On being married.

My wife just showed up with flowers (pic to come soon) after reading my blog and seeing how stressed I was about my writing. Really puts things in perspective.

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On procrastination.

Yesterday after work, I had a lot to do. And none of it got done. This loss of eight hours’ work time has put me in the all-too-familiar position of needing a miracle or an all-nighter, or both, to save my ass.

I’d love to blame this on work. Sure, it’s hard to come home after staring at a screen all day and sit down in front of another screen. It’s difficult to generate creative prose or thoughtful literary analysis after your day job as a drone. But most writers have day jobs and manage to crank out story after story. I only have myself to blame.

I’ve always been a procrastinator. A big one. In college I had to research and write my final exam–a ten-page paper, en français–in one night after having months to do the work. In high school, same thing.  When I would finish, it was always good work, but it wasn’t my best; how could it be? I’d wonder what I could have achieved if I’d worked on it every day, like everyone else in the class, but that possibility for greatness (or, at least, better-ness),  never held my attention long enough to impact future work.

Procrastination, for me, has become  a full-time job and a very real means of self-harm. While others drain a bottle of whiskey or stick a needle in their arm to escape real-world responsibility and consequences, I sprawl on the couch and watch hours of sitcom re-runs, all the while gripped by this growing panic that I do everything in my power to avoid facing. The longer I put it all off, the more the panic takes over. Eventually, it paralyzes me.

That’s what happened last night. I sat down to write a ten-page paper and realized it terrified me. I’m great at literary analysis; why was I so scared? Because after that paper, there was another paper, and my fiction, all due this week. I was suddenly tired from the blur of thoughts and panic and decided to lie down for a bit. Next thing I know, it’s 11:30 PM and time to go to bed, for real.

I have this vision of a Highly Effective Me in my head that gets me through the day. This version of me gets home, gets the house in order, makes dinner, and does her writing straight away. Beside that is this terrible fear that I will let this version of myself down, so I never even try…until I have no choice. And this is where I find myself today: the land of sudden death, my second home.

Why do you write?

Today is National Day on Writing. The Twitterverse is celebrating by answering the question: “Why do you write?”

My response:

This, of course, is the simple answer to a question I ask myself a lot lately (paying tuition for a writing program seems to need some justification in my mind).

The longer answer is that I know it’s what I’m meant to do. I know this because I abandoned it for years in favor of French and all sorts of other obligations one thinks are so-very-important as an undergrad. Then, my father died.

Nothing puts your priorities in check like death. Suddenly, it becomes clear that you’ve wasted your time on a bunch of stuff that will never matter or make any difference in the world.  Everything that lacks meaning in your life falls away, because you simply don’t have the energy for it. In this vacuum, you find what’s important; for me, it was my family and my writing. I could do nothing but write, all day, every day. It wasn’t good, or even all that understandable, but it just kept coming and coming. Everything needed a closer look: the picture on the wall, my cat, the river. It was my attempt to make sense of it all, it was the only thing I could do.

Writing’s been there for me in sickness and in health, in good times and bad. I’ve made a promise to myself with this MFA that it will never be a backburner hobby again; it is my vocation, my calling in life, and I’m going after it.

Surviving the MFA

My  MFA program is working on a book to help grads of similar programs cope with life after graduation. I think it’s a stellar idea. Now, we just need to come up with a book to help survive the MFA program in the first place.

Then again, it’s not the MFA that’s making me rip out my hair; no, it’s my 40-hour-a-week day job. I’d love to know how others cope with the day-to-day feeling of “yes, this pays the bills, but it’s doing nothing for the creative process.” At the end of the day, I find it hard to even think about writing anything. My work is so left-brained that tapping into my imagination is a chore. 

A big part of my process, as I’ve learned while in this program, is letting the ideas marinate for a while in my head. I usually do the first few drafts mentally before sitting down to write. But with a full-time job occupying brain space every day from 7-4, this doesn’t happen. By the time my brain recharges from the day, it’s time for bed, and I end up tossing and turning for hours while my real work figures itself out.

There’s nothing to be done, of course. Even a book on the subject of balancing the MFA and a full-time job couldn’t help me. I need this job for lots of reasons, the main one being that it pays well and gives me the time off needed for school. And with nothing else on the horizon that would offer me a greater amount of brain space, I know I’ll be here for the remainder of the program. Unless I win the lottery. So, there’s always that completely reasonable hope.

Whores wanted!

A few weeks ago, I wrote what was arguably my greatest and most accurate Facebook status ever:

 
This revelation came from weeks of checking Craigslist every day for random writing gigs, in the futile attempt to find a winning combination that would allow me to quit my current job and throw myself into what I really love. Once in a while, I’d find something I could see myself doing, only to scroll down to the Compensation section to see: “no pay.” Then I’d weigh out in my head if my time was worth the experience it would give me, much like I imagine a prostitute weighs the pros and cons before getting into a john’s car. Oh, wait. Except prostitutes get paid. Whores do it for free.
 
