Monday, January 31, 2011

Life After the MFA

Believe it or not, I didn’t disappear for more than a month because I was charged with the felony cyberbullying of James Frey. Nor have I abandoned the blog to enter the high-stakes world of corporate events planning under an alias. I haven’t spent the last several weeks trapped in a wine cellar with zero access to wi-fi – though wouldn’t that be nice? – nor did I embark on a voyage of personal discovery and ingest a rare tropical parasite in the process. Instead, after a flurry of houseguests over the holidays, and quite a few flurries of the meteorological variety, I’ve been spending most of my time doing what I’m doing right now: typing on a little red laptop on a big red couch.

I’ve been working on a novel, to be more specific, and I’ve been able to focus on it lately because at the end of 2010, I took a step even less advisable for an unpublished writer of uncertain talents: I quit my day job. Now before you call in the calm young men with the restraints, let me explain that I don’t have any illusions that I’m going to be able to support myself with my fiction, now or in the future. Like most everyone, I have dreams where the zombie of Maxwell Perkins and the werewolf played by Danny DeVito in Big Fish hand me a giant check and fireworks implode backwards in the sky and an ostrich with a human face raises her head out of the sand and whispers, “You’ve arrived.”

Also, this guy blurbs me.  Admit it, you’ve had this dream too.

Realistically, though, I know that’s never going to happen, and in a lot of ways my decision to join the ranks of the funemployed had nothing to do with writing at all. But at least temporarily, my newfound free time has given me an opportunity to recommit to my creative work – something that would have sounded like unnecessary bullshit to me a few years ago.

Because I made this decision already -- on several occasions, in fact, but most recently and dramatically in my decision to spend two years and a not insubstantial chunk of change to attend an MFA creative writing program conveniently located near the diseased but still-beating heart of America’s publishing industry. At the time, I certainly hoped this would lead to something unspeakably glorious, like a book deal or admittance to some eternal Barthelmian conservatory, but at the very least, it seemed like the choice would stick – that forever after I would walk through life as a WRITER, the brand upon me like some mark of Cain that doubled as a hand stamp for readings at bars with a cover.

Then three years after graduating, I found myself crouched under my boss’s desk, muttering curses at a broken printer whose orange error light glared like the eye of Sauron, wondering what the hell had happened to me. I’d changed, seemingly overnight, into someone I hardly recognized. In grad school, at the beginning of the semester, classmates would greet me with, “How’s Bernie?” – asking after the protagonist of my first novel as if inquiring about the health of my son. Now I rarely told people I wrote fiction at all. I’d become cynical and witty, or at least snide, on the subject of publishing; a daily reader of Publisher’s Marketplace, I watched trends roll through the industry, as boring and unavoidable as weather, but the deals that cut me to the quick were the rare few that sounded like books I could have written if only I could really write. Instead, I felt like a study in existential inauthenticity, pouring my intellectual energy into rigorous, vehemently argued reports for work or comments that went ignored on strangers’ blogs, then staring at my own latest Big Project in stunned despair. I’ve rarely identified with a character as much as Oona Lazlo in Chronic City when she discovers her best work will never be published, not even pseudonymously: “Apparently, I’m who you enlist when you’re selling out in this town.” I also felt like I was ghostwriting someone else’s life, and badly.

I’m not describing all this to elicit sympathy – as the expression goes, when you make your own bed you have to lie on it, curled helplessly in a fetal position and praying morning never comes. I’ve known writing was a tough racket, theoretically, since I was old enough to attend poetry readings in my hometown, where thinly veiled suicide threats masqueraded as verse and the espresso machine was louder than the microphone. But I have to say that I think the post-MFA slump has been the toughest test of my resolve so far, and I don’t think that I’m alone in that.

So the title of this piece doubles as a call for comments – for those of you former MFAers out there in blogland, what have you done to hold onto your discipline, your sense that the work you’re doing is important, even/especially when success didn’t come easy? And what, if anything, could MFA programs do to better prepare fledgling writers for what they face afterwards? I’ll plan to talk about both those subjects in future posts.