“Write every day” is a common maxim offered to young writers. The idea is that, like a muscle, you have to keep your writing in shape in order for it to get stronger, and, like working out, it’s very easy to let the pressures of everyday life pull you out of the habit.
Not every writer agrees with this statement. One of my instructors, Alison McGhee, doesn’t believe this is a hard and fast rule. She is much more of the mind that each writer must discover what works best for himself and just go with that. If that means writing every day, go for it, but it’s not guaranteed to work for everyone. I concur that this idea makes a lot of sense.
Yet I know that I need to be diligent about writing. It is easy for me to fall out of the habit. So many things distracting me. But the strangest thing distracting me from my writing is writing.
I, of course, have this blog, which got a little bump in readership this week. As a student, I have my coursework, and I don’t have writing classes every semester–it’s all in the luck of what’s offered. I have writing samples to put together for the graduate-school applications I’m submitting this winter.
(This doesn’t even get into reading. As a writing student, I’m not only to read for school, but also “free-read”, so that I am exposed to the best writing out there. This is not easy when you read slowly.)
And I have other obligations, like anyone: my school’s arts/lit magazine (of which I’m an editor), my school’s writing club (in which I’m vice-president), Twin Cities Gay Men’s Chorus, and making sure I have my domestic, social, and recreational needs met.
In juggling all of this, I feel guilty when any one of these things slips up–and it’s often because I’m busy meeting the obligations.
But I had a revelation over the weekend. On a certain level, writing is writing. It’s all practice–especially as a beginning writer. And it all overlaps. Many of my publication submissions come from my schoolwork. I’m considering reworking blog posts for some of my grad-school applications.
For me, to write every day is not a rule I live by–it’s become a necessary means to keep up on all I have to do.
And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I am trying to make this shift from mostly working on poetry to mostly working on prose memoir. I am doing this in recognition of the fact that I’ve decided what I want my focus in grad school to be, which means making sure I have a solid portfolio of prose by October or November, when I will start putting the finishing touches on my grad school application. I am not giving up on poetry. I will continue to write it and submit. But, as a focus for grad school, poetry doesn’t really fit my goals.
One struggle I am encountering is that, when I hop in the wayback machine to mine material for my writing, I keep going back to the same period in my life, ages 6 to about 10. There are some reasons why it makes for good material. That period of my life was both dramatic and bizarre, filled with mental snapshots of extreme sorrow and extreme violence. Basically, it provides the heightened action and raised stakes necessary for a good plot. In so much of my later life, the drama is much more deeply psychological. Nothing will kill a story faster than sitting inside a character’s head the whole time.
I certainly want to write about more than just my childhood, but I’m really going to have to push myself as a writer to raise the stakes and provide the action for later episodes in my life. But if I can’t push myself, I really have no business writing. So push I must.
I have a history of not listening to my gut, and it has always got me into big trouble. Listening to everyone around me except my own heart has put me in the wrong colleges, the wrong majors, the wrong jobs. Not listening to my gut has put my life in jeopardy. I have had to learn to listen to my gut, and I am finding that this is nowhere truer than in the search for a good Creative Writing MFA program.
When I look for five different opinions on the pursuit of a good grad program, I get ten different responses:
“You have to look for a potential instructor who writes like you. You’ll learn more from someone with a similar style, and the school is more likely to pick a student who is a good stylistic fit with their staff.”
“Nonsense! So many of the big-name writers do very little actual teaching in these programs. Besides, just because someone writes well doesn’t mean they can teach worth a lick.”
“It’s like real estate: Location, location, location. If you’re not in love with the place you’re living the next two to three years, your work will suffer and your whole quality of life will go down.”
“Whilst I don’t suggest going to someplace you’ll be miserable, bear in mind that you’re only going to live there two or three years–that’s nothing. Besides, if you are going to be a college instructor, you will have very little say about where you live after you graduate.”
“It’s all about the benjamins! You’re daft if you take out one red cent in loans for an MFA. Go only where they will pay you fully.”
