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"Make no mistake, my friend, your pointless life will end, but before you go, can you look at the truth? You have a lovely singing voice."

-Morrissey, "Sing Your Life"

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Maybe it’s because it’s been just over two years since I graduated with my MFA, or because my husband, Damien, just graduated with his MA, or some combination of the two, or neither. Whatever the reason, I’ve been daydreaming about—romanticizing, again—my time as a graduate student. Aside from the fact that those were some fun, carefree times for me, during my last two years in my program at UAF, I was at my peak of productivity as a writer. Since graduating, I’ve published a book, yes, and I’ve published several short pieces in journals as well, but as far as time spent in front of the computer actually writing, I’ve never been able to match what I was logging as a grad student.

Sometimes as a grad student I would complain about how being an MFA student didn’t afford me the time to write I’d thought it would. Looking back on it now, of course, I know that’s demonstrably untrue. I had to do a lot of reading and paper writing, studying for the comps exam, teaching, and tutoring at the university’s Writing Center, but let’s be honest, I still had several hours a day leftover in which to write. And I used it. I did. I wrote a lot during that time. The majority of my book is comprised of stories I wrote in grad school.

There are a number of reasons why I haven’t written as much since then. Teaching three classes at a time—and in one awful, stressful quarter, four—has kept me far busier than teaching one and taking two or three ever did. Working under deadline to polish and edit a book took time away from new writing. Dealing with the crushing realization that having a published book means very little in the grand scheme of things brought on feelings of depression, which were difficult for me to write through, and, naturally, preparing to have a baby has kept me pretty distracted.

The past week, though, I’ve been writing more and more, and I’ve been feeling more like my old, MFA student (as opposed to MFA graduate) self. Anytime I experience a shift in my drive or abilities as a writer, I look at the variables in my life and ask myself what might have caused the shift. This week there was one glaring change in my life: Damien, who’s been working part time as the Managing Editor of New Ohio Review since July first, began teaching a summer course in addition to his editorial duties. Where he had been spending four hours at the office Monday through Friday, he’s now gone for six to seven hours a day.

I, on the other hand, haven’t been working at all. I wasn’t able to line up any summer classes, and I wasn’t able to find another summer job as no one particularly wanted to hire a big, fat pregnant lady who’s just going to quit when her due date gets close. At first, when Damien started the Managing Editor job, I told myself I would spend at least half the time he was gone writing. But it didn’t work out that way. I have prenatal yoga to do, and I’ve also been spending an hour or two a day on household chores (I am, after all, a housewife now—how odd). Add to that showering and other basic life activities (like making and eating breakfast and lunch), and by the time Damien would arrive home from his four hours at the office, I usually either hadn’t written at all, or had only written for half an hour or so.

But now that he’s gone for six or seven hours, I have been writing for a good hour or two every day, and I’ve been reading a lot, too—what a wonderful feeling! Because we now live an extra mile from campus and because it’s been very, very hot and humid this summer, I’ve been getting up early with Damien to give him a ride to work. When I get home, I do my prenatal yoga, shower, eat, then write and read for a few hours until I decide it’s time to get on top of the chores.

And you know what I realized? This is a lot like the routine I had going when I was in grad school. In Alaska, Damien worked from 6:30-2:30 and would get up at 5:30 to get ready. I’d get up with him, so I could have coffee and spend a little time with him before he went in. Then, when he left, I’d exercise for an hour or so and write until it was time for me to get ready to go to campus (usually not until ten or eleven at the earliest). Replace the household chores I do now with the schoolwork and teaching I did then, and the schedule is very similar. In both cases, what affords me the time to write is the fact that I get up early—even though some days I’d rather not—to ensure that I’ll have time to get everything done and still have time to write before the end of the day, when Damien and I are both home together. Because I love my husband and would rather hang out with him, honestly, than do anything, including writing, I know if I haven’t written by that point in the day, I won’t. I simply won’t.