But it’s Craigslist, I reminded myself. Craigslist is shady; I shouldn’t even be considering ghostwriting someone’s shitty memoir for free, but I am, because there’s nothing else. If only I had another place to look for writing jobs, a place that values writing and writers as indispensable members of society. 
So I started checking AWP and Poets & Writers: two sites that are routinely referenced as great resources during my twice-yearly writing residencies. These sites regularly post writing-related jobs from across the country. What did I find? More of the same.

Internship (Unpaid)
Unpaid
Unpaid
Unpaid

With a wider lens, a pattern emerged before me: what writers do isn’t worth paying for. We’re expected to work 40-60 hours per week, offering up our creative process and product, for nothing. And be grateful for the work. But how are we supposed to clothe and feed ourselves, get around or have a place to sleep? Apparently, these are just annoying and impolite questions that a whore doesn’t deserve to ask.

This got me thinking about the music business: more specifically, about the musicians who are pissed about their songs being pirated online. How much of our shit do we writers give away for nothing, in the name of experience or recognition? Who decided that their art was worth millions, or billions of dollars, while I sit in front of my computer trying to piece together 10 different freelance jobs to make ends meet, lowering your standards and rate of pay to steal the job away from another struggling writer? If that doesn’t make you feel like a whore, I don’t know what would. And, just like in the world of prostitution, there’s always a whore who will do it for less, or even for free in exchange for college credit.

In the end, all I can say is this: your work is worth paying for. Respect it and cherish it. Stop giving it away for free, because you’re fucking it up for everyone else.

Fear = awesome.

The only time I can ever even think about updating this blog is after I’ve submitted a packet, in that golden few days where there is no urgency and my mind is slightly less harried than it is during the rest of the month. Needless to say, my packet is on its way to my fabulous mentor.

I wrote a little bit about fear in this most recent packet. It’s such a pure emotion, when you think about it; every other thought and feeling takes a back seat if you’re terrified. Your senses are heightened, and you are nothing but present in the moment. It is fear, I’ve decided, that was missing from last semester.

There’s nothing scary, per se, about my mentor. In fact, she’s lovely: caring and kind, supportive and positive. But ever since I saw her at the first residency and heard her read, I’ve been scared of her, in the way I was scared of my French professor from Marseille who made us read a novel a week and speak only French in class: I’ve never worked harder.

Just knowing that she is ridiculously well-read and an uber-close reader of student work had me anxious and terrified to work with her. I’d wanted to put her down first semester, but I’m glad I didn’t. I wasn’t ready. I had no idea where my story was going. Now, knowing that her eyes will be on my every word, I push myself further than I thought possible. I realized after our first phone conversation that her input was really going to help me, if I put in the work. That rush of organization that I talked about in my last entry was directly fueled by my fear of wasting this semester, and her time, with four more packets that got me no closer to my end goal. I was scared she’d figure me out and realize I had no idea what I was doing. Instead of faking it, I dug deep for the first time in years and did the hard work. And my stuff is getting good, guys.

This particular mentor also happens to be a total stickler on our craft essays (I’m going to take a moment to brag here). She’s been known to send back essays to students for them to re-do. On our last phone call, she said one of my essays was “stellar” and a “model craft essay,” and she was thinking of talking to the director of the MFA program about it; I guess they may make a packet of model essays to help students who are struggling with them. From this unexpected praise, I landed on the idea for my fourth semester presentation: a how-to session on craft essays. What new FUMFA’er wouldn’t attend that, especially if it’s titled “What the F%!# is a craft essay?

My fear has also focused me so much that I’m finally noticing a pattern to my writing and what works best. This is the first time I’ve taken notice of any such thing, and I guess the first time I’ve really considered myself a writer, with habits and everything. Here’s what I’ve found:

  • I need nearly-deafening commotion to focus: a coffee house or other crowded place, for example. It’s when I’m the most introspective. Though, in a pinch, solo piano radio on Pandora will do.
  • For editing, I need complete silence.
  • I used to think the afternoon was when I did my best work, but now I know it’s late at night. My ideal routine: brew a strong pot of coffee at 10 PM and burn up the pages until 3AM, crash until noon and start again. I’ve realized this is my natural tendency, and there’s no shame in not being a morning person.

In short: fear is awesome. Without even knowing it, and by just being plain intimidating to me, my mentor has taught me more about myself as a writer, and my story, than I ever thought I’d learn.

Oh, and DIBS on doing her intro this winter.