In Which I Contemplate The Post-MFA Writing Life And The Difficulties Of Getting Stuck

When I was at VCFA, Tom Green gave a speech at one of the commencements that addressed the problem of MFA students graduating and then not writing again, sometimes for years. He even admitted (bravely!) that this had happened to him after he graduated. I remember, at the time, dismissing the whole thing, thinking, “Come on, that’ll never happen to me. I’m too determined. I’ve got so many ideas. I’m a real writer!” LOL, in other words, I was totally asking for it.

I graduated this summer and it was scary and wonderful and bittersweet. And then I got home and I didn’t feel like writing. But more than that, I suddenly hated writing. The whole process felt like trying to cram my head through the eye of a needle. So I stopped for a month. But I was terrified I would never start again so I forced myself back to work. And writing felt like work. Boring, miserable, “Why am I doing this to myself?” work. And why was I doing this to myself? Why not just quit and join the circus or find myself an actual pirate ship or *gasp* get a normal job like a sensible person? That would be so much easier than writing.

But then I’d come up with a wonderful idea for my WIP and be filled with enough elation to continue writing for a few days, even weeks sometimes. I’d think, “Yes! I’ve figured everything out now. It’ll be fine.” Unfortunately, the doors of apathy would inevitably slam closed again and writing would slip back into feeling like work. So I’d stop writing and start coming up with inane plans. “I need to fill the well,” I would say to myself. So I’d read stacks of books. Or “Short stories, Ray Bradbury says we should all start with short stories, not novels.” So I’d try writing short stories, instead. On and on endlessly, stopping, starting, standing on my head…

And then in December my existential crisis seemed to settle down. I thought about how if I stopped working on this novel and started something else I would probably never finish anything. I began having morbid and dramatic dialogues with myself, such as: “Shawna, if you suddenly get cancer what are you going to regret not having done before you died?” And the answer was always: “Not having finished this %$@%** novel!” I sat down and tried to make reasonable goals for myself and I wrote and I wrote and writing wasn’t hateful. I kept waiting for the crisis to hit again, but it didn’t. It slunk away. And I’m still writing now, albeit very slowly. I haven’t run off to join the nearest circus or commandeer any pirate ships or become a librarian (although it’s very tempting). I’m not writing in a constant state of ecstasy, but that’s to be expected, and writing no longer feels like trying to fit my head through an infinitesimally small space.

What happened? I’m not entirely sure. I suppose maybe I just needed a break or needed to find my way out of the labyrinth. And, of course, I might wake up tomorrow and change my mind about everything all over again. But I do have a few theories as to why these past few months have been such a struggle and I want to take a moment to explore each of them.

I moved to a new state. This is probably the most obvious obstacle. Graduation is always a time of liminality, but add to that moving to a new place and having to start so much of life from scratch is enough to make anyone want to curl up into a tiny mewling ball of despair. When I actually think about everything I’ve done in the past six months, I’m amazed I managed to write anything at all. That said, I honestly think even if I hadn’t moved to a new place after graduation I still would’ve struggled with writing.

Lack of a schedule and deadlines. Okay, so this is the second most obvious issue. I actually wasn’t too worried about having to create my own schedule/deadlines because I’ve always been pretty disciplined. But I suspect there’s always going to be a period of adjustment and one thing I definitely realized is that the MFA level of discipline is not necessarily sustainable. It is a lot of work, and, once again, with moving and job hunting and dealing with so much upheaval it is practically impossible to come up with a schedule and stick to it. I’m still working on figuring that out.

I got burnt out. Did I mention that getting an MFA is a lot of work? Two years of doing little else but writing and reading will burn anyone out. And while I’m grateful that I got to do this program without having to juggle a full-time job, the unfortunate result was that I spent the last two years living like a hermit. Seriously, days would go by without me even leaving the house once. So when I graduated and there were no longer packet deadlines and schedules to follow I wanted nothing more than to let down my hair, kick off my shoes, run wild through the streets and never be disciplined again.

Boredom. I have now been working on this same novel for two years and I have yet to even make it through the middle of a draft. I am so sick of this story! And, oh, the shiny, much more exciting brand new ideas that plague me! This has been really hard for me, trying to reignite my passion for a project that feels interminable while simultaneously resisting the siren-call of fresh story ideas. But reminding myself of all the exciting bits helps, as has remembering that part of the reason this book has taken so long to finish is because I was working on it in school, which meant going through many revisions instead of writing straight through a draft. Right now I’m clinging to the hope that writing through a full draft will be much faster for me in the future. Also, bribery is motivating.

The sudden, dramatic lack of a safety net. There is something odd about getting nearly constant feedback on your writing for two years only to suddenly graduate and be on your own. Don’t get me wrong, I think being on our own as writers is absolutely essential. We have to learn to trust ourselves, not rely entirely on other people, but it is disorienting. Thankfully, graduation does not mean floating off into the ether. I do have a wonderful community of writers now to share feedback with…if I ever manage to finish this novel…

Performance anxiety and the fear of failure.* Hands down, this has been the obstacle that’s startled and dismayed me the most because I never expected it. But first, some explanation. I did a lot of theatre in high school and the thing about acting (and singing!) that always terrified me the most was auditioning. In my mind nothing was scarier than that. Then, while practicing for an audition, my voice teacher at the time revealed to me that her greatest fear was actually getting the role because then you had to worry about going through with the whole thing and not letting everyone down. This was news to me. I understood the terror of auditioning. To me failure was not getting the role. But as soon as she introduced this newer and more terrifying idea I started to feel that sense of performance anxiety. What if I got the role and then messed it up? What if I really wasn’t good enough and everyone regretted casting me?

I never expected to feel this way about writing, but it has been a struggle. Having an MFA degree is like having an enormously high standard to live up to. I feel I should know more, be a better writer, and there is a fear of letting everyone down. What if my advisors hate all the changes I’ve made to my book? What if my beloved Secret Gardeners hate it? The doubts and insecurities can take over my mind. But at the end of the day, I’ve had to learn to just breathe and trust the process and realize I cannot possibly satisfy everyone, even the people I love and admire most. And perhaps most importantly I’ve tried to remind myself of a line from a beautiful drawing of a corvid by Charles van Sandwyk that hangs over my desk: “A word, lovingly written, lives for ever.” If I cannot love what I write then I might as well quit now and do something else, and while I do think it’s important to think about your audience, I really do believe it’s most important to write for oneself, otherwise why go through all that struggle and heartache?

Anyway, this has been my experience of post-MFA life so far. I’m sure it’s been different for all of us. I just wanted to share my own perspective in case anyone else has had similar experiences and also so that you know that getting stuck isn’t permanent or a symptom of some terrible failing. In the end, you might decide you would much rather be a pirate than a person who writes about pirates, but if you find yourself in any of the above states please know it will get better. You will learn things about yourself and possibly forget them again. But if you put one foot in front of the other eventually you will get where you’re going. At least, that’s what I keep telling myself…

* I’m actually glad I went through this particular anxiety because I suspect this is what newly published authors feel in spades. And if I ever do publish a novel at least I’ll know to expect that and recognize it for what it is, which is just fear, plain and simple.