Some of my Seattle MFA gang continued to hang out after graduation. Our monthly get-togethers started to drop off with the acquisition of full-time employment and new relationships. One night at the bar, we joked and then grew serious about having a competition to write our own best-selling genre fiction novels – Harry Potters and Lord of the Rings. We all had an idea for one, and a few of us started, but no one stuck with it. I knew other people were working on their writing, though news of publishing and awards was more likely to trigger jealousy in me than happiness. My friend Patrick Duff told a tale of a writer friend of his who dashed from a New Years Eve party to run home and write something, realizing that if he didn’t a whole year would have passed without creating anything. Even in my post-graduate funk, I wasn’t as bad as missing a whole year of writing, but I understood the feeling – the sense that too much time was going by with too little progress.
With more time and fewer obligations than I’d had in the previous 14 years of my life, I didn’t get much writing done. While one industrious and driven classmate focused on fellowships, residencies, awards, and publication, I focused on finding steady work. I’d started submitting again during the second year of my MFA, and the rejections kept rolling in. I upped my numbers though, sending one story to five magazines at a time. I temped when I could, my longest gig lasting 3-4 months as a typesetter of government business cards. When I wasn’t working, I watched a lot of The People’s Court under the delusion that I was collecting material. I was a little burned out, but not as burned out as I acted. I’d forgotten a big part of how to write. I knew the mechanics – I knew plot and character, dialogue and structure – but I’d lost the drive to do it, and the ability to identify and give attention to the things that made me want to do it. This drive is Step 1, which pretty much all artists discover in themselves at the beginning of the journey. Step 2 is learning how to make the art better, how to be more aware and versatile at it, and how to make it palatable for wider audiences.
Step 2 is what can be taught, and it is taught through practice, exposure, and feedback. Step 1 is largely ignored by graduate programs. I imagine this is because 1) it’s too subjective to teach, 2) they imagine their students have it worked out already (If they didn’t, why would they be applying?), or 3) it would be thought of as coddling. I don’t know if it’s wrong for a graduate-level course to ignore Step 1. Compared to lessons on craft, lessons on what motivates us as artists too easily read as fluffy or puerile. There’s a boom of MFA programs in this country – supply to meet demand, steady revenue for schools – that has resulted in a large population of people holding a credential that’s basically a Rorschach of American creative potential: It accelerates creative growth, and it guarantees nothing. No one applies to an MFA program because the degree is so attractive to prospective employers. They do it for personal reasons, for “passion,” and they enter into programs that treat their passion like a job.
This isn’t a bad thing. I don’t think anyone should pursue a higher degree in something that they intend to treat as a hobby. But at the same time, I would venture that ignoring Step 1 is partly to blame for why so many MFA graduates give up on their creative writing after school. (Other reasons include rejection fatigue, work/family obligations, and a lack of drive.) Stating it this way makes it sound like all MFA graduates could make it if they just kept at it, but that’s not ever going to be the case. For an artist, the “weed out” course doesn’t come in school. It’s life.
One of my temp jobs turned into a full-time gig, which was a huge relief. Without the stress of unemployment, my productivity improved. I completed two new short stories that were stronger than most of what I’d done in graduate school, although they were definitely of the aimless variety. One is about a lonely woman living in a new city looking forward to a visit from a clingy ex-boyfriend. The other is about a somewhat closeted gay man prone to anonymous cruising whose mother suffers a minor heart attack. Writing them was not easy. Aimlessness takes a lot more in terms of finesse to make interesting, and it could too easily fail the what-is-this-about test. Aimless stories are less fun to read, and harder to publish. I didn’t want to be writing like this – to have the heart of my stories be a lonely search for connection – but that journey so perfectly captured what I was doing in my own life, which was looking for things to write about and trying to find a way to enjoy it more. For a while I did very little writing at all.
In 2009, three years after finishing school, I got an email from an editor at Hayden’s Ferry Review. “I was wondering if your story ‘In-Flight Dramaturgy‘ was still available.” I started shaking. I went over the nuance of my reply for about an hour, eventually writing, “It is still available, though it’s out at a couple different magazines at the moment.” I think I was trying to nudge him toward a speedy reply while making my writing sound in demand. He wrote back the next morning, “We’d like to publish your piece. What do you think?”
I was thrilled. I stepped out of my office to call my parents and my brother. I posted the news on Facebook without realizing it would make more sense to wait until closer to the publication date. I emailed former professors, graduate and undergraduate, to let them know it was coming. The Managing Editor and I started a whimsy-filled back and forth, and she asked me if I’d write a “contributor spotlight” blog entry. Of course I would! To my cover letters I could now add, “My work has previously appeared in . . .” It had finally happened! Let the great snowball of success start rolling!
Oh, innocence. At the time, I had only three or four stories I considered publishable, and they continued to collect unhappy quarter sheets of rejection, even after updating my cover letter. The HFR Managing Editor asked if she could send me contact information from an interested literary agent. For sure! Although apparently the agent had asked for the same of the other two fiction writers in the issue and was only interested in novel-length work. The only novel-like thing I had was five-years-old and unsharable. “Are you going to quit your job now?” a non-writer friend asked after I told him about the magazine. He was completely serious. I told him the magazine had paid about $50 for the story. His eyes widened. I added that I was lucky to have received any pay at all, as a lot of journals offer nothing except contributor copies. I could see exactly what he was thinking – wondering how much time and effort I’d spent for that $50, and a part of me wondered, too.
