Image: Jonathan Kim
This past May marked the end of my first year in Boise State’s MFA program. In a whirlwind of moving twice, losing a relationship, cautiously starting another, searching for my voice as a writer, and of course, figuring out the best place to buy groceries, the summer loomed ahead of me. In the past few years, summer hadn’t meant much with full-time jobs and responsibilities. But I had left all of that behind in entering my MFA program. What was I supposed to do with my summer, the first official, extended break from graduate school?
In reality, I was afraid. A year earlier I was beginning my round two of applications for fiction MFA programs. I saved up enough money and released myself from any so-called job burdens from June 2012 to November 2012. “I’ll write every day,” I assured my then-boyfriend, who graciously covered my share of our San Francisco rent. While I did eventually write the three short stories that got me into my MFA program, I certainly didn’t write every day. I did watch every episode of Adventure Time, Sex and the City, and Law & Order, on top of whatever was on regular cable when my then-boyfriend or roommate were watching. Of course, I spent a lot of time researching schools or thinking about writing, which is sometimes helpful, but is also another form of procrastination.
When my classes ended and my grading was submitted, I set out to plan my own writing program for the summer. Here is an outline of the decisions I made, and issues I considered in an effort to maximize my summer and improve my writing.
During spring semester, I started listening and reading everything I could. I listened in on fellow students’ conversations, talked to recent alumni of my program, stalked the online writing communities I’m a part of for any hints of advice. I work best with a plan, so I used my newly acquired teaching skills to prepare goals for myself.
My learning goals for this summer
- Become a more efficient writer
- Train myself to write within smaller time periods (not needing three-hour blocks of time)
- Read authors suggested to me by professors and peers throughout my first year of grad school
- Read authors I bookmarked as successful in the type of writing I aspired to do
- Find a love of beautiful language again
- Begin two new short stories to get a head start on my second year workshop class
- Write two new creative non-fiction essays
- Prepare work for submission to journals from the previous year, both fiction as a result of my coursework, and non-fiction I’d written in my free time
This summer meant four months of unscheduled time. Would I be more disciplined with a year of the forced production of workshop behind me? Was I better off focusing on earning more money so that financial stresses wouldn’t take away from my writing during the school year? In terms of finances, I found two basic camps of advice for the summer break. One is to take out small student loans and “just write and think” in the summer because when else will you have so much free time with so little responsibilities? The other side advises take that part-time job, because it is unlikely money will not be an issue in your future as a writer.
I spent most of the spring semester looking for an ideal part-time job. I was extremely honest with myself about my past jobs, and which had left me feeling truly exhausted at the end of the day. For me, waitressing is a terrible, draining experience. Repetitive manual tasks are not. In looking for jobs, I had two conditions: I wanted to earn higher than minimum wage, and I wanted less than twenty hours a week. The job I landed as a test proctor met both of my terms, giving me a few truly empty days a week to write, but also gave me days where I could practice coming home from a seven hour shift and still try to write something decent.
Be honest about needs versus wants
My best shot at success for accomplishing all of this was to split tasks up by week, mimicking my coursework load during the school year. I began with reading back through my notes from fiction workshop as well as my other courses. From there, I created a list of authors I should read in order to improve my writing. Note: this is different from reading an author because a friend said it was good, or picking up a novel because a classmate won’t stop talking about it.
A Netflix documentary on Calvin & Hobbes distracted me from my initial reading plan, and I allowed myself to order the entire collection of Calvin & Hobbes through my university’s Interlibrary Loan system. After two weeks of falling behind on my fiction reading schedule, I gave in, and returned the cartoon collection without finishing it. It is alright to read selfishly during your MFA, especially in the summer. This is my best shot at finding a story, collection, or author whose influence will sustain and motivate me creatively through the next two semesters. I scanned short stories that truly grabbed me and saved them on my computer to refer to them through the next year and beyond.
Test out new practices
The truth is, I have never asked myself to write every day. Once I realized that most professional writers write in some way daily, I figured I should give it a shot. I assigned myself thirty minutes a day, fiction only, new ideas only. Forcing myself to produce new ideas but without the expectation of a finished product or workshop worthy story was a release. I felt free to be weird, or get lost in a description of a windowpane, or the politics of a middle school locker room.
For the first few weeks new ideas poured out of me, and often inspired me to write past the thirty minutes. I eventually felt frustrated with the rule constraints I’d placed on myself, and found myself wishing I could spend those thirty minutes editing or returning to a writing project. So, I released myself from my original agreement and shifted my attention to unfinished projects. Three weeks of this slowly morphed into a strong desire to begin a brand new, multi-layered fiction project.
I plan to keep up the idea of thirty minutes of writing a day, but periodically change the constraints I put on what I can or cannot work on to keep my mind sharp. Meanwhile, I have eighteen pages of new ideas, half of which I don’t hate, and that’s more than I would have if I had just waited for an idea to pop into my head.
This may be my new motto. I walked into my job from day one on the hunt for stories. I stayed on high observation-alert on any mini-vacations, walks with my dog, or just an errands trip. By the end of my first year I was burnt out on inspiration. My mind was absorbed in processing everything I’d learned the past year to the point where it couldn’t accept any other stimulus. Forcing myself to articulate what the next stage of my writing needed and allowing myself the time to simply read (as in, only absorb, not try to produce a true workshop-ready story) has kick started my love for all of this.
The process of getting into my MFA program, discovering that I didn’t know what my writing voice was, and then realizing what I wanted it to be, all took a great amount of effort. Taking a professional approach to my summer in giving myself assignments, readings, and goals has boosted my self-confidence in my writing identity. After the many moments of one step forward/two steps back of my first year in grad school, I know that I will need to keep hold of this stronger sense of self if I’m going to make the most of my second year.
Like any true writer, of course I wish I’d written more. But when I compare my goal list and my accomplished list, I know in my heart this is the closest I’ve ever come to meeting my high expectations of myself as an artist. Self-guilt is something I struggle with, and I know many other writers struggle with it too. In my writing space, I surround myself with visualizations of my accomplishments like completed to-do lists, and a list of “ready to submit” pieces organized by genre.
I wish I had been able to travel more, even within the state of Idaho. But, I knew my limited income would not allow for travel, so this was a luxury I gave up. Next summer, I know that travel and outside stimuli will be key to my thesis project, and I will have to plan carefully for the right kind of job and income that might cover these needs.
As the summer comes to an end, the worries of course loads and teaching start to lap at my feet like a rising tide. Soon meetings will begin and student emails will cloud my inbox. In the lowest moments I know I can turn to the work I did this summer. I can find inspiration from my freewrites, road maps from the short stories I scanned to my computer, and with some luck, a publishing acceptance. If not, there’s always next summer.
Jackie Sