Life Happens: The Post-MFA Blues and the Process of Learning, Forgetting, and Remembering Again

by
Matt Switliski PF W’11

While I was a student at Stonecoast, I was always excited to see alumni show up at the graduation ceremony and reception. For me, there was this unshakeable sense that, after my friends and I walked across the stage to receive our degrees, we wouldn’t see each other again. Life, I know, is far too unpredictable, filled with too many vagaries for me to make a pronouncement like that with any certainty. Still, it remained a definite possibility, one I dreaded. So to see these old friends and fellow writers appear again unexpectedly was a pleasure. In some small way, I needed them to confirm that life after Stonecoast would not be the bleak vision I had imagined.

When I spoke with these alumni, I had to ask, had to know: “Are you still writing?” While many people responded yes, I received far more no’s than I’d care to count. Most people looked sheepish about it. Some wanted a respite after two intense years of study. Others needed to arrange priorities now that they weren’t in school and paying for a degree. Yet, as often as not, they felt burnt out or—worse—wanted to write but felt incapable of doing so. The MFA had become an anchor, weighing them down.

I promised myself I wouldn’t let that happen. And, for a while, it didn’t: I set a writing goal for myself the year I graduated and, despite a few rough patches, reached it. I may not have been as productive as I’d have liked, but, once I’d proven to myself I could remain disciplined without external deadlines or being accountable to a mentor, I felt confident about setting my goal incrementally higher.

So went my rationale.

As 2011 wound down, my life started to unravel. I lost someone very important, I scrambled to finish my PhD applications at the last minute (for good reason, but that’s beside the point), and I was juggling three jobs, one of which was teaching a new course at a new school, with a curriculum unlike any I was familiar with. It’s little wonder that my writing fell by the wayside.

I wanted to keep writing, though. As paradoxical as it may seem, writing is how I stay connected with the world even as it takes me out of it. It’s how I process my thoughts and experiences, how I keep parts of my brain active that would otherwise atrophy. (As a teacher and a Scorpio, I don’t consider it a viable option to run on anything besides all cylinders.) To not be writing creatively was disorienting, to put it mildly. So, I made an effort to incorporate writing when I could and to not flog myself if I couldn’t always follow through. For about a week, I made progress. I’d been a few months out of practice, so the prose was rough, and my synapses fired more slowly than I’d grown used to. But I had words on the page, the beginnings of a story. Then life intervened again. It was another month before I returned to writing.

Click here for more graphics and gifs!Suddenly, I couldn’t do it anymore. I sat for hours by a blank notebook, trying in vain to put down even vaguely connected ideas. I assaulted myself with questions I’d learned to ask during Stonecoast. I worried about every sentence, every word. It was, as I’ve detailed in a personal journal post, the worst case of the centipede’s dilemma I’d ever had. I was afraid of writing badly, because I knew I was capable of better. Instead of having more confidence with the MFA, I had less; I was thinking too much, instead of trusting my normal process: Just write and worry about fixing all the problems later.

At the recent reunion, I discovered that graduates from all over the spectrum had encountered a similar problem. Some had worked through, but others were still figuring out how to lure the Muse back. How to simply write again.

Talking with Stonecoast students past and present shook loose a number of thoughts for me. One, I shouldn’t have been surprised that I came down with the post-MFA blues. Graduates of intensive workshops like Clarion and Odyssey, for example, often need some fallow time afterward, letting the learning sink in—or recuperating after six straight weeks of writing. Some stop writing altogether after those pressurized experiences. In my case, the blues set in later, after I had fewer things to occupy my time and attention. Thus, it was easy to obsess over my writing—so many questions and too few answers—in a way that hindered my productivity. Thinking too much in advance seems to be fatal to the work of a steer-by-the-headlights writer like me.

