Before the finality of graduating from my MFA program really set in, I wrote about MFA postpartum, an existential crisis brought upon by being chucked into the world after growing fat and content writing, reading, and talking about writing and reading with other writers.
It’s been six months since I graduated, and my concerns have yet to appear. I’m still writing. I’m still submitting. I’m still blogging. I’ve gone through periods of, “AM I A GOOD WRITER??? AHHHHHHHHHHHHH!” but they’ve been few and far between and assuaged away by talking to other writers and being reminded that I’m not unique; we all go through the same doubts, and thank goodness we have each other.
Attending the sort of MFA program I did meant a high degree of productivity. We were expected to write eleven poems per semester. By the time I graduated, I had written at least sixty poems in the space of three years, not even including the poems I wrote in my free time. Class was Wednesday nights most semesters, so I usually wrote a poem on Tuesday and then edited it multiple times to try to remove anything ultra-embarrassing. Once I received my workshop’s critiques on a poem, I’d edit it another time and then start submitting it out to journals (which I did with a religious fervor starting the December following my first semester in the program). The poems I wrote never spent very long outside my hands. Sometimes, I’d just re-read my own work to “stay in touch,” to remember the feel and texture of them. I was constantly digesting, appraising, and cutting away.
By spending so much time with my own work and participating in workshop, I got a pretty clear idea of what were my writing strengths and weaknesses. The more I edited and the more I took in the critiques of others, the easier it got for me to see what were the things holding my poems back (physical truth over emotional truth, story over the musicality of language). Because I was generating so much work in such a short amount of time, my aesthetics cycled through changes quickly: from realistic to dark farm to mythical. By the time I graduated, I felt like I had achieved a greater grasp of my own voice, what I love, and how I could keep improving.
After August, I went through a period of trying to figure out how to navigate returning to work full-time with my second full-time job of writing and being a part of a writing community. The amount I wrote suffered, but not terribly. I wrote some CNF essays, a few poems. I received my best acceptances to date. I edited my full-length manuscript (Swallow Tongue) and submitted it to a handful of contests. I read a lot. I continued to blog. I submitted individual poems, essays, and stories plenty of places.
January 1st, I started trying to write 30 poems in 30 days. Since I knew I was going to write a poem the next day, I gave up on editing. I wrote the poem and didn’t look at it again until I typed up a draft process for it later. Three weeks into that, I started a “reading deprivation” which meant I tried not to read anything, including e-mails, books, literary journals, text messages, blogs, etc. for a whole week. I wasn’t perfect at it, but it gave me time away from reading, to think of words in my own way and not to rely on the words of others as inspiration for my own.
Now that it’s been nearly two weeks since the 30-in-30 ended and three since I did the reading deprivation, I find myself choosing to give my work time. I’m not bringing it out to read and interact with, not constantly standing over it with a knife. I’m putting it away and not looking at it. I edited a few poems I wrote last year, and I’ve felt less…pushy. If I knew after reading a poem that something needed to change and I knew how to change it, I would. If I knew something wasn’t working but couldn’t figure out how to change it, I let it go and moved onto another poem. I’m more accepting today that the answers will come, and I can’t make them any sooner than they’re ready.
My MFA was dominated by trying to fix things now, and if I wasn’t able to, falling down a pit of, “Why isn’t this coming to me right now? Why why why?” I’ve matured enough as a writer today to understand my writing needs time and space and that the right line or image will surface when it’s meant to.
I’m also re-evaluating the amount of time I spend reading. While it’s helpful, I can also find myself getting caught reading and reading instead of going out and experiencing. Chekhov said, “If you want to work on your art, work on your life,” and we (any writers like me who feel a bit anxious about Twitter and cocktail parties and rough winds) are at risk of getting caught in a monomania that hurts our ability to create. Since I’m also working a full-time job, I don’t have as much time to read and comment and tweet. The amount I’m able to spend reading has to adjust, so I’m still able to write and live a happy life.
The MFA made me produce, learn how to edit, and be a part of a community of writers. I sponged that all up for three years, and now, six months after leaving that, I’m seeing what works and what doesn’t. Like the term (“MFA postpartum”), graduating with my MFA with a firmly established writing self is like bringing a newborn into the world. Here I am, six months after I had that baby (graduated), and now I’m working out how I can both take care of that infant (my writer self) and the rest of my life (partner, housework, job, etc.). For some writers, this may be a period of depression and withdrawal, but for me, it’s been one of deeper self-reflection and maturation. I’m coming more into my own, and I’m grateful for it.