Life after the MFA, or Where has all the writing gone?

Every morning I write myself a to-do list.

The list usually reads something like this: Walk dog, email insistent but upbeat reminders out to students, check in with Editor A, remind Editor B I am still alive, call sources, haul trash to car, RSVP for two weddings, call more sources, go to work.

And then, down at the bottom of the list, written in tiny, introverted letters is one word: “Write.”

Lately, it hasn’t been getting crossed off.

Recently, I was talking to a writer, who asked me about my habits. “I try to write 500 words every day,” I said, with great gravitas.

Yeah, that’s a crock. I used to write 500 words a day. This time last year I was writing 500 words a day. All spring and some of the summer, I wrote 500 words a day. But in the last several weeks? I’ve been writing 0 words a day. I feel it my body. I feel the words I want to write building up like venom in my system all day.

So why am I not writing? No idea. I have lots of good reasons for not writing more than 0 words of fiction a day: I’m working again. We have a major building/repair project happening at our house. My husband’s truck broke down and I sat on the side of the road with him for an hour and a half. It’s the beginning of the school year and I have to devote a lot of time to my students. My friend just had a baby the other day and we’re off to go visit her.  These are all completely invalid as excuses, because I clearly have the time to write if I’m writing this blog post.

I think it might have something to do with my MFA program being over. Right before graduation, several professors ran a panel called “Life After the MFA.” At this panel, the profs first machine-gunned us with gloom and doom (“you’re graduating, you’re losing your monthly kick in the pants to produce work for a grade, you’ll lose your support system, you’ll write in a vacuum, everyone who supported you during this program is going to now expect you to come back out from underneath your MFA rock and contribute to your household while single-handedly publishing novels”).*

Then the profs attempted to offer us hope (“write every day, only your own willpower stands between you and literary greatness.”)*

Here’s the part that was not said: “If you don’t possess the willpower to write daily, you’re not a writer and you’re a bad person with low moral character because you will lie and tell people that you’re a writer when you’re not writing. You will never be one of those alums that we brag about in the brochure. Instead you will become one of those other creatures, the ones we don’t talk about, the ones who have an MFA but aren’t making a living with their art. Good luck with that.”

It wasn’t said, but I heard it.

So what’s happened? Why did I stop? Well, I scoffed at the panel and graduated in July. And then I spent several weeks rewriting a novelette and then I decided to give myself a nice long, happy break. It seemed well-deserved; two of my short stories have been accepted for publication this fall in various literary journals, the novelette has been submitted, and I’ve been doing well on the freelance front. I mean clearly, I can afford to be lazy. Right? Wrong. Without a kick in the pants from a mentor, or a prof or an editor, the words have dried up. Thank god for my writing groups. They are the only folks pushing me forward with my work right now. Because I know they’re waiting for it, I make the time to sit down and write for them.

A couple days ago I rewrote the intro to a chapter I was submitting to a group. I was in a better mood all day. So I’m trying to get back on track. Yesterday I jotted a few lines of my novel down in a notebook while I was waiting for my students. I decided to blog more often in an effort to prime the creative pump. I need to create some sort of schedule so that I can revise my novel while creating new work – I have an unfinished zombie piece which I think is very exciting. Tomorrow I’m going to place “Write” at the top of my to-do list, and I will write it in all caps.

9 thoughts on “Life after the MFA, or Where has all the writing gone?

  1. First of all, you sound like you’re writing more than you give yourself credit for. Secondly, you can’t fault yourself for craving at least a modest break after the MFA. Thirdly, you’ve had a hurricane. Fourthly, Javana will kick your ass and make you write more. And lastly, next time I write a brochure I will brag about you with heaping praise for your abilities.

  2. If you’re getting published, you’re going to be bragged about. So go easy on yourself with that one.

    You do make some very valid points about both the reasons for the not-writing and the unspoken messages.

    • Okay, so the unspoken messages aren’t just heard by me? And I don’t just mean the unspoken messages in a specific MFA program, but the unspoken messages in the entire writing community. It’s like no matter what or how much you publish, you aren’t an artist if you’re not constantly scribbling or typing. I mean, every time I don’t write, even if I have nothing to say, I feel like an invisible writing mentor is whacking me with a rolled up newspaper and yelling “bad author.”

      I could be way off base here, or just bitter because I’ve had a hard time writing.

  3. Pingback: Published, or Can I get a “yay”? « The Garret

  4. Great that you’re motivating yourself. I recently finished my MFA in August from University of Central Florida and I’ve luckily kept writing almost every day since (I’m unmarried and I’ve blown off a lot of friends and family in the process though, so I will say I can easily see why somebody wouldn’t). I told myself in graduate school that I’d heard too many stories of people losing the drive after they finished their MFA and made a vow to myself that writing would always be at the top of my list of priorities no matter what. I’m hoping it’ll stay like that.

    You sound like you’re going about things the right way though. And the fact that your blogging is a good thing. When push comes to shove, I use my blog as a motivation piece. I wrote a novel for my thesis called “Quarter Life Crisis or How to Get Over College and Become a Functioning Member of Society” (ironic, I know) and during the writing I realized that my basic philosophy on college is that it’s only beneficial if you know what you want. And I believe most people who go for the MFA and actually finish know what they want: To write. So you’ve got that behind you, the desire. I know a lot of other people right now who are in their thirties and still have no idea what they want out of life.

    Hoping your pursuits yield great results.

    -Fellow MFA grad trying to give a little hope in a hostile post-MFA world =)

    • Congratulations on getting your MFA. It sounds like you’re going about things in the right way as well. I think you’re right; most people who go for their MFA know what they want before they enter grad school. Thank you for commenting, and good luck to you in your writing. I’m going to hop over to your blog right now and check it out.

  5. Pingback: Return to real life, and my novel. « The Garret

  6. Pingback: Writing after the MFA: The Book | The Garret

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