Another thing is that, even though graduation meant a change in the dynamic of the Stonecoast community for me, that didn’t mean it had to end. Yes, I wouldn’t see my friends for ten days every six months to talk writing, but these conversations can—should—happen in other ways. Texting, phone calls, Skype, or even old-fashioned letters can maintain the bonds created over the past few years. Doing so can be essential for many writers. I know that’s true for me. I had an amazing support network of fellow writers during my undergrad years. But as that network became more far-flung and more tenuous, my output slowed (but didn’t stop completely, thankfully). At Stonecoast, I found the support I’d been lacking and hadn’t known I craved. It’s not that I need encouragement, however much I value it. I need solidarity. People to commiserate with when the writing goes slowly or not at all, people to share victories with, people to test ideas on, to listen to. Writing often feels like a solitary endeavor, and it can be maddening if you don’t have someone—a patient spouse, a writing partner, sympathetic co-workers—who understands you and this vocation.

If I’m going to accomplish anything, I need to forget what I learned. Or at least let that learning inform the work I do without being self-conscious about it. I’ve read plenty of great stories that break some of the sacred “rules” of writing. Know the rules before you break them; I get that. I spent the past two years learning, to say nothing of the time I invested prior to starting my MFA. I know the rules, more or less. Now, I need to use them without giving the process too much thought. The centipede didn’t get on its feet again by concentrating on the act of walking.

What I can’t forget is the community I became part of at Stonecoast. They’re out there in the world, doing great things, ready to help each other. Willing to listen, share experiences, offer insights. It may not always seem like it, but we writers are all in this together. Sometimes we need to remember that.

***

Have you ever struggled with the post-MFA blues? How did it affect you and your writing? What did you do to work through it?

***

Matt Switliski (Popular Fiction, Winter ’11) is a tutor and teacher at several colleges in the Philadelphia area. His publication credits include poetry, short fiction, book reviews, and news articles. In the fall of 2012, he will start a PhD in Composition at the University of New Hampshire. He keeps a blog on writing, books, and other topics at iamrazorwing.livejournal.com.

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15 Comments

Filed under Special Features, Uncategorized

15 responses to “Life Happens: The Post-MFA Blues and the Process of Learning, Forgetting, and Remembering Again

  1. Michelle Soucy

    This is awesome, Matt. Love this: “writing is how I stay connected with the world even as it takes me out of it.” Thanks for writing this… I’m sure all SC’ers can feel a “solidarity” with this piece. (And, hey, check it out: You just wrote something great!) 🙂

  2. “Just write and worry about fixing all the problems later” is the best advice–mantra even–for a writer. Add a regular fix of community and I think we can beat the blues. Thanks, Matt.

  3. There have been many times in my life when writing and I had a hiatus, but none so long as after I got my MA–for five years after that first master’s I only wrote a few short idea sketches and some character backgrounds for roleplaying games. Barely enough to fill a binder. Then my husband got interested in National Novel Writing Month–the bastard wrote a novel while I was still coming up with excuses for why I couldn’t participate because I was “too busy”. So the next year I jumped in with two feet and haven’t looked back. It’s the most powerful force for why I kept in touch with my writing and, after my dad’s death taught me that life isn’t forever, set me up for being able to do a Stonecoast MFA without crashing and burning.

    That said, I’ve been cycling over the first four chapters of a new novel since January and just the idea of writing another sentence seems impossible. My goal for this semester is to have 100K by December, my thesis draft, and I told Mike Kimball I’d have 25k for him each packet. My first packet’s due in a week and I’ve only got 13k and a bare sketch of my third semester project. Sigh. I love that you mentioned the centipede’s dilemma, I’m so glad to put a name to it! I’m going to share that with stuck students and friends. Whenever I get unstuck and just write something new for fun where there’s nothing on the line I feel like I’m queen of the world. So, my question is, how can I get excited about revision?

    I think National Novel Writing Month hasn’t helped me there. It has to do with “Just write and worry about fixing all the problems later.” When I go back to a novel I’ve had fun writing, the job of fixing it to make it worthy of my degrees seems too huge. My husband’s supportive, but I know he’s frustrated with me. I’ve been sitting on 6 novels, all in a drawer, and he’s looking at 50 Shades of Grey and imagining that I could have sold my novels on Kindle. I tell him he has no idea how rough and crippled they are, and I believe that myself–they were fun practice exercises–they aren’t literature. However, my intellectual side knows that drafts only become literature through revision. So… why do I resist revision? Maybe it’s that centipede thing again.

