Mother F-ING AWESOME: prioritizing writing after the mfa

hello, typewriter

What a lark! You finished two or three years of intensive Creative Writing at the institution of your choice! Congratulations, you have a Masters in Fine Arts!

Now that the (hopefully) glitzy and glam-y lifestyle of an underfunded graduate student is over, you are faced with the deluge of questions from well-intentioned neighbors, family members, and cohorts: Will you keep writing? Obviously. As Major Jackson stated so eloquently in my last article, writing is for most of us a tool of survival. What do you do with an MFA? OK. Write. For one. And for those of us who didn’t attend fully-funded programs, pay off obscene student loan debt for the next forty years. And  finally, the ever-present What will you do next?

Well. What will you do next? How do you make the last few years of your life carry into the rest of your life? Luckily, there are many options. You could forget your graduate school experience entirely and never write again, which is an unfortunately common phenomenon in creative communities that are over-saturated with gorgeous talent. You could realize that creativity is a difficult life path, and could opt to go to law school for a more secure future. You could pick up piece-meal writing and editing gigs for stipends and kick-backs. You could do phone sex operation (it definitely pays more than poetry). You could teach. You could apply for the ever-competitive PhD programs. Honestly. You are a free adult. You can do anything you want. However, there are a few important things to remember to help you combat the post-MFA slump your creative brain may be in.

1.    Set up a routine and stick to it

we're trying to get a feel for how people spend their day at work, so…

space out? what do you mean?

This is an age-old adage. The best way to write something is to put your ass in a chair and get through it. For many writers, this means establishing a way for you to be comfortable sitting for a set amount of time each week. My current personal routine (especially since I am one of those rare individuals who actually has a consistently lucrative writing gig) is to wake up around 8, make a pot of coffee, and shut myself at my desk for two hours with lots of coffee, water, headphones with Chopin blasting, all social media sites disabled, and a silent cellphone. My room must be clean, my cats must be fed, my hair must be piled on my head. I can’t give myself any distractions or excuses whatsoever to pull away from my work. I recognize that this is a luxury that not everyone can afford. However you can manage to get yourself routinely in your writing chair (by writing during your lunch hour, or through self-coercion, or by writing on the bus home from work) take advantage of that.

A non-fiction professor at Lesley once told my class that evidence has shown creative types are most creative and productive a few hours before and after the time they were born. Physiologically and neurologically, this makes sense. Creativity is a nurtured discipline that has roots in the body; when we physically interact with art and have profound experiences of transcending our bodies, we feel compelled to create — this is why ekphrasis exists, and anthology, and collaboration. Perhaps this physical connection began in the womb, if the womb is truly where a sense of time begins. If so, this physical sense of time and its relation to creativity can surely be reigned in, relied upon, and used to set routines that will keep us disciplined and prolific in our craft.

2.    Attend readings

Invest in your local literary community while jump-starting your creative-brain by going to readings in your area. Make a commitment to go to a certain amount per month, with more readings during major literary festivals. You will have the opportunity to interact with what is happening in your community, as well as show solidarity and support for local writers. Litseen regularly posts lists of local readings. And if you can’t attend the actual reading, read the review of the reading or watch the video recording. Similarly, consider investing in a museum membership (if it is a viable financial option for you. If not, check out museum free days/student prices/days when visitations may be cheaper due to construction). Frank O’Hara volunteered at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and wrote many poems and letters in front of his favorite paintings. Once, while in a writing slump, I went to the MoMA in San Francisco and ended up spending three hours in front of Diego Rivera’s The Flower Carrier, which kickstarted an entire series of poems! Interaction with other forms of art is crucial — think of it as doing writing homework.

flower carrier

3.    Experiment in making yourself feel uncomfortable

Stuck in a rut? Try changing your surroundings. Jump on a bus and ride it to the end of the line and back. Go to a part of town you’ve never been to before. Take a long walk with just a notebook and a pencil. I am fortunate enough to be on a plane, train, or bus about every three weeks, and I find that most of my best writing is done while I’m in a situation or environment that forces me to theorize. Why do I feel out of sorts right now? Perhaps because memory is associative, and the smell of the terminal brings back emotions I wouldn’t be faced with in the comfort of my writing den. In A Natural History of the Senses, Ackerman talks about how living in a world as a sense-full being (in terms of the five senses) is both a privilege and a recurring trauma. Harness the associative powers of the brain for your own creative gain (so sorry for that rhyme, but I do have a Masters in Poetry).

