Post-MFA Slump

I’ve not written a word that I would consider “writing” in about a month. I’ve been in LA, watching porn stars dry humping goth kids on dance floors at kick-ass concerts; I’ve been mentally stealing recipes from work to wow dinner party guests, for whom I don’t have room to host in my cluttered apartment; I’ve been making playlists on my iPod to play at work, trying to coordinate the perfect day for every worker and every customer, which is very impossible, and therefore satisfying. I’m not asking for help, or anything – I’m from Indiana, where pride is born – but I’d love to hear a few suggestions for how to stop fucking off and dry-humping dusty year-old essays and crank out something new and worthwhile. I’ve been reading Donald Ray Pollock’s new novel, The Devil All the Time, and it’s phenomenal – it impales you in the same way Jude the Obscure does, and I guess that’s kind of productive, but I’m also not from the South or England, nor do I sacrifice animals to save my cancerous wife (those deets are in the dust jacket; I’m not spoiling anything), so yeah. I don’t mean to sound all MFA-exclusive, or anything, because I realize how irritating that can be, but how the hell, fellow recent and semi-recent MFAs, do you teach yourself to sit down, stop decompressing after graduation, realize that summer’s over, stop being scared of failure, and just write? I was kind of a dirtbag before I moved here; I’m too old to relapse. #whitewhine

20 Comments

  • Melissa says:

    I need a routine. That’s where I’m having trouble- I can’t figure out how to fit the damn time in. And it may be that the answer is what I think it might be (for me): you only get to sleep six hours a night again and you need to deal with it.
    This may help: I’ve been sneaking an hour here and there, and that is better than nothing. Maybe it’s because I feel like I’m stealing time or doing something illicit, but realizing that no one else is home and rushing to open up a word doc or grab my notebook and get down something, anything before someone walks in the door and fucks up my train of thought, has at least made me think about writing. Even if I only ended up with two paragraphs and some notes, I’m thinking about the writing itself instead of thinking about the guilt of not writing.

  • Karen says:

    This is the best description of “the slump” yet. I turned my thesis in on August 16th and I’ve been a hedonistic blob of non-writing ever since. I wish I had the solution. Please find it for us.

  • Laura says:

    Part of me says, if you don’t feel like picking back up with writing, don’t. Everyone decompresses in their own time, and everyone writes at their own pace. Eventually, you’ll probably find yourself overcome with the urge to write–and then you’ll just do it.
    Another part of me says, just write something. Anything. Journal your every inane thought if you’ve got nothing else. I have journals upon journals full of small descriptions of customers I served and the incessant countdown to the end of my shifts, recorded during lulls at coffeehouses and hotels where I worked. Very little in those journals came to anything, but it kept me thinking in prose, using complete sentences and paragraphs.
    Or, you know, NaNoWriMo is close at hand. “Novel” schmovel–use it to write whatever you want. Exterior pressure always works well for me. Maybe we could start a small word count accountability group, regardless of genre, and aim for 50,000 words of whatever it is we like to write.

  • The only thing that works for me is deadlines. If there’s not someone or something cracking the whip, I don’t get down to business. My keep-on-writing problem is really a find-a-deadline problem.

    I look for contests and call for submissions to make my own deadlines. A lot of lit magazines (and other magazines) have call for specific themes. Sometimes it fits something I’ve already written (i.e. probably some sort of thesis work) and I can edit an old piece. Sometimes it’s a theme I’d wanted to write about. Sometimes I just use the submission call as a writing prompt and sit down to see what happens on the page.

    I don’t always make the deadlines or submit my piece, but I do get some writing done.

    NaNoWriMo also works great for me because that is one big giant deadline. You don’t have to write a novel to participate, it’s all about making the 50K. Our Spokane liaisons are fantastic. They plan fun writing events and keep you motivated. Sign up on the NaNoWriMo.org and make sure you specify Spokane to be your home region. That way you’ll automatically get the announcements of write-in marathons and other get-togethers.

