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.

The elusive ending.

As my MFA program winds down, I’m seeing lots of members of my cohort (that’s MFA-speak for “my class”) writing Facebook statuses that look like this:

Joe Schmo has typed the last words.

Jane Doe sending her thesis out, OMG collapsing brb.

BobTodd just typed THE END.

I’m going to be honest. While I’m happy for my classmates and proud of their accomplishments, I’m jealous. The portion of my novel that is acting as my thesis is  complete, but I want to type THE END. And I thought the end was imminent (and not in a Harold Camping kind of way). Two weeks ago I wrote that I was beginning to write the end of the novel, and I was, but here’s the thing – the end of the novel just keeps getting further and further away.

The excellent Phil Lemos (who typed THE END on May 16) recently blogged that he was proud to have finished his novel. He wrote that he had started many novels in his life:

I emphasize the word “start,” because I would always get about 20 pages in before something else would command my attention — birthday parties, homework, the latest comic book — and I would toss the novel aside.

I know the feeling. I have a filing cabinet drawer dedicated to dead novels. Below are a few examples of the things that languish in my little drawer of horrors:

•There’s one novel, written when I was 15 years old, which thankfully petered out by the time I turned 16. I wrote about drinking and drugs and lots of other things I had no experience with as a 15-year-old. As a result of my innocence, bizarre things happen. My characters take one sip of beer and are wasted. Someone walks by a pot smoker and suddenly starts acting as if they’ve been dropping acid. It’s like Reefer Madness, but in the form of a bad novel. I should have thrown this manuscript out when I was in college, but I keep it as a reminder of how bad my writing can be.

•There’s another, almost complete novel, which features dinosaurs and a theme park in a dying Midwestern mill town. It’s a really good science fiction novel, if  I do say so myself, and I’m very proud of it. I hope to salvage it someday by rewriting everything in third person, because it does have some flaws. The biggest flaw?  Michael Crichton already wrote it. It’s called Jurassic Park.

• There’s an action novella (written before Sept. 11) featuring a reluctant member of a domestic terrorist group who is forced to go to Boston in order to  pick up a mysterious package. That piece is almost done. I’ve already written the ending. It’s missing two pages, right between the ending and where I stopped writing. It’s been like that for a decade. Just two pages.

And there’s my real problem, because that’s where I always stop writing. I write the end. I write almost all the way up to the end, and then I stop. I get distracted by life, or, more likely, by another novel idea.

I’ve overcome some of these obstacles. I’ve been dragging my feet creatively for some time, but I’ve stayed strong – I’m writing at least 500 words every day. And last month I knew I must be getting near the end because I came up with a new novel idea, an opening scene and a soundtrack to listen to while writing it. I jotted down some notes and resisted it. I kept on plugging along with my current project.

But now I realize that I’m falling into my old habits. I’ve already written the last page. And I’m trying to close the gap between where I am now – which seems not far from the end – and that final couple of paragraphs. Two weeks ago I thought the end was very, very close. No more than a day or two of writing.

But the more I write, the more it seems like I’m just filling out my daily word count and not advancing the plot. All of a sudden my protagonist heads off to do something completely unrelated to the story. Or stands in a park, musing. Could it be that I’m actually trying not to finish the novel? Am I afraid to say good bye to the characters? It seems more likely that I’m just afraid to finish my draft.

Why? Maybe because  a finished draft brings me one step closer to being accepted, rejected  or ignored by agents, publishers, the reading public and potentially by my friends and family. Or maybe I just like a little self sabotage to spice up my semester.

Or maybe it’s none of those things and I’m just the slow kid in class. It always did take me longer to eat my lunch and finish my math homework.