I haven’t had a story accepted to a national literary magazine since, though not for lack of trying. Here’s a screenshot of my submission tracking record today. Reds are rejections. Oranges are rejections with some kind of personal note, like a hand-written signature or a personal invitation to submit new work in the future. Greens are recent submissions, and blues are acceptances. The Hayden’s Ferry Review story is the one on the left. The list extends downward, but you get the idea.
It would have been easier doing something – almost anything – else. I could have studied marketing or psychology. I could have gone into engineering or computer science (I used to be a wiz at math and physics). Surely a career in one of these areas would have been more secure, gratifying, and profitable than the “career” I’ve stumbled into. Sometimes it seems like a great mistake to have not chosen one of those other paths and relegated writing to a hobby. The writing I do now, especially when it’s not going well, sometimes feels like a life preserver. When someone asks, “Still writing?” I can respond, “Yeah, still writing.” In other words I still have hope. Prioritizing writing instead of a career in my early twenties may still prove to have been “worth it,” but what is that worth? How do I measure it if not in commercial or critical success?
During a writing low-point I was on a first date. The guy asked about what I did for work and I groaned my answer. He asked about how I spent my time. A large group of close friends had moved that year, and I groaned this news as well. There was a bright spot, though. I had partnered with a local nonprofit to start a writing workshop series called Smudgy Notebook. Teaching as part of an MFA program had been my dream job for years, and I figured this would be a great way to try it on while getting some teaching experience. As I talked about the course, he interrupted to say, “Your eyes just lit up.” I knew. I felt it.
A few months later, George Saunders’s collection Pastoralia appeared on a “best of” list I was browsing. A grad school teacher had assigned his story “Adams,” and I remembered enjoying it, so I picked up the book for a Thanksgiving flight home. I cannot adequately describe the way I connected with that book, and with everything I’ve read of Saunders since. It’s not just, “This person knows how to tell a story.” It’s, “This person makes my world brighter through storytelling.” Reading his work made me want to write if only just to spend more time trying to think like him, which is what my favorite writing does for me. The stories I’ve written since discovering him have been less aimless.
The students that I teach are not MFA students. Most of them probably have no interest in an MFA, but they like writing and they want to at least make the practice of it in their lives more structured. They want to get better at it in a supportive, casual environment. Maybe because I sympathize, it makes me wonder: Why? This thing that gives us joy, why would we want to subject it to public appraisal? Why does being better at it matter to us? And do we measure improvement against our own opinions or the opinions of others?
I have a few theories. One is that writing is a cultural act. Language is created by people, and simply by engaging with it we are seeking to connect with others. (So you’ve said something perfectly. Fantastic! To whom?) Another theory is that we are not really trying to improve our writing in the eyes of others. Instead, we are constantly trying to better our own internal sense of narration because narrative ability has its own intrinsic value. Being better writers makes us better people by increasing awareness and mindfulness. Consider what mindfulness practice does for our sense of compassion and well-being and tell me there’s no element of narrative practice in there. As for the opinions of others – feedback helps us tremendously toward our goal of improving narrative ability, and public acclaim is a gratifying byproduct. But it’s a double-edged sword. Casual, personal relationships with interests are therapeutic partly because they are free of judgment, but who among us makes art solely for its own sake, never to be shared or displayed, never to be remarked on, and with no interest in personal growth?
Creating lessons on character or point of view are straightforward enough for me, but when the topic is something headier, like plot structure or revision, I am compelled to include disclaimers. Learning to revise can cause you to second guess your work prematurely in the writing process. Learning plot structure can discourage you from noting details and characters that at first seem devoid of narrative. All of my warnings boil down to this: Studying craft will change your relationship to your writing. Students get a pass to skip certain handouts, but they never pass. One reason is that I write awesome handouts. The other is because they can’t know the ways their relationship to their own art is about to be complicated.
There are two dominant, opposing feelings in me now. One is of the kind my friend Patrick described – this persistent obligation to be writing when I am not, a guilt that grows as days, weeks, or months pass with nothing submittable to show for them. I average a good short story a year now, with lots of journal entries and free-writing in between. It doesn’t feel like enough. About four months ago I started research on what I imagined could be a new book. The ever-present doubts were with me – I’m wasting time, I’m not connecting with the material, I’ve chosen the wrong setting, I don’t know what I’m doing. I will probably start over and over and over, and maybe I will give up. Even if I don’t, maybe it will never be published. Some say the only downside is not trying, but there’s a more insidious downside, and that is coming to resent an activity that used to give you pleasure.
The other feeling resembles that childhood sense of play. It has grown rare and elusive. Frustrated with the novel, I took a break to journal. I started writing about my time working as a CVS cashier in high school. Free writing is as close as I can get to that old, expectation-free innocence. After weeks of slogging through bad novel writing, the CVS stuff felt amazing. I didn’t need to read over what I’d done to know I had the kernel of a new story, and enough energy to carry it passed the doubts. To have found compelling meaning in my own thoughts and experiences – that’s often worthy consolation to success.
I don’t know any artist – serious or casual – who would trade the education for their innocence, but art is equal parts training and wonderment. If I could absorb or teach any lesson, it would be this: Learn to map your own emotional preoccupations. Prioritize your own fascination over the study of form. The art we make terminates in a static state, unchanging except in the interpretation of its consumers. Let’s not forget where it comes from.
This is the end of a 3-part post. The comics are from Dakota McFadzean’s The Dailies.