Question for fellow writers: When you think of writing, do you think of it as work? … fun? … or part of your identity?
I earned a Master of Fine Arts in Poetry.
It feels weird to say that now because, while I still write poems (I mean, I wrote one for my mom the other day and another one for fun), I didn’t exactly become the career poet I imagined I’d be. And some days I don’t know how to feel about that.
When I tell people I got an MFA, I usually say “in creative writing” … not poetry. Poetry brings up one of these predictable responses:
- Oh! Have you published a book? (Well, I mean, I wrote one, but I didn’t …)
- Oh! I HATED poetry in high school. (That’s a shame. What was your teacher like?)
- Oh! Have you read Bukowski? You should really read Bukowski … (mansplaining poetry to me commences).
I’d rather not encourage any of these lines of discourse.
As much as I love my craft — since childhood, I’ve loved it with a secret kind of greed — I’ve often felt embarrassed by it. I wasn’t raised in a particularly academic household. I was always known as the reader of the family, the sensitive-type, the kid most likely to hide away in her room. My relatives were charmed by what I wrote when I was a child, but they didn’t understand the type of poetry I began to write in college and grad school. Very few people in my life have asked to read my work — and that’s okay! (There are times when I think the idea of an “audience” is overrated.)
Grad school itself was as nerve-wracking as it was absolutely profound. I never regret having gone through it; but in some ways, it took the child-like fun out of poetry. I felt pressured to publish. I felt constitutionally unable to participate in the networking some of my peers were naturally good at. After I graduated, I didn’t write poetry for a long time. When I started again, I had to silence my inner critic and forget about being “good” — if I didn’t, I was paralyzed. In fact, it helped to write bits or prose or creative essays (or lesson plans) instead.
The lessons and benefits I have taken from graduate school have been more varied and longer-lasting than my fantasies about a career in poetry. I’ve put my knowledge of the English language and my ability to play with ideas and phrases to use as a teacher and, now, as a “content creator” (what an odd phrase) …
Although I’ve been a writer for most of my life, I’ve only been a professional writer for a couple of years. (I was an inner-city teacher for about 10 years, plus an adjunct professor and a tutor/freelancer, but that’s this whole other thing.) In that time, I’ve had to re-conceptualize my approach to creating.
You see, given enough room, I’ll …
research for-ever; then walk about a bit or clean or write a poem or nap, then arrange quotes and type key phrases I want to emphasize; then create an super-specific outline; then procrastinate (drink wine, listen to music, b-r-o-o-d); then get down to utilizing all that good stuff and drafting/editing/drafting/editing like a crazy woman; then gradually devolve into tinkering until it’s time (past time) to submit.
Turns out that doesn’t work in the real world. Thanks for nothing, grad school.
The pressure of logging time and juggling projects means I need to brainstorm fast, get something down on paper — no matter how I feel about it — and edit from there, with the goal of a quick turnaround.
This makes me uncomfortable. Which gives me the sneaking suspicion that it’s absolutely necessary for growth.
The hilarious thing is that it’s (for a decade) exactly what I told my students to do, never imagining I’d have to follow the advice myself! I mean, to be honest, it never seemed like that much …
The most fun I have in my job is when we all get together and brainstorm ideas. The second most fun I have is when I finish a project and it’s well-received. The stuff in the middle — it’s that stuff I have to work on.
It’s the figuring out how to inject the child-like fun into the work without giving too much thought to my identity.
It’s finding that deep focus I naturally had as a child, relished in grad school, and only rarely experience in the fog of my day-to-day life.
Why rarely? … No, I really want to know. Why rarely?
This is the big question of this post, I guess. Because it’s been a long time since I had the permission — nay, the obligation — to absorb myself in the real work of writing for my fucking life.
Is it about letting go of the ego? Is it about finding joy in discipline? Because if so, then I’m in trouble.
I need to find that sweet spot of lacking ego but loving reward … Of enjoying the puzzle of sentence structure while disregarding the pull of perfectionism. And to be honest, I’m not there yet.
As far as finding time to promote my creative work? I’ll submit a poem, story, or essay once in a blue moon, without expecting an in-print publication. I’m happy to have a few poems existing in print out there, and a few essays floating around online. About a year ago, one of my essays was accepted for a coffee-book-type-thing. I didn’t know whether to tell everyone or laugh! (I laughed.)
I guess the 12-year-old writer in me would have been thrilled. So I’ll take that as a step in the right direction.