When I was plugging deadlines onto my Outlook calendar this afternoon, watching November and December slide headfirst into 2016 before my eyes, I realized that the decade is over halfway over. And as I took stock of the tens, comprising the back half of my twenties, it struck me that I began my first semester as an MFA student in 2010. Five years ago. Five years doesn’t seem as long a stretch as it did before, back when it was the difference between 10 and 15. But it still has a heft I wasn’t expecting between that very green, very emerging writer self and this still fairly green, yet-to-emerge writer self standing behind the keyboard today.
This, coupled with hearing Cheryl Strayed speak about her new quotes collection Brave Enough and revisit her beloved essays in Tiny Beautiful Things (containing the most gorgeous and heartbreaking letter to a 20-year-old self you’ll ever read), made me ask the question: what would I tell that girl on her first day of school five years ago?
– You need to know what “they” don’t teach your or talk about.
Okay, you get snippets. You hear that it’s “tough” to get a book published, or even a story into a journal. There are lofty talks about the exquisite pain of rejection.
However. Nobody gets into the real, super dank shit about the publishing experience. Breakups with your agent, the represented manuscript that goes nowhere, the purchased manuscripts that go nowhere, the publicity blitz that wasn’t, the reading no one bothered to tack up on the bookstore bulletin board, the fact that your book just HAD to come out the day that an ex-Playboy playmate’s ghostwritten memoir hit the shelves. This isn’t discussed because it’s painful for the person who has gone through it, and downright discouraging for everyone else. These are dues you will have to pay. They will nearly kill you. But if they don’t, it means you’re living the full, true story of what writing is as a business. You will no longer be a graduate student or an amateur. You are a professional with real problems. Hurdles that make eventual victories mean more than you can ever fathom from a lecture hall.
– Some people won’t like you.
Maybe right away, or maybe after knowing each other for three years. Their reasoning is as vast as the sky. They might not like your face or your voice (either the way it sounds in real life or on the page. Also, don’t listen to those people who tell you to record yourself. Your voice IS annoying.). They may hold onto something you said or did long ago, something you’d struggle to remember even if they mentioned it to your face. You might be too similar to be in one place. You may be too awesome for them to handle. You’ll never know the complete “why” of it, despite your decision to either let them drift off into further and further obscurity from your life, or send an ill-fated late-night drunk text asking to clarify if the two of you are “OK.” The reasons are their own and have little, if anything, to do with you. At the same time you won’t be able to completely, honestly let go of wondering “why” and “how” you can fix the situation. Try to give that fruitless, doomed pursuit as little real estate in your mind as possible. Raise the rent. Let a Salt & Straw build up across the street. Add a bike lane.
– The MFA is your best version of high school.
Essentially, you got a redo. You got to go back to school at a dream, Hogwarts-like academy where everyone wants to be a real writer and there is no football team and all the dollars are art dollars. You’re older and have your hair and wardrobe under control, your parents aren’t watching you do your homework, and you’re actually thrilled to head to class because rumor has it that Barry Lopez is going to be there today.
But even though it’s Dream High School, it’s still high school. There are still cliques and rank, even if you’re able to gloss over them. You will still graduate in a burst of delusional optimism at the prospects of your future and worthiness of this endeavor and saliency of your relationships. You will hug and you will dance and you will promise to be the same writerly coven forever and ever. You’ll call! You’ll visit! In some cases you will. In many more you won’t. This is okay because it is human. The relationships that last will surprise and delight you. The ones that don’t were beautiful for the time and space in which they were meant to exist. It will hurt when they expire, but try not to take it too hard–or as a reflection of your worth as a friend or writer.
And don’t be that guy who keeps hanging around campus twenty years after he brought the school to the state championships. Uncle Rico syndrome is real. Don’t let this be the prime of your life. There are SO many more people to meet and experiences to have; face forward.
-Your thesis is not a book. Remember that?
You think you know that. You even write an essay about that. It sure sounds like you believe that the collection of work you put together in order to graduate with your master’s degree is not going to be your Opus. It most likely won’t even be your breakthrough.
But you can’t fool me, girl! I AM YOU. And I know that below that wise-woman Zen lacquer is a not-so-subtle layer of “but I bet I can be the exception.” Your thesis is going to just be that goddamn good, you can leap right over conventional wisdom. You don’t need to grow in the craft. You don’t need to expand your vision of the world. You’re THERE! GET IT!!
Here’s the long and short of it: Nope. You are not the exception. There are very few exceptions. Do you know how many theses from your time in the program transformed into book deals? A couple. Out of a couple hundred. Instead of trying to fast-track yourself to where you want to be, maybe you should get comfortable behind the desk. A little less time browsing ModCloth for Powell’s book release reading dresses.
– Be generous. Give what you can, when you can.
Although you may not all graduate into Big Six (Five? Four? What is happening in NYC?) lifestyles, those that stay the course will end up in varying literary world roles. Maybe you’re heading up a reading series. Maybe you’re editing a lit journal. Maybe you review books for a magazine. This is what constitutes the “community,” and it only works when we help each other. Use your platform, however small it may be, to give others a chance. Give back to people who read your work and share it. Be genuine about it; promote what you believe in. But you’re going to connect to a trove of outstanding people. You will have no shortage of achievements to cheer.
-At the same time, be careful. Bitterness and burnout are lengthy visitors.
Part of being genuine is not over-committing. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Saying no to something at the outset is infinitely less painful than bowing out after it becomes too much and you’re too deep. If you can’t write weekly TV recaps for your friend’s site, DON’T. If you won’t have time to finish someone’s galley in time for a prompt review, DON’T HAVE THEM WASTE THE COPY. Figure out your bandwidth to accomplish what you need to do. The stress you’ll incur by pushing past what you can do promptly and well will stress you out and let down people that you don’t want to disappoint.
When you wonder what’s worse than saying no, this is the answer. Letting people down and murdering your momentum.
-You can be more than one thing. Someone is going to tell you this, and it will eventually change your life.
During the MFA you’ll attend dozens of craft talks, a number of which will be dedicated to the question: how to write? How often? How many words? How many hours a day? Which days in the week? Every brilliant faculty advisor will have a different answer because they are all different artists. You won’t understand that right away. You’re looking for the silver bullet that will keep you present in this world, because the idea of being on the outside is terrifying. Before you were here you were adrift, doing a job that you knew would pulverize your soul before you turned 30. The idea of going back to that life is terrifying. You need to know how to do this right.
The problem is, and one of those cruxes of art programs, is that no one can tell you how to be a writer. That is the spinning, evolving, complex mystery you’ll keep re-learning for the rest of your life. I have done this with varying levels of success since graduation, and this is what I’ve learned:
- The writer who said you should be writing 2,000 words a day is wrong (for you). You don’t have the luxury of being a full-time writer.
- The writer who said you should at least touch your project every day is correct. Even the faintest touch reminds you of who you are.
- Finding time to write is important. Finding time to become totally obsessed with the Seattle Sounders and bake three kinds of cookies in a day and go to steampunk festivals and watch culturally relevant HBO shows and visit your family and can your own pie filling and Instagram your cats and hike Sabino Canyon and lurk at the MAC makeup counter is just as important. You can’t just be A Writer, which is all you want to do when you initially graduate. You worry that anything else that you enjoy will carve into your legitimacy as an Artist. You have to be all or nothing. Do you realize how boring you’d be if all you cared about was lit-rah-chah with a capital CHAH? Give yourself dimension, and the forgiveness to chase that rendering.
– Don’t smirk at your grandma’s John Grisham-sponsored bookshelf.
Bitch. Get over yourself.