Note to a Writer

Hey, friend. I see you sitting at your desk, maybe putting restrictions on how often you’ll click into all those MFA forums and blogs to see if anyone has an answer about anything. You’re trying not to peel your cuticles or jump out of your skin. Maybe doors are closing one nerve-electrifying week at a time. The waiting game is hard and rejection is more than hard because right now it seems like everything is on the line.  But this post is not about getting into a school; this goes beyond admissions for fall: this is a love note.

Writing isn’t about getting into an MFA program though we all very much know the benefits of getting into one. For a moment, just while you’re reading this, imagine that you’re standing in a white-walled museum space. One one side of the room is a fantastically dizzying installation: a mountain of televisions blazing colors, stats, quotes, snow, howling, confetti, harp music, etc. The mountain is entangled in vines of flashing Christmas lights and explosions of disco-ball tinsel. On the other side of the room is a padded chair. Pull the heavy curtain across the room and allow yourself to take a rest.

Now that it’s quiet, here’s what I want to tell you:

Your life doesn’t begin or end with the MFA. This is a fact. I know that getting into the school of your choice could alter your life forever, but getting into a good program doesn’t ensure that you will be a writer, or that you will make good art. The program is only 2-3 years long, and while you’ll meet interesting people, influential faculty, and the fantastic friends you may have for life, only you can ensure that you are going to write post-MFA and complete your magnum opus. The program may help unblock certain areas, and give you new tools or ways of seeing, but it’s not going to make you a writer. There is a secret key to being a writer, and I’m going to tell you what it is.

You have to practice writing, and you have to keep doing it. Of course, it’s possible to write for ten years and still be a shitty writer. This is because practice doesn’t mean repetition compulsion. Practice means taking a good, hard look at what and how you’re doing something, and then finding a way to do it better, and trying it again. You have to let yourself take things to the edge– even if you’re making horrible art by doing so at first.

I’ve heard people say, “But this [form/way/process/etc.] doesn’t fit my style!” I’ve said it to myself, too. That’s only an excuse to avoid trying something that could lead to failure because what you’re really afraid of is failing since your self-worth is so closely tied to what you can/can’t accomplish on your first, second or tenth try. In being afraid and not practicing, you’re going to prevent the art from taking on its own energetic shape or life. I promise that failure is not going to annihilate your soul, even if it feels really, really scary. You just can’t possibly know what you can really do until you really experiment with it in a serious, earnest, heartbreakingly sincere way.  Put the cynicism and self-doubt away; they won’t serve you until it’s time to critique, and it’s not time to critique until you finish with the experiment and gather your thoughts in a calm (not frantic, anxious, or ego-crushing) manner. (Also, you might consider switching from coffee to tea. But I won’t ask too much of you right now.)

If you want to be a writer, the not-so-secret key is to learn how to fail, and to fail better until you’re not failing. Yes, I said “fail” three times. That’s because most of the work that writers do don’t see the light of day.  You already know that trying and failing is better than not trying at all. But why? It’s not just a stupid maxim that your parents/friends/lovers/teachers like to say to drive you into glossy-eyed despair, which tells me that when faced with failure you’re used to either quitting or frenetically attempting to do it all again in a similar way without truly assessing yourself, the work, or the process. We have to try and fail  because it’s only then that we can possibly understand what doesn’t work and why. If you tell yourself it’s not going to work, you’ll always ever live in a bubble of concept and theory. You have to get your hands dirty to really know. Don’t forget that life can still delight and surprise, and that this fact makes the pain and suffering we experience in all realms of life bearable and worthwhile. Things change, writing changes–but not if you’re keeping your hands still.

So don’t look at the MFA as the answer. You are the real answer. There are people who get into top schools and fizzle out. Quitting is always going to be the easier option than doing real work. But you’re a writer, and I love that you’re a writer. You’re putting tiny pieces of the world into a particular order. You’re valuing all of human experience by thinking deeply about who we are. And you’re absolutely necessary in the world even when you feel invisible. Failure is going to happen no matter what. It’s up to you to decide what you’re going to do with it.


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