Monday, July 14, 2008

Turn, Turn, Turn . . . A Time to Write?

I think it would be useful to backtrack a little bit and talk about what I expected to gain from being in an MFA program. You probably won’t be surprised to hear that the main expectation I had going into it was that I would have time to write. Makes sense, doesn’t it? Seems like in a program that’s designed to make people into better writers, the main focus would be giving those same people time to practice writing. I don’t think I ever really believed writing is something you can learn (although, actually, now that I’ve been through two full years of the program, I know that it actually is possible, but you have to first accept that you’re not a brilliant writer to begin with). So what I really thought I was going to get out of the program was just a lot of spare time to work on my novel.

In fact, I have very little time to actually write during the regular semester. (So my husband, Damien, doesn’t call me a whiner, I have to add that during the summer I have an unfair amount time to write. I work at the Writing Center, where we’re actually allowed to read and write whenever there are no students to tutor, which is pretty much most of the time.) During the school year, I spend most of my time and energy on teaching, then what’s left generally goes to whatever literature and theory courses I’m taking at the time. I thought an MFA program would consist mostly of workshops, but you really take far fewer workshops then just plain lit courses (at least at UAF). So you end up having to carve out time to write, the same way you would if you were just working a full time job.

Only in many ways, it’s even harder to find that time because the brain functions that you use to write are the same ones that you use as an English student and as an English teacher. I might put all my energy into reading the novels and stories for my classes, preparing myself for class discussions and writing elaborate research essays, or else I spend my time agonizing over my lesson plans, worrying about how to engage my students, how to really get them thinking so they can, in turn, get writing. In the limited amount of time I have left, I sometimes don’t really feel like writing, or I might feel like it, but it’s hard to actually do it. Instead, I’ll open up a blank document and just stare at it, mind vacant and unfocused and pretty much totally exhausted.

The difference, though, between working a regular job where you have to find the time to write in your spare time and being an MFA student where you have to force yourself to write in your spare time is that, in an MFA program, it’s just expected that you’re writing. Whether or not you have time to write, the instructors and the other students assume that you’re doing it and by the end of your stint in the program, you are required to have a complete and publishable book finished. This does translate to an obligation and if you want to earn that degree (and not embarrass yourself in front of your fellow writers) you simply have to find the time to write. Everybody is in the same boat as you, but they’re all making it work. There is just no way to justify it if you can’t generate enough stuff to bring into workshop, or your thesis advisor keeps hounding you for the first few chapters of a novel you haven’t even begun to write.

It also makes it way harder to come up with excuses for yourself for why you didn’t write today. Each day that you don’t find some way to squeeze writing time in, you fall a little bit farther behind. And what are you going to do at your thesis defense, tell them your dog ate your novel? No, you have to have to HAVE TO find the time to write. And so, miraculously, somehow you do.

1 comment:

Justus said...

Quite a good overview of the problem and how it's not really a problem.