Sunday, October 25, 2009

Get Some Rest!

The MFA/MFYou newsletter is going to take a week off . . . because I am extremely sick. I'll be back next week, I promise, all rested up and ready to write your ears off. Or should I say eyes?

Sunday, October 18, 2009


As the first full week of my new part time retail position draws to a close and the two stacks of papers that I have to grade for my classes remind me that they won’t grade themselves, I’m beginning to rethink my old idea that there is no such thing as no time to write. I haven’t been able to find a single second to write in the past week until right now, and even now I’m sort of choosing not to do what I should be doing so that I can spend a few minutes writing this. I’m already so drastically behind in my writing goal for the month that I don’t believe it’s possible to catch up, even if I quit the retail job right now . . . but I’ll come back to that later.

There’s this image that we have of the starving writer. The person so dedicated to writing that he or she behaves totally irresponsibly in all other aspects of life. Makes no real effort to hold down a job. Ignores family and friends in favor of writing. Ignores his or her own physical health, even, and hygiene, all in the name of art. We’ve all heard the stories. People who went on to great success and who will tell you that part of the reason they made it is because they made the conscious decision that writing was more important than, say, earning a steady income.

I always used to think that sort of behavior was utterly unacceptable. Artist or not, there are certain things we all have to do to survive. I thought that these success stories stand out only because these people got lucky. That for every one such success story there were probably hundreds of stories with similar beginnings but that ended with the person starving to death on the streets or at least eventually giving up the dream.

Well I’ve been realizing lately that what those stories are really about, I think, is sacrifice. That sometimes we have to make sacrifices so that we have time to write. It could be sleeping for an hour less, or not going out drinking with your friends on Saturday nights, or not watching TV, or, in my case, not working that extra job to bring in extra money.

This past week and a half, since I started the new job, I haven’t felt like a writer at all. I haven’t really been a writer, to tell you the truth. A writer is a person who writes, and I haven’t been meeting that one simple requirement. And the thing is there’s nothing that I could really sacrifice besides the job. I don’t watch TV. I haven’t been playing video games. I haven’t even been reading. I’ve been working the two jobs, and that’s it. I even had to schedule time to go on a date with my husband, Damien, the other day (and I fell behind on my grading as a result).

I see two possible choices that I can make here. I can choose to be a writer and quit this retail job so that I can have time to write, or I can choose not to be and keep the job so that we’ll have a more comfortable amount of money coming in. Between my meager income as a teacher and Damien’s as a TA, we make enough to scrape by. It’s a tight scrape and it will involve a lot of other sorts of sacrifices, but we’d have enough for all the basic stuff you have to pay for to get by.

And I’d rather be a poor writer than a financially comfortable nothing.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Being and Writingness

I heard somewhere recently that when we visualize ourselves reaching whatever ultimate goal we have – whatever sort of success we are looking for in life – we are setting ourselves up for failure. This, of course, is an overstatement, and it’s also not really that innovative of an idea, either. But we do hear motivational speakers and self help books rely on this somewhat wrongheaded approach: if you keep your mind in this fantasy world of where you want to go, it will motivate you to take the proper steps to get there.

What I heard recently is that, in fact, we should be visualizing ourselves taking the small steps that will lead the way to whatever that larger goal is. That we shouldn’t distract ourselves from the practical, concrete things we need to do by fantasizing about ourselves in some dream version of the future, which may or may not come to pass. This, of course, is just another self help nugget – and self help nuggets, as a rule, are not very helpful – but I think there is more truth to this idea than this visualizing yourself having reached the ultimate goal hooey.

This idea is essentially the same method as making small, attainable goals that will lead you in the direction of where you want to go – and feeling good about yourself when you reach each of those small goals. The big problem with the other method is that you can reach small goal after small goal and actually be doing quite well, but still be years away from reaching that ultimate goal that you’ve been dreaming about. The result is that you might feel discouraged, might feel like these small steps aren’t getting you anywhere, might just give up altogether.

When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I had these elaborate fantasies of myself becoming rich and famous off of my writing. I would think about how great life would be one day, when I wouldn’t have to have another job outside of writing (and filmmaking, which was my other big dream at the time), and when I would have regular meetings with an agent and with editors. When I would have plenty of money to live comfortably and live well and, more importantly, make my living off of an activity that I enjoyed doing, anyway.

