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.

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21 thoughts on “In Which I Contemplate The Post-MFA Writing Life And The Difficulties Of Getting Stuck

  1. Shawna, I hear you. I feel like a tiny bird being pushed out of the nest and now having to fly under my own power. I totally agreed about the safety net of the deadlines and the difficulties of being self-motivated.

    1. Yes! That is the perfect metaphor for it. It’s like suddenly we’ve grown up and have to fend for ourselves. Eek!

  2. OK, I managed to get through the first five or six months fine, writing away on the project that was my creative thesis, but NOW I’m stuck. And it’s now just my current middle grade but also my adult graphic novel that I had to leave behind when I went to Portugal. Part of the problem for me is the sense that there’s zero market for what I’m doing–certainly for the graphic novel and possibly for everything else I’ve been working on recently. I find it really hard to get motivated to do anything unless I think something’s going to come of it. This is the kind of thing that makes me an excellent perpetual student because if nothing else, there are classwork assignments and tests that I can ace.

    1. That’s really interesting, Lyn. Did you feel like your thesis was more marketable? I struggle with this, too, in terms of letting myself get too wrapped up in chasing success. I want so much to be published that sometimes I lose track of just enjoying the process and the characters and the story itself. And I understand the need for motivation. It’s hard convincing myself to even write journal entries sometimes, even when I want to, because it doesn’t feel productive the way writing something that could be published does.

      1. I think my thesis is marketable, and the middle grade I’m working on now as much or even more so. However, it all rests on how well the current work does. If the one I have coming out now tanks, my career is over. Done. Period. Doesn’t matter how good the other ones are. And so much of the marketing is, in fact, out of my hands.

  3. Oh, man, I see! Yikes! That’s really frustrating 😦 I really hope it doesn’t come to that! When is the new book coming out?

  4. First off, you don’t need to have a complete manuscript to get Secret Gardener feedback. I know many of us would be happy to read partial in progress work. Second, I definitely hear what you’re saying. I know I have a legitimate excuse. Shortly after graduation I had major abdominal surgery and then right after that, well, we adopted a toddler whose whirlwind personality has earned her the name “Hurricane Violet.” Add my 4 year old into the mix and the sheer amount of kinetic energy my children create each day could power a major metropolitan area for a good 24-48 hours. So I know I have a good excuse. But. In the back of my head I always wonder how long I’m going to skate on that excuse. It will be another 4 years until both of my children are in school 5 days a week. Do I really want to do such minimal writing for the next 4 years? My student loan payments say no. I feel like I need to create some short term goals, but my brain is telling me my writing mojo is gone. It is a struggle, and I understand exactly what you’re talking about.

    1. Oh, I know, Shelby! I actually, perhaps perversely, have been feeling really burnt out on feedback and critiques. It’s just that after two years of having that rhythm of writing something for an advisor and sending it off to be reviewed every month, to not have that feels a bit like stepping off a cliff. It’s just disconcerting, I guess. And you so so so have my sympathies about life being crazy. You have been through a lot this year, too. I wish I could figure out a way to keep writing even when life turns into a roller coaster, but it definitely is a challenge.

  5. Thank you for putting into words everything that I’ve been feeling since I graduated from an M.F.A. program. I’ve got a load of changes I want to make to the novel I worked on throughout graduate school, but I’m afraid of disappointing/pissing off the people who advised me. I get the feeling that I should almost ask permission before going full speed ahead and just writing the damned thing the way I want. But this article definitely helped and I think I’m going to book a coffee shop date with the novel this afternoon. Thanks!

    1. So glad this post was of help to you! I truly know that feeling of not wanting to let down/piss off advisors. I think in the end you have to ask yourself who you’re really writing for. Other people or yourself? If you write primarily for other people there is always the danger that they will never be satisfied since everyone has different tastes and opinions. That’s why I think it’s important to write for yourself first and formost. Only you know what will fulfill you. Good luck with your coffee shop date!

      1. I like to think i write for myself, but considering how much worries I have over pissing off past advisors, I probably am just falling back on old “putting everybody else before myself” habits. 😉 Before graduate school, I always wrote the kinds of stories I wanted to read. I think I need to get back to my old way of thinking (albeit with newer and better tools acquired from my M.F.A. program) and get some writing done.

      2. I think sometimes it’s an unconscious thing. But either way, I wish you look with your writing 🙂

    1. Glad to have helped prompted more thought on the matter, Patrick! And I hope you weren’t too disappointed. I think the key is it takes time to adjust. Some people take less time, some people take more, but I really believe if we love what we do enough we’ll get there in the end.

  6. A very well-written and insightful post of the ups and downs that can happen in post-MFA life. I have experienced many of these same things. I also went to the same program as you (except in poetry)!

    1. Thank you! It’s encouraging to know that many others have had similar experiences and found their way back to writing again 🙂

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