The idea of getting up early to write is nothing new. Many writers swear by it. I’m sure for some people it’s necessary and for others it isn’t, but for me, it is. I should have known that by now. I definitely do my best writing earlier in the morning, before anything much has happened to distract me from my made up worlds, and as much as I love sleep, I love the satisfaction of getting in a good hour or two of writing time more. Routine, for me, helps a lot too. The two things combined are, finally, allowing me to recapture some of that productivity (and positivity) that I felt back when I was in grad school. Hurray! May it last and last!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

I had to make a very difficult but unfortunately inevitable decision recently, which I’d like, now that I’ve informed all of our submitters and Duotrope, to share with you: I decided, after three years, to close down MFA/MFYou as a literary journal. This decision was based on a number of factors, the two main ones being that my co-editor and husband, Damien Cowger, who has been doing double duty as our co-editor while also working as the Assistant Editor of the more prestigious print journal New Ohio Review, has been hired, now, as the Managing Editor of New Ohio Review. It’s an excellent opportunity and we’re both thrilled about it . . . but it does mean that he really doesn’t have time, anymore, to work with me on MFA/MFYou.
And let’s face it, I don’t really have time anymore, either, with a new baby on the way. I decided recently that, having been up and running for three years now, the journal was at a sort of crossroads. I needed to either push it up to the next level or throw in the towel. It’s been a dream of mine for, I don’t know, ten years to run a small, independent lit journal, and so, as you can imagine, it was difficult for me to accept that closing the journal was probably what I needed to do. But, alas, it is what I need to do.
I haven’t, however, made up my mind yet whether to shut down the website itself. I’ve been toying with the idea of maybe keeping the site going, but changing it from a literary journal into a sort of online resource for writers who might be considering getting an MFA. The site, in this case, would include a discussion forum where MFA and non-MFAers alike could come and share experiences and discuss topics relating to creative writing degrees and writing in general. We’d also probably publish essays written by people on both sides of the spectrum, talking about their specific experiences in or out of MFA programs. Interviews would also be a nice addition. Running a site like that would be less work, I think, than running a literary journal, as material would be updated on an as-needed (and as time allows) basis. The forums, of course, would just be open to discussion all the time, and anyone who comes to the site would be able to post or respond to topics.
It would be a fun and interesting way of keeping the discussion open on the topic, since I’ve really, really enjoyed reading the contributions to our MFA/MFYou Experience pages. I also get emails sometimes from people considering applying for MFA programs, wanting advice or asking specific questions based on my own experiences as an MFA graduate. I would love to open up more of a space where a variety of writers can share their experiences on the topic and offer advice to writers who have yet to decide what’s the right path for them.
At this stage, of course, it’s still in the very early conception stage. This, too, will take its fair share of time, and it will only really be worth doing if I can entice enough fellow writers to come and share their thoughts and experiences on the site. I may still just shut the site down altogether, but this option is very appealing to me right now and, after I’ve thought it through some more, I may just give it a shot.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