Here’s how it would go: I would sit down to write, be at it for maybe half an hour, give or take, and then I would start thinking about how good I believed this thing that I was writing was. How this was definitely going to get accepted somewhere. How this was going to set me on that path I had been desperately trying to find the entrance to: that fabled path to success. And then I would start thinking about what would happen next, and what would happen after that, and where it would all lead – that final image of myself as a successful professional writer.

I was one of the biggest writing clich├ęs: the person who wants to have written rather than to write. I wanted to skip all those steps inbetween and just get to the point where I would wake up in the morning with nothing that I had to do but write. But of course, I had time to write; I was wasting it fantasizing about success. Those steps that I wanted to skip? Those were the steps where you actually, you know, write things.

I have this theory that most of us – maybe all of us – enter into that stage somewhere early on in our development as writers. We begin writing, of course, because we enjoy it, but once we start to realize that we’re kind of good at it, and that there are people out there who make a living off of being good at it, well that’s when the trouble begins. The important thing is that we move past that stage.

I’ve reached a point now where I pretty much just assume that I won’t ever get a book published by a major publisher, that I won’t ever make enough money to live off of writing. And the surprising thing is that this is actually a very freeing realization, because now my focus is on meeting these small goals I set for myself. Writing for X amount of time every day. Submitting to X number of journals each month. Getting the kinks worked out of Y story and better developing Z character. Now I actually feel like I’m sort of living the life I want to . . . right now. I don’t have to fantasize about a future that will probably never happen because the point is that I want to write, and as long as I squeeze time out of my days to do this, I would say I’m living the dream. I am a writer.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Real World and Other Nightmares

Perhaps it’s because I had a nightmare last night about work – one of those dreams where everything goes wrong and you lack the wisdom to deal with it the way you would in real life – but I’m feeling sort of cynical about life in the real world today.

This past week has been sort of a downer for me as a writer. I’ve had a phenomenally busy week – planning lessons, grading papers, getting things squared away with a new part time retail job I’ve taken to supplement my teaching income, and as always: errands, errands, errands. I haven’t written much this week, and what frustrates me is that it’s not because I’ve been sitting around watching TV or playing DS (my video game drug of choice). I haven’t written much this week because every second that I’m awake I have something else, something more pressing that I have to do.

I’ve talked before about how saying you don’t have time to write is something of a cop out. I do think this is true – after all, you could sleep for an hour less each night and spend that hour writing, if nothing else – but I also think there is something to be said for the lifestyle of a graduate creative writing student.

When I first started grad school I felt that my life suddenly revolved around teaching – and I wasn’t even sure at the time whether I wanted to be a teacher. I hated my new life, and I spent a lot of time ranting about how I had had a lot more time to write when I was working in an office than I did now that I was a creative writing MFA student. (This time I spent ranting, of course, could have been more wisely spent writing.)

After I got used to it, though, and especially after I got the hang of teaching, I found that I had waaaaaaaaay more time to write than I ever did out in the work world. When you work eight hours a day, yes, it’s possible to come home and write for an hour or two, but don’t forget you also have to make dinner, spend time with your spouse, run errands, and sleep. If you get home from work at five, and you should really try to be in bed by, say, ten so you can get a good eight hours before having to get up at six and get ready for work, you really don’t have a lot of time in which to carve an hour or two to write. And you can absolutely forget about the possibility of writing for three hours a day – which is always my ultimate goal.

As a graduate creative writing student your schedule is much more open. It’s stress, more than any real barriers, that keep you from writing. You teach one class (in most cases) and take two or three. Most of your homework is enjoyable – it is, after all, your field of interest – and even after doing all your homework and all the stuff you have to do to teach, after running all your errands and doing everything else you have to do to survive, you still have plenty of time leftover to write and write and write and write.

Not so, I’m learning, as a part time adjunct instructor and a part time retail sales girl. I haven’t even gotten into the thick of the retail job and I already can tell that finding an hour or two to write everyday is going to be a constant battle. Every single day I will have to search for time, figure out how I’ll do it this time, figure out what I need to sacrifice to squeeze it in.

But I know even as I write this that I will work it out. I’ll find some routine that works and I’ll get my writing time in. Maybe not as much as I would like – that three hour a day goal feels more unattainable than ever right now – but I’ll find some time. I’ll find enough to keep myself sane. And in the meantime, I’m thinking again about PhD programs. I’m scheming how I can get myself back into that cushy life where even though you don’t make a living off of writing, it’s just assumed that writing is important and that you simply must have time to do it. That writing is as essential as breathing, that it’s one of those basic functions that keeps us going, keeps us alive.