    You mention: “Thinking too much in advance seems to be fatal to the work of a steer-by-the-headlights writer like me.” I love to grope in the dark for what I might discover there–I thought I could shortcut the need to revise so much by doing plot outlines for my novels first–but those just end up divorcing me from the emotions of my characters and sucking all the fun and spontaneity out of writing. Why the heck would I want to rehash something I’d already thought through? The joy, it seems, comes for me while I create new things. So, that said… How can I tap into revision?

    Any advice?

    • Bronwyn DiPeri

      This is the big thing, Karen. Revision is where the work gets honed. Look for “windows” (from readers’ comments and your own read-throughs), and put together an actual revision plan. Here’s a rough example of the one I put together for one of the things I just workshopped a couple weeks ago based on what came up frequently in discussion:

      1. Other Room -> more scene
      2. Dead baby brother -> more scene? mini?
      3. Pastor Dan -> scene(s) — with parents; — Molly steals something?
      4. Bird -> more specific, significant details. Owlet? Save it? or kill it?
      5. Parents -> more physical description, scene(s)
      6. Twin consciousness -> is it there? or not?
      7. ARC? What does Molly want?
      8. Check -> vague metaphors & cliches — rework or CUT

      This is just for a short story, so a revision plan for a novel would probably get much more detailed, perhaps chapter by chapter. And, of course, you’ve got to make sure the plot/subplots are well-choreographed – anything missing there, or still undefined? But revision usually involves many of the same things I’ve got above:1. flesh out characters better (including defining their motivations ON THE PAGE), 2. use more significant details, 3. rework or cut metaphors that don’t work.

      I think we need writers groups that FOCUS on revision. Deep revision. Not cosmetic changes. I heard that Jane Smiley has her students rewrite the same story 4 times over one semester. Just that one story. I think this is the only way we can push our writing to that next level. And I’m pretty sure we all want to get there, to that next level. Yes?

