For a three years I kept a blog with two other Montana MFAs, the idea being we would chronicle that murky, post-graduation time when you live somewhere between apprentice writer and published author. Followers of the blog (mostly MFAs or MFA hopefuls) often said their favorite posts were when we admitted how hard that first year out can be.
I’ve since recovered (sort of) and I would now describe the experience of leaving the MFA womb as getting ejected from kindergarden mid-art project. There I was all crayons and potential surrounded by all my friends coloring around me then—wham. People have different MFA experiences, but for me, those two years I lived an idyllic life. I—no—we! were all potential.
From my years trying to be rock star, I knew better than to be too starry-eyed, but secretly I hoped that after some certain groundbreaking publication my life would morph into the world of David Sedaris’, “Chipped Beef:”
I’m thinking of asking the servants to wax my change before placing it in the Chinese tank I keep on my dresser. It’s important to have clean money—not new, but well maintained. That’s one of the tenets of my church. It’s not mine personally, but the one I attend with my family, the Cathedral of the Sparkling Nature.
Or more to the point, I was hoping to become David Sedaris.
This past year I reached that goal that drove me for, oh, about fifteen years/my entire life—a published book.
After all the twists and turns and ups and downs I had downsized my expectations from waxed change to change. And I’ve had (am having) a good run. Sales have been great for a small press and my readings successful. My Amazon page features a nice collection of solid reviews and my family has been proud of me. People I don’t know have written to say they enjoyed my book. I’ve had adventures! My Life as Laura has brought me opportunities—from big ones such as a trip to Montana to readings around Ohio. In writerland I have graduated to the arena of published author.
So, what’s my problem?
The problem is, now what?
The goal that fueled me for years, which drove me when I had nothing else, is now like the sign for the Laura Ingalls Wilder homestead in South Dakota, a flash in the rearview mirror fading further and further away. The time has come for a new spark. But sparks and drive and that relentless energy it takes to complete a work aren’t so easy to come by.
Another development I wouldn’t have expected when I began my MFA in 2006, was that by 2012 I would be finishing up my 3rd year as a PhD student in Athens, Ohio. While the PhD is less whee! than the MFA, I remain connected to great writing community, one where people have written past that first book—or more.
Confession: This post has all been a long winded introduction to an interview excerpt from my advisor, Dinty W. Moore, who has recently published The Mindful Writer, which ties in Buddhist practices to the the writing life. What Dinty says here (which is how I think on my good days) is what I need to remind myself when I’m in the slumps. Maybe it will help you in writerland, too.
JW: I’m going to take advantage of your expertise by sharing my current personal hang-up. I published a novel in the Fall to marginal acclaim, and I have two other projects very close to completion that my brain won’t allow me to finish, I believe, because I’m concerned that I’ll have a hard time publishing them. I work on them all the time, but the finish line gets further away as I rework and rethink. I generally enjoy the process, but I fear the completion. What do you think I should be mindful of with these projects?
DWM: That goes back to the essential Buddhist teachings of non-attachment. You, John, are attached to a particular outcome – something beyond “marginal acclaim.” Trust me, I’ve wrestled this devil myself, time and again. Well, remember this: you can’t control publishing and all of the industry madness. You can’t control the New York Times Book Review. You can’t control bookstores, or Amazon, or readers’ whims. So what can you control? You can control your own reactions to these outside forces. If these realities drive you up a wall, remember that it is a wall you can choose to disassemble. Just take it down, brick by brick. You can’tcontrol whether your next book is the sort of success defined by big sales, splashy parties, glowing reviews, and industry buzz, but you can control whether you define success in those terms. If you define success outside of these external forces, you can achieve that success within your own control: a book that you are proud of, a book that speaks truth, a book with elegant sentences. Easier said than done? You bet, but if success for every author is only achieved when we hit #1 on the bestseller list and have agents fighting over our next novel, then by definition 99% of us are going to be miserable and dejected all of our writing lives. What a waste. So with these two books, be mindful of how you define success, and what you can control. If you are not attached to a very particular outcome, you are more able to enjoy and appreciate whatever outcome comes along.