“If a program fully funds me, but their alumni have zero track record of developing anything resembling a career, what does that say about the program? Taking out a little to go to a program with a proven track record will pay off in the long run.”
And on and on it goes. I really can’t keep up with all the contradictory advice I get.
So that is why I’ve decided to go with my gut. I know myself better than anyone. (I did not believe that for many years.) I know what sets of circumstances will work for me and which won’t. And no matter where I apply to, there are always X-factors no one can predict.
With that, I’m feeling pretty secure about my list of schools. Each has great upsides and some drawbacks. There is no perfect program; they will all have drawbacks. It’s a matter of whether you can live with the drawbacks.
What I am insecure about, though, is how public I should be about my list of potential schools. I know that no matter what school I post, I will get a Greek chorus offering 155,309 reasons why I shouldn’t go to that school, and I don’t need that drama. Also, how much are the schools I’m applying to going to be looking over my shoulder to see where else I’m applying? When I applied to Bible college, I had to list on the application where else I was planning to apply. Though grad school is hardly Bible college, I don’t know if it’s standard practice for them to know where else I’m applying, and whether their knowing will have an impact on whether they accept me.
I’m sure all this will work out in the end. I am excited at the prospect of moving on to the next phase of my life.
This is the debate I struggle with right now: do I focus on poetry or creative nonfiction? Virtually all graduate programs require their students to pick a specialization. Usually, the choice is fiction, poetry, or creative nonfiction. (Some programs will include playwriting and/or screenwriting in the mix, and some programs are only fiction and poetry.) I have learnt that, despite my desires otherwise, my talent is not in writing fiction. I am good at inventing worlds but not good at getting anything to happen in them.
As far as creative nonfiction goes, one of my instructors–the only one who has seen me write in several genres–believes that my creative nonfiction is strongest, memoir in particular. The fact that my life has just been weird works to my advantage in terms of having material to work with. I am also learning this semester that I do very well at writing literary critique, so I’m not just a one-trick pony when it comes to creative nonfiction.
But creative nonfiction does not come to me easily. At all. For two weeks I’ve been struggling to write an essay for this blog, and I haven’t got anywhere. It’s a time-sensitive issue, as it pertains to some recent current events, and I am very passionate about the subject. But it has been like pulling teeth getting anywhere with it. Every day, the relevance of what I have to say in the essay fades a little.
Poetry, on the other hand, comes much more easily. When I sit down for some writing time, the first thing I work on is poetry, and it’s what I spend the most time on. I like how the boundaries of poetry are loose and free. I like that I get to play with the way the words feel in the mouth. I like that I can whittle a story down to its essence–all the way down to a haiku if necessary. It is also all I have managed to get published to date, and people tell me that, out of what I write, it is what elicits the most powerful reaction.
The trouble with poetry, though, is that its audience is absolutely tiny. And I do not write just for myself. I do not write because I enjoy it–though that is a wonderful by-product. As unpopular as it is to say in the writing world, I write because I have something that needs to be said. If someone else said what I have to say, the value would be the same. This idea may not be obvious in everything I write, but to date I’ve only told the thousandth part of all I need to say, and I hope that the message of all I have to say will be understood as the sum of all I write, rather than just bits in isolation. Each bit I write is like a premise in a very long philosophical argument. And I write because it behooves me to contribute to society in the best way I can. The best thing I can do is to write. To have the biggest impact possible, to me, is to have as many people reading as possible. I have trouble seeing how that is possible with poetry.
I have a few months yet before I have to submit my choice to the schools I am applying to. And I will have some classes between now and then in which I might encounter some breakthrough in my writing–heck, maybe even with fiction. And if I get into my first choice of school, I won’t even have to choose a focus. (Yeah, I’ve made great strides with my choice of grad schools and my list is more or less set.) And, of course, I can always write whatever I want–I will just have two or three years where I’m focusing more one genre. Perhaps bearing that in mind will take some of the pressure off. However, my application will have to have my best writing, and I will have to decide which genre is my best writing, maybe.
It will all come together. I just get impatient.