Balance.

My life never seems to have any sort of balance to it. If one portion of my life is going well, the rest is usually in the shitter. Like now, for instance, I’m kicking major ass at work, so it’s hardly surprising that the personal and writing portions of my being are circling the drain. I’m eating like shit, I’m feeling like shit, I’m writing like shit.

I wish I could attend to one thing without everything else going nutso. Or, better yet, I wish I wasn’t so single-minded and could juggle things more effectively. Instead I just chuck the same ball up in the air, over and over, while all the others roll around on the floor.

Sure, I have a lot on my plate: marriage, grown-up responsibilities, a full-time job, a full-time degree program, a novel-in-progress that’s making me plumb the depths of my grief every day. But everyone’s plate is full. I don’t know how to get better at this, but I hope I figure it out soon.

On the bright side, my final packet will be in the mail very, very shortly. As in, tomorrow morning at the latest. And my mentor will have it all electronically tonight. I can’t wait to wash my hands of this semester. It’s been difficult, even painful at times. I was pushed to new limits, and I learned a lot about myself as a write and a person. But not having to touch my own writing unless I want to until after the New Year is a glorious feeling.

Okay, off to try to learn how to juggle.

Good news all around.

If you couldn’t tell from my last post, yesterday was rough. I still feel somewhat trapped and stifled today–it’s an ongoing condition–but some encouragement came last night and this morning that reminded me why I’m here.

My faculty mentor sent me feedback on my third packet by e-mail last night. I had known when I sent the stuff that it hadn’t been my best work; a lot of it was a very rough first draft that I didn’t have time to re-work or infuse with the real nature of the characters. There were, however, sections that were difficult for me to write, given the sheer emotion behind the scenes, and she apparently thinks I did a good job at capturing this:

“Once again, you’ve proven that you have an uncanny ability to utilize concrete details to evoke complex feelings. My eyes were brimming with tears reading this whole last scene. “

Sure, there were sections that she believed needed work, and I agree. But knowing that I do have the ability to reach someone–not just someone: a published author–with my words was enough to make my night. She also liked my essay on Anna Karenina…though it wasn’t the kind of essay she was looking for. Whoops!

This morning, I opened my GMail to find a message from the woman who supervises the writing class I run at my town’s library. Yesterday, I’d asked her if the library was hiring, in my perpetual efforts to put my name out there. They aren’t, but she did say:

“I will happily write you a terrific letter of recommendation:  I’m very impressed with your classes, your organization and how well you work with the group!”

So, that was nice to hear. Both of these instances reminded me that there is a pretty big reason I have to stay in this job: I do have talent, in writing and teaching, and I have to pay my dues before I can do what I love. So, for now, paying to write and teaching for free is how it has to be. And maybe that’ll bother me tomorrow, or next week, or next month. But right now, I’m grateful for this job and what it’s given me the chance to do.

Fact to fiction

I tell you, I’ve learned more about myself in the past two semesters of writing than I have from mulitple stints in therapy.  For instance: when things get hard, I get paralyzed.

I finally put my second-to-last packet in the mail recently, after much procrastination. In the end, I came up with 20 pages of original work instead of the required 25: a gap I will have to reconcile in this month’s work. I’m less worried about the extra five pages in this packet than I am about the reason getting 20 pages was like pulling teeth.

Writing comes easily to me when what I’m writing is completely–or mostly–fictional. That’s why my last packet felt so easy and was so successful. There’s a freedom in totally making things up that lets me really spread out on the page. It’s when the work hits close to home that I have a problem.

This packet focused mainly on the main character’s relationship with her family: specifically, her brother and sister. These characters are modeled heavily after my own brother and sister, and something about this makes it terribly difficult to make them three-dimensional characters. Do you ever try and explain the meaning of a word, but keep using that word in your definition? That’s what it feels like.

But the difficulties did not only lie in trying to bring certain characters to life. I focused most of the pages around the death of the main character’s father and the aftermath within her family; ripped from the headlines of my life, as it were. Four years later and in the context of fiction, my father’s death is still not easy to write about. When I finally bit the bullet and tried, I got down a few lines, cried; got down a few more, cried again. You get the idea. I know this meant I was on to something real, but it was also really scary and paralyzed me for a while afterwards.

My first instinct is to step back from the super-realness of this packet and do some fleshing-out of some more fictiony areas. But some unfamiliar voice inside is telling me to push on that painful place between fact and fiction and see where it goes.

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.

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.

Now what?

So, I put my first MFA writing packet in the mail today for my mentor; I guess I’m really doing this. I worked on it all Friday night and until 5 a.m. Saturday morning, thanks to some awesome coffee my sister brought back from Nicaragua. (Note to self: get coffee maker.)

But now, having expended my energy in pushing out the final pages and craft essay, I’m feeling blocked about where to go next. So far, I have two “sections” to my novel–as of now, I’m calling them A and B to not confuse myself or mentor. I would like to work in a third (C), so I guess I will start a new section this time around instead of pushing forward on A & B before I get any feedback. I already know part C and the later events in B are going to completely morph A into something different, but I won’t get into that messy business until April or May.

Despite all of these ideas, and only 25 pages in, I’m already scared that I won’t have enough to say for an entire novel, though I can feel it all swimming around in my head. So I’m going to let it all marinate and do my craft essay first this month. Maybe it will give me some good ideas for this new section I’m starting.

Another thing to work on this month is getting some of my stuff published, once it’s up to par. I didn’t want to say anything before I received news, but I’ve submitted one story of mine that’s “done” for consideration at a literary magazine called The Splinter Generation (thanks, Reuben, for your recommendation!). It’s the first time I’ve ever submitted anything, and I’m excited for any outcome. Whether it’s a rejection letter or–gasp–publication, it means I’m a writer. It means I’m in the game.

Best of luck to other newbies out there submitting their first packets!

…and then life happened.

So, my first packet may be a little late. I’ve talked to my mentor, and he’s fine with it. Of course he is; he’s awesome. But I’m disappointed.

I hit my “life limit” this week when my partner got into a car accident. She’s fine, but my car isn’t. It was the other driver’s fault, so either way it’s all paid for, but bureaucracy overwhelms me. There isn’t much that has to be done, but just the thought of doing it makes me want to hide under the covers until spring.

Luckily, I have tomorrow off: the beauty of working in a school (even if said school is another piece of the pressure and stress right now). The game plan is to land myself a rental car and finish up the final few pages of my packet and craft essay. If I can get it in the mail by Thursday, I could still make my “first week of February” deadline.

On a sidenote: I’m worried that this blog is just going to be self-conscious rants about how little faith I have in myself. Something about writing brings out that “I’m not good enough” side of me. But being this scared means I’m on to something important, I think.