  • Jonathan Frey Jonathan Frey says:

    It seems like this is the essential question in post-MFA land. The MFA-orthodox response seems to have something to do with guilt feelings and self-flagellation. I don’t much go in for that myself. A friend (and grad school colleague) would set a daily word count and make an arrangement with someone else that involved a financial penalty for failure to meet word count on any given day. My hunch is that that generated lots and lots of crappy writing. I feel similarly about NaNoWhatever. Word counts are easy to meet. Good writing is harder.

    My normal mode is to treat it like a job. A job that, some days I love, some days I hate, and some days I skip. But just because I hated it or skipped it yesterday doesn’t have any bearing on how I approach it today. It helps me with this mindset to have a project and, sometimes, like Asa suggests, a deadline. But I hold those deadlines loosely, otherwise I’ll be inclined to settle for sub-par final products.

    • I think you’re right that producing word count is easier than creating good writing. However, if you’re in a spot when neither is happening, NaNoWriMo or any kind of pressured bursts of writing can help.

      When you’re under the gun and writing for several hours a day, something happens to your brain in the space that deals with creativity–where ever that might be. Ideas starts flowing and possibilities you didn’t see before are now obvious.

      I wouldn’t submit anything I’d written during NaNo until I’d applied a hefty dose of clean-up. However, as one wise writer whose name I can’t currently recall said: “You can edit crappy writing. You can’t edit a blank page.”

      • Jonathan Frey Jonathan Frey says:

        I can see it as a kind of temporary treatment for writer’s block, but some writers seem to treat it as a primary mode. If I can get all metaphorical: It’s medicine, not food.

        So, within that framework, I agree. And I do use similar tactics when I’m stuck on a project, just plow out a draft and edit later.

        (PS: Glad to “talk” with you again, Asa. Hope you’re well.)

        • Good to “talk” to you too Jonathan. We really must stop meeting this way. :-)

          I like your metaphor about treating verbal vomiting bursts as medicine and not food. It somehow really sums up my experience with writing for me. Sometimes it’s like a wonderful gourmet meal, a sensual experience that nourishes my soul while satisfying my taste buds. Sometimes it’s just a bitter pill that I have to swallow hole while washing it down with juice and holding my nose.

  • Melissa says:

    Sam, remember when you talked about your affair with fiction? Maybe you should write 2,000 words for this (http://www.inlander.com/spokane/blog-4277-short_-fiction_-contest_.html)It’ll get you all hot and bothered and then you’ll feel ready to rush back into the warm bosom of nonfiction.

  • Sam Edmonds says:

    Thanks, y’all – crisis is averting. NaNo (or NaMe, in nonfiction’s case) will be a good start. Would submitting nonfiction to a fiction contest be unethical? I guess I could make something up here and there.

    • Jonathan Frey Jonathan Frey says:

      This is the great thing about fiction writers (especially outside of MFAland): They don’t care what you call fiction. Submit away. Make stuff up, or don’t and say you did. If they like it, they’ll publish it, and there will be no one to reverse fact-check to assure there are enough lies.

      And at the end of the day, no one will mind except your nonfiction colleagues who seem to have rather rigid ideas about all this. (But I won’t tell them).

    • tanya.debuff says:

      I think you know what David Shields would say. :)

  • Eboni says:

    LOL. Still trying to figure that out.

  • Summer says:

    I’m starting to think of writing as the discipline of observing and recording details. For example, I watch the ants migrate across my kitchen sink. I write about their thirst, how they only search for food in the parts of the house that also have water. I once left a sticky spoon with honey beside my bed and they never found it. I write these thoughts down, and all of a sudden I am also writing about the thirst of travelers and their marches across the desert. In other words, write about the spider, the squeaky desk chair, the permanent hard water stains on your shower curtain, because behind these details are ideas and stories that will present themselves if you give yourself to the work of writing every little thing down. At least, this is the strategy that is helping me write today.

    • Summer says:

      Also, I bribe myself with candy, sometimes really gross candy like watermelon-flavored marshmallows. Its amazing how well this can work.

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