’m hoping.

When I was an undergraduate, I wrote a senior thesis for my English degree. It was an academic paper that ended up being 90 pages long and not very good, even though I worked on it for a whole year straight. My entire senior year I felt this looming sense of dread hovering over me, like a thundercloud. I overworked myself. At one point I had walking pneumonia that I didn’t address until my roommate told me my breathing at night sounded like a death rattle. I’m determined not to let the stress of my MA thesis get to me like that. I plan on making my thesis my writing priority, while also not letting my mental health and physical health go astray. I plan on giving myself breaks for fun, taking care of myself, and reaching out to my friends and family for support. But I also know I will feel overwhelmed at times and I will have writer’s block. Nothing ever goes as planned.

One thing I keep asking myself how do I make writing feel like a rejuvenating activity rather than a chore? This whole summer, I meant to write, but whenever I actually sat down in front of my computer, trying to write felt like pulling teeth. Focusing on the writing made me want to bang my head against the wall repeatedly. As soon as I got back into school mode, however, writing suddenly came with ease again. Maybe because I have deadlines? I have to figure out the formula for making myself enjoy writing— because after this year I won’t have professors giving me assignments anymore.

On the first day of my fiction workshop this quarter, my professor told us that she has two fears that get in the way when she sits down to write— the first is the fear of writing something bad, and the second is the fear of finding out things about yourself that you’d rather not know. It was comforting to hear that my professor, who is a fairly renowned writer, still fears writing something bad. I don’t think that fear will ever completely disappear. I’m not as afraid about finding out unpleasant things about myself, apart from realizing that I have no self-discipline and can’t force myself to do the one activity that I supposedly love above all others.

One of my friends in my cohort and I discussed another fear that occurs when confronting a blank page— we’re afraid of not being able to finish what we start. That’s partially why I decided to write short stories instead of a novel for my thesis. Is this a cowardly response? Am I delicate snowflake letting my fear of failure drive my decisions?

I don’t think that’s case, but at the end of the year my writing will have to speak for itself. I will have a collection of short stories to show to the world. Whether I’ll be happy with them remains to be seen. But until then, I’ve got to keep writing through the discomfort and frustration that comes from this creative pursuit.

For me, the feelings that bubble up during my writing parallel the ones I feel when I start doing intense exercise. At first, I’ll feel energetic and motivated, but that soon turns into strain and pain if I push myself to my limits. But just like during a workout, if I keep going through the painful part, I’ll find my flow and the endorphins will kick in. At the end of this whole process, there’s no guarantee that what I have written will be any good. But at the very least, it will be on the page.