These are some thoughts on writing and finishing my MFA, posted at 49 Writers, a collaborative site featuring Alaskan authors.
Truman Capote said, “Finishing a book is just like you took a child out in the yard and shot it.” Maybe that’s a little dramatic. John Steinbeck said, “The book dies a real death for me when I write the last word. I have a little sorrow and then go on to a new book which is alive. The rows of my books on the shelf are to me like very well embalmed corpses. They are neither alive nor mine. I have no sorrow for them because I have forgotten them, forgotten in its truest sense.
I got a taste of that “little sorrow” when I turned in my MFA thesis this year. It wasn’t even a book yet, just a book-length collection of essays, and still, hitting send felt kind of awful. It meant the end of mentor comments, summer residencies, school-imposed deadlines, the end of a nurturing community that had given me a glimpse into the writing life.
Sure, I felt celebratory for a couple of hours. I left the library and took a long shower—my first in days. Standing in the shower, I wondered how these years had gone so fast. How I would justify babysitting expenses without MFA deadlines. Having turned in the final submission of writing I’d worked on for three years, I was suddenly free to think about how I hadn’t exercised in three years, or cleaned the house thoroughly, or thought about whether we lived in the right town, or what, exactly, I hoped to use my MFA degree for. Was I hoping to be a writer or a teacher? Was it possible to do both well? By the time my hair was dry, I was depressed.
Creative writing teacher Elise Blackwell asks, “What Defines a Successful Post-M.F.A. Career?” in a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education. She lists the many reasons people enter a writing program: to take a few years out of their lives to read and write, to earn a living in publishing or professional writing, to finish a novel or screenplay, to enter academe even though “There are full-time university teaching jobs available for less than 1 percent of graduating creative-writing program alumni.” Blackwell settles, in the end, on her own measure of success: “How many of our students are still making art—and making it well and ideally to the notice of others—10 years out?”
Which is exactly what made hitting send so hard for me—the fear that I wouldn’t be able to sustain my ambition or writing life for the next ten years, let alone for the rest of my life. One valuable lesson of an MFA program is learning how much work writing is. Life rarely arranges itself into tidy sessions of writing time. During my first MFA residency, I was the only one in the dorms with a breast pump. The next year, the only one wearing maternity clothes. Many times, I worried that I’d entered the program at the wrong time in my life. I’m not sure there is ever a right time. Still, before being published, it is so much easier to say, “I’m an MFA student,” than to say, “I’m a writer.”
There was an interview in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner this fall with Nobel Prize winner Brian Schmidt. His career advice was to “pick something you love so much you would do it for free.” I think the unspoken assumption is that the money will follow. But when you’re a writer, you are often working for something close to free. It’s not always easy to feel confident about writing as a career choice. Sometimes we have to work jobs we don’t love and fit what we do love wherever we can.
Last month a full-time English position opened in Kodiak. With benefits! I could replace the glasses I bought 8 years ago. We could all go to the dentist! For the past two years, I’ve been working as an adjunct and patching together part-time positions to supplement a series of slow commercial salmon seasons. We’re self-employed, and our health insurance costs nearly as much as our mortgage but covers only catastrophic accidents or illness. Benefits would be a really big deal.
I wanted the job, but I knew that taking on five new classes would leave little time for writing. I knew I’d be lesson planning in the shower, grading papers after the boys went to bed, answering student texts and emails on the weekend. I know how I teach, how easily I pour my time into planning classes and commenting on papers. Teaching is better than headlines and Hulu and Facebook and Gmail combined when it comes to stealing time.
All weekend, the little voice that Oprah is always urging us to listen to kept saying, “This is not the right time.” As I was trying to decide what to do about the job, things happened, things my friend Amy would call signs because Amy reads books about cosmic energy and trusting the universe. Like the night I got home from teaching and my four-year-old, Liam, was already asleep, looking angelic with rosy cheeks and arms thrown up over his head, and I realized I had seen him for a total of 25 minutes all day. 25 minutes of cereal eating, pajama changing, teeth brushing, raincoat zipping before it was time to catch the preschool bus. His little brother, Luke, is two. I know now, how quickly Luke will be four, how easy it would be to miss this. And I know already how much I will miss this.
Other signs: the same day the babysitter gave her notice; my MFA manuscript arrived in the mailbox from the graduate office. Steve Jobs died, which should be completely unrelated except that I followed a link to one of his speeches on Youtube, the one where he says, “You have to trust in something. You have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something—your gut, destiny, life karma, whatever, because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart even when it leads you off the well-worn path, and that will make all the difference.”
I decided to trust that body of work in the mailbox, to live without new glasses, to floss more often, to wait for a fulltime position when the boys are a little older. When I didn’t take the job, I apologized to the head of the English department who happens to be a lovely person. He said, “Hey, you can’t control when epiphanies hit. You’re a writer—you should know that.”
So when I learned this week that my first book is going to be published, it felt like confirmation of everything that I want to believe in—the creative spirit, MFA programs, luck, mentors, hard work, Amy’s signs. Except the news came with the flu. And my husband’s flu became pneumonia and they found that his white blood cell count was so low our doctor put him into the hospital and told us to prepare for the possibility of Leukemia. Insurance kicks in after our $10,000 deductible, but of course my first thought was that I should have a fulltime job with health benefits. Meanwhile, friends and family rallied—helping with the boys, bringing food, walking our dog, texting encouragement—confirming that yes, we live in the right place.
On the way home from the hospital today, I mailed my contract. I was thinking about the way life changes, slowly or suddenly, with or without our permission. Over the last three years, my MFA classmates have moved, gotten married, changed jobs, adopted children, lost loved ones, given birth—and those are just the big things. Sometimes we sacrifice creative time to pay the bills, or to be a decent mother or father or spouse or friend. And then we get back to work, hoping for sorrows as small as a finished book, hoping for balance somewhere between life and writing.