I received this week what feels like the hundredth agent rejection for the novel that was my MFA thesis, this novel I’ve poured so much time and energy into over the past five years. This was another rejection from an agent who had, after reading my initial query, been interested in the manuscript and had requested a partial. Rejections from agents who actually requested to read some or all of the manuscript first are the hardest because they force you to accept that it’s not that you’re not getting a fair shake, it’s not that the agent just didn’t like your premise, it’s the writing, it’s the manuscript itself that brought on this rejection.
Naturally, this rejection was no exception. In fact, this rejection smarted even more than the other rejections for partial or full manuscripts I’ve received in the past because this one didn’t waste any time complimenting my writing abilities. The gist of it was that I have some “impressive” writing credits and an “interesting” premise, but this particular agent just wasn’t that into the material itself once he started reading it. I guess I’ve gotten used to the obligatory variation on, “You’re a very good writer, however . . .” and so this one pierced my rejection-toughened skin and actually stung a bit.
But let’s be honest here, the fact that this agent didn’t have time to waste stroking my ego isn’t the real reason this rejection hurt. It hurt because I’ve queried so many agents about this book, and I’ve had a fair number of partial or full manuscript requests—hell, I even had an agency solicit me after reading one of my stories in a literary journal—but I always end up getting nowhere. Many agents have been kind enough to take a look; none of them have been interested in representing me after they read the manuscript.
I’m at that point, of course, where I have no choice but to accept that this book just isn’t going to get published. Shelving a project you’ve poured so much of yourself into is maybe the most difficult thing a writer has to do. This time it’s particularly hard for me because I’ve done the set-it-aside-for-six-months thing—more than once—and still felt it was good when I came back to it. I’ve revised it so many times I’ve completely lost count, too. When I read through this novel, even now, I don’t understand why it isn’t publishable. Okay, it’s not the most brilliant novel ever written, but it seems good enough to me to get published. It seems just as good as a lot of the stuff that gets published every year. But I’m clearly missing something; there’s something wrong that I’m not picking up on.
I feel I would be deluding myself if, after all these rejections, I don’t admit defeat. I’ve talked in the past about the agent hunt being my first stop for this book, about how, if that didn’t work out for me, I would try my hand at small presses. In fact, I had already stopped querying agents (this rejection took several months to make its way to me and is from the last agent I had yet to hear from), and I had begun to submit to small presses and contests, but now I’m thinking maybe that, too, is a bad idea.
I know several people who have permanently set aside their MFA theses, accepting that the manuscripts just aren’t good enough and never will be. This may sound sort of pessimistic, until you realize that those same people are instead investing their writing time working on new projects, projects they do feel might have a chance of getting published. Giving up on their theses, for these writers, wasn’t, actually, like giving up at all; it was more like accepting that the thesis was a valuable experience, great practice, and now they’re ready to move on and apply what they learned to something better.
I really, really, really admire that mentality. I really, really, really want to know how to let go of this novel, at last. I’ve given up on projects in the past—this is not, after all, my first novel, just the first one I actually believed, after several years of close scrutiny and revision, was good enough—so why is this so difficult for me? One way or another, though, I have got to accept that it isn’t going to happen with this book. Researching publishers and crafting queries is taking up valuable time I should be spending on new projects, not to mention the fact that, as long as I continue to think of this book as publishable, it will be difficult for me to fully immerse myself in a new novel. Every time I try, I eventually hit a wall and get sidetracked by thinking about this book, whether I should revise it again, whether I should be bothering with a new one when this one has yet to be published.
So I need to move this novel to my “Failed Attempts” file, dust my hands off, and move on with my life. As difficult as this is for me, maybe it will be like a sort of release. Here’s hoping. On the positive side, anyway, I do feel very heartened by this final rejection’s admission that my writing credits are “impressive.” It gives me some hope that, while this novel, it seems, just isn’t going to cut it, maybe a future one will, and that I have built up enough of a publication history for agents to pause and take notice. Maybe the next novel will be the one. I’ll never know, though, if I allow myself to remain frozen in the world of this old, let’s face it, failed novel.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Sometimes, I think, we writers get spoiled by those times when the words seem to flow like water from a tap—just turn it on when you’re ready to write, and turn it off when you’re done for the day. We get spoiled by those extended periods when we have ample time, when our friends and loved ones seem uncommonly understanding, when life’s little stressors seem to have decided to give us a break for a while, when everything, in other words, seems to align just right so that we can write and write often and write well.
We appreciate those times for what they are, but still, we begin to grow used to them after a while. We become accustomed to sitting in front of the computer and turning on the words. We begin to think that maybe we’ve done our time, fought our battle and won it, and now the world will forever step aside and just let us be writers, at last.
But inevitably, the good times will dry up, and on will come the not so good. Something stressful will happen at work or at home or in our families, or worse, for no apparent reason, the tap will just stop flowing. Did we forget to pay the word bill this month? We turn it on, and it just sputters, then dies.
We have any number of ways of referring to these other times: writer’s block, being too busy, being uninspired. Whatever we call it and whatever brings it on, one thing remains fairly consistent each time: after a while, we begin to wonder if we’ve lost whatever it was we once had. We begin to wonder if we aren’t, after all, the writers we once believed ourselves to be.
But it’s that doubt, more than anything, that causes the real problem, I think. I don’t know that there’s anything wrong or evenly remotely unusual about your ability/time/energy/etc. to write sort of ebbing and flowing, sometimes unpredictably. I’ve heard so many successful writers say that sometimes they just need a break from writing, or sometimes they’re just too busy, and that’s okay. Life has to be lived. That’s where we get our material from to begin with.
But when we begin to obsess over whether or not we’ve lost “it,” that’s when the real damage can be done. If I’m questioning my own abilities as a writer, I begin to feel even more distracted, even more blocked, even less inspired. If a day goes by and I don’t write, I begin to think that I’m a failure, that I can’t reasonably call myself a writer. The next day, when I sit down to catch up, I feel frozen. Who do I think I’m fooling? I wonder. I can’t do this. I’m not a writer. And, like the self-fulfilling prophecy those words are, I suddenly can’t do it—I’m too busy thinking about the act of writing itself to actually write anything.
I’m beginning to think that the best thing a writer can do when he or she is going through a dry spell is to just relax and not get too caught up in what it all means or how to break free of it. Sometimes the attempt to shake the block just makes the block worse, oh so much worse. When I write well, when my writing is actually coming together in a satisfactory way, it’s always during a time when I feel confident about my own abilities. When I question my own abilities, my writing gets lousier and lousier, which perpetuates the questioning, and so on.
I’ve been caught in the chaos of a move the past few weeks and have hardly written at all in that time. But for once, when I felt myself begin to get sucked into that downward spiral, I pulled myself back again and reminded myself that I had perfectly good reasons to not be writing—I was busy and distracted (and six months pregnant, which meant I was also tired and swollen and distracted by baby plans, too)—and I refused to let myself even think that my lack of writing said anything about my abilities or future as a writer. So now that we’ve finally finished unpacking and putting away most of our stuff, I’ve been able once again to ease back into writing with little trouble. If I’d gotten too down on myself about not writing, I probably wouldn’t have bounced back so quickly.
I get so spoiled sometimes by the good times, I fail to see the bad times for what they are: a pause, a break, a necessary breather. Sometimes things just happen. Sometimes other things are just more important. But we need to try to remember that there is a difference between the would-be writer who has a million story ideas but never seems to get around to writing (or revising) at all and the genuine writer, who writes when he or she can, and doesn’t when he or she can’t. Just doesn’t. And that’s okay.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