If we follow the advice that Major gave us in the last article, we see that engaging with the unfamiliar and the creative often manifest in cross-training, which can help to jump-start your writing brain. Pamela Petro, an extremely talented and gracious travel writer who is on faculty at Smith, once told me that to accurately record and talk about travel, you must do it alone, with a notebook. Take yourself to unfamiliar places, and sit in them quietly. Draw faces. Allow yourself to sit still and focus on a few things at a time. What do the alleys smell like in Oakland near the port? How is the light? Nature is, after all, the most incredible lighting designer. How do you utilize the light and shadow in your work? Being in a new setting often forces you to take note and shift perspective about what you see and experience.

4.    Prioritize your craft

This is the most important point of all. How can you utilize the powers of discipline and structure that your MFA program (hopefully) gave you to continue on a regular diet of words and caffeine? There are a few ways to make sure you prioritize and hold sacred your writing time, and some of them could even contribute to your livelihood. Setting a routine (as established above) will help you stay on the right track and train your brain to function as a regular craft-machine that turns in every Tuesday and Thursday, 8am-11am (for instance). Routine will also help you muscle through the bullshit notion that you must be inspired to write. Screw that. Creativity is a muscle and it needs constant pumping. If you are absolutely the sort of person who is fueled by inspiration instead of religious-like zeal for writing, then attending poetry readings and going to museums will allow you to interact with new ideas. And keeping yourself sharp by staying on your toes in unfamiliar situations will help hone your writing chops as a versatile and fresh writer.

But priority? That comes from discipline, and yes, even utilizing timeless tactics like bribery. Don’t be afraid to set up a reward system! Coffee is expensive and social time is precious, so why not tell yourself that you can go to that dance party if you spend two hours writing? I confess to bribery of a more materialistic nature, using lipstick. If I write for two hours a day for a week, I get to buy a new tube of lipstick. Haha it's a penIf I write for two hours a day for a month, I get to buy a new tube of fancy lipstick. One named after Rihanna or Beyonce; those are the big leagues. Of course, the ultimate reward system is to be a professional (paid) writer, with per-piece compensation. Though those jobs are rare, being a flexible and multi-genre writer will help make you a competitive candidate for gigs that pay. Check out local presses — can you gain compensation by reading for book reviews? Places like Kirkus and Lambda Literary pay their writers regularly for reviews specific to their tastes. Another alternative (if you can stomach the consumerist implications) is to write product reviews for kickbacks. Whether it is sex toys, toothbrushes, or bike seats, you would be surprised at how many companies pay people to write or vlog about their products. At any rate, having a cash payout at the end of your writing stick will keep you producing work, even if it isn’t the literary work you normally focus on.

Another tactic for prioritizing your writing is to have transparent conversations with the important people in your life about your writing time. Because writing is a solitary act, it is easy for others to assume that it is flexible, negotiable, and sometimes even self-absorbed. When you have the balm of an MFA program, you can easily explain your writing time as homework, but after you graduate, you no longer have access to that kind of social acceptability. Telling the people in your life who matter that your writing schedule is still non-negotiable will make a huge difference in transitioning from coursework to life work.

Writing post-MFA can be challenging to those of us who relied on the security of deadlines for the last two or three years, but the initial transition between school and life is a real opportunity to set creative roots. As we saw in the article with Major, the difference between those who continue to write for years after school and those who fall down on the job is simply time: set routines and practices in place to ensure that you are on your way to meeting your ten thousand hours.

July WesthaleJuly Westhale is a mixed race poet, activist, and radical archivist with a weakness for botany and hot air balloons. She has been awarded fellowships from the Lambda Literary Foundation, Tin House, and the Dairy Hollow Writers Colony. Her poetry has most recently been published in Barely South Review, Hinchas de Poesia, WordRiot580 SplitQuarterly WestMuzzle Magazine, ROAR Magazine, and So to Speak: A Feminist Literary Journal. Her poetry can also be found in the recently released anthologies: Conversations at the Wartime Café: a Decade of War 2001-2011, Women Write Resistance, and Contemporary Queer Poetry. She was recently nominated for the Best New Poets of 2012 anthology, an AWP Intro Award, and a Creative Writing Fulbright. july AT litseen DOT com