Two days ago, I sat down to fill out a survey from my MFA program at Cornell University. The goal, apparently, is to gather information from alumni about how to better prepare MFA students for jobs, publication, and life outside the lovely silk-lined nest that is a fully-funded, two-year, studio-intensive MFA program at an Ivy League school. One of the questions asked respondents to indicate how they would like to be of assistance to current and incoming students: class visits, e-mails, offering advice, etc. I considered the choices and selected about half of them, the ones where I felt I had something to offer.
No, I didn’t check *all* the boxes — though I admit my reflex is to be a helper. But I did notice I checked the box “offer advice on balancing writing and life.”
HA. HA HA. HAHAHAHA. Remember that Lorrie Moore story from the collection Birds of America that is an entire page of ironical laughter? Let’s read that together.
Who am I to give advice on writing and life? I feel like my entire adult life has been a quest to find that balance of how I might support myself with food and shelter and yet have time to write. Ideally, of course, my writing would support my food and shelter habits, but I have not yet arrived at that nirvana. I left a job in management consulting to study how to write, which took several years. Then I left a job as an assistant professor because, while I found extraordinary satisfaction in teaching and working with superior colleagues, the 4/4 load, committee work, service, and extra mentoring didn’t leave me any time to write.
Then I had small children, and not only did I not have time, I did not have the energy to write. My brain shriveled into something the size of a Brazilian nut, though far less nutritive.
But Muscatine has, for some reason, been a great fit for me. I realized this while in discussion with another writer who recently moved to the area. She’s taken a journalism job to meet the food-and-shelter requirement, and she longs for some stimulation to the creative, personal-writing side of her brain. I remember that feeling, though I now stand on the other side of it: there’s very nearly too much stimulation. Too many projects cooking, too many opportunities, coming up almost faster than I know how to handle them, like the Atari version of Space Invaders.
For instance, I just signed a contract to publish a short story, “The Last Word” in the summer issue of Talking River, one of my favorite literary journals. I just mailed back my final proofs of the bound galley of A LESSON IN MANNERS, I just made some final edits to my novel and sent it off to my readers, and am now waiting on tenterhooks to hear what they say. I have essays out under consideration, and essays being sent to me for an edited collection on Melusine. I agreed to contribute a chapter to a collaborative effort that Writers on the Avenue is doing. There’s more; I could go on.
But the point is, I think I have arrived in a place where I’m learning how to feed the writing. How to guard the time and that small plot of creative space from being plundered by the rest of the world, It feels incredibly selfish–I do have a spouse and children, a house that needs cleaning, friends and family relationships that need to be sustained with face-time. But I have also learned, the hard way, that if I do not protect and tend and nurture that small plot of creative space, devastating consequences follow.
Whether this translates to advice I can give someone else, I don’t know. Nothing I’ve done or learned might be transferable. This might be something every writer needs to learn instinctively, intuitively, through trial and error of their own. No one can teach you how to walk, whether on a tightrope, balance beam, or just down the street. They can offer instruction, certainly, but balancing is an intricate set of muscular coordination and decisions that your body needs to make on its own. No one can really teach you how to write. They can share many ideas about it, but in the end, those voices speaking in your head are unique entirely to you.
I think the only thing I can take away is a lesson for myself: I’ve learned I don’t need to check *all* the boxes — only the ones that count. So that’s something.