      • maxmelig

        Thank you so much, Bronwyn.
        I think one of my issues is the gap between ability and taste that Ira Glass mentions. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PbC4gqZGPSY Post workshop, or post drafting, I know what I’ve written has the potential to be really great, and match this pie in the sky idea I have for it—I think I have two reactions to this:
        1. It seems too huge—I’ve got this, I don’t know—fatigue? The workshoppers have pinpointed that something’s wrong. Their suggestions for how to fix it may or may not be right, but they have spotted a problem. Fixing it (and I’m usually talking novels here—though I can have the same problem with a short story) seems like this enormous monumental task which I don’t know how to start. I’ve got this huge resistance to jumping back in—maybe a fear that I’ll screw up the good stuff that is there as I attempt to satisfy my reviewers. Which leads into the next issue:
        2. I feel like my skills are inadequate—I look through the comments and think “oh God, they’re right. I’m totally missing X.” I start thinking about the ways to address that, and realize the whole thing is going to shift in tone when I go there. And I don’t know if I have the skill to give the original vision voice through that tone shift and preserve the feel/soul of the piece. Does that make sense? I feel a little like I’m speaking in tongues here.
        I guess my trouble with the “windows” from reader comments is that I can see too far, whole other worlds which are more alien and perfect and realized than my own, and I doubt both my ability to form my piece to that new vista, as well as my desire to alter the secret creative heart of the piece I can feel beating inside it.
        I love your list, fleshing out characters, adding detail, reworking and cutting metaphors—that’s the fun part of revision, what I do actually enjoy. Polishing the thing to become more what it is. What you mentioned about Jane Smiley sounds like fun to me—as long as I don’t stray too far from that beating heart.
        I think I’m scarred from an early experience with novel revision—I like to draft a novel each year, and I took my third such attempt (space opera) to a small critique group of new writers (myself and two SF guys). They’d critique chapter one, I’d go home and rewrite it, they’d critique it, rinse, repeat. Over several months I rewrote chapter one until it was almost totally unrecognizable—the characters and feel changed so much, I knew I had 40 more chapters that would have to undergo the same transformations to match. It became monumental, and that book now sits in a pile with five other novel carcasses.
        I’m trying to live in hope through David Gerrold—he says in Worlds of Wonder: How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy that the first million words are practice. So, if I heap five more carcasses on the pile, my eleventh will be publishable, right? Yet, at the same time, I give each one my heart and soul and I want them to, like Frankenstein’s monster, take those first wobbly steps into the world.
        As your questions are helping me meditate on the issue here, I think these would be good future steps for me:
        1. Keep the vision of the piece strong in my heart and mind as I go back through and consider the suggestions from reviewers (As Ann Pancake recommends in “Reading How You’re Read: The Art of Evaluating Criticism” http://www.pw.org/content/reading_how_you039re_read_art_evaluating_criticism ) And not allowing myself to succumb to “but I have to please this person, and that person” and “this person surely knows better than I do how to fix this piece”
        2. Trust myself and have fun. My skills may still be developing, but they’ve got to develop in their own way, and I’m only going to get there if I jump in and keep working on these things—finding the core of the story I feel in love with and allowing it to guide me into making it more beautifully what it wants/needs to be. That will allow me to have fun, as long as I know I’m helping my characters become truly themselves. I’ve got to focus on that rather than the enormity of all 40 chapters.
        3. Walk a careful line to ensure I’m not becoming conceited and ignoring good advice given with good intentions. I can clearly see the dangers of following my vision for a piece and trusting in my developing skills—I could fumble around, writing and rewriting something that reads as crap to someone else, making it so my characters never live in someone else’s imagination, thus defeating the purpose.
        Whew. Writing is so hard. And awesome. And I feel extremely lucky for other writers in my life to talk to about it.
        Thank you so very much!

  4. Well done, Matt .Thank you.

  5. Bronwyn DiPeri

    Well said, Matt. The more we “know,” the more parallyzed we can become.

  6. dhhblogg

    Really appreciate your honesty here, Matt. This brings to mind something I heard about Ray Bradbury in the wake of his recent death that really struck me. It was pointed out that he published 300 short stories in his lifetime, but wrote well over a thousand–don\’t remember the exact number. What that says to me is that if even Ray #@%$ing Bradbury had more than twice as many misses as he had hits, and wrote that many stories that weren\’t of publishable quality, that my own high hopes of every sentence, every paragraph, every chapter, every story, every book being sheer brilliance are nonsensical, even delusional. I\’m trying very hard to keep reminding myself that if I have to produce 9 stories, 9 scenes, 9 chapters of crap for every one that has a real spark, then I\’d sure as hell better get to work.

  7. Really appreciate your honesty here, Matt. This brings to mind something I heard about Ray Bradbury in the wake of his recent death that really struck me. It was pointed out that he published 300 short stories in his lifetime, but wrote well over a thousand–don’t remember the exact number. What that says to me is that if even Ray #@%$ing Bradbury had more than twice as many misses as he had hits, and wrote that many stories that weren\’t of publishable quality, that my own high hopes of every sentence, every paragraph, every chapter, every story, every book being sheer brilliance are nonsensical, even delusional. I’m trying very hard to keep reminding myself that if I have to produce 9 stories, 9 scenes, 9 chapters of crap for every one that has a real spark, then I’d sure as hell better get to work.

  8. missem1986

    This may very well explain the way I’ve been feeling since July 14…I’m hoping this new teaching gig and an effort to focus on revision of my thesis will help me get out of my post-MFA funk! Thanks Matt for sharing.

  9. matthewquinnmartin

    thankfully you didn’t fall victim to the “human centipede’s” dilemma…which can often happen in situations where you are required to kiss too much a**

    …just sayin’

    mqm

  10. Pingback: Take the Post MFA Experience Survey | Stonecoast Community Blog

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