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.
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.