My husband, Damien, had a great suggestion for how I might try to keep up with writing after the baby is born. When he used to work at a Barnes and Noble, he would keep little slips of paper in his pocket and pull them out when he had down time, and he would write stories on them, one or two sentences at a time. It was slow going, but better than not writing at all, and eventually he’d end up with a complete draft of a story that he could then enter into the computer when he had time.
I was always extremely impressed by this. It seemed almost impossible to me to write without a computer and without enough time to really get into a groove. One of my biggest bad habits as a writer is that I always write on the computer (which means if I don’t have a computer in front of me, I don’t write) and if I don’t have at least a half hour stretching out in front of me, I tell myself I don’t have enough time to write just now.
But with a new baby, I may not have much of a choice. I may rarely have more than a few minutes at a time of solid free time, and those few precious minutes would be wasted if I turn on my computer and check my email (another bad habit—the first thing I always do when I turn my computer on is check my email) before beginning to write.
So Damien suggested I buy myself a small spiral notebook and try to keep it within easy reach all the time. He said I should try to train myself to write first drafts by hand—something I’ve always thought was a good idea, anyway, because it encourages more thorough revision since it’s easier to make dramatic changes when you’re entering the draft into the computer—and write in the small snips of time that will inevitably come my way: when the baby falls asleep, while the baby is nursing, etc.   
It’ll be difficult. It means training myself out of those two major bad habits that have been with me since I was a little kid, back when I wrote on a hand-me-down word processor and would lock myself in my room and write for hours and hours on end. But it seems like the best bet I have at keeping up the very good habit of writing often after the baby is born, and who knows, this new way of writing might inspire me to try other new things, too. I may find myself taking risks in my writing that I never would have taken before or revising even more exhaustively than I already do. This may be just what I need to push myself up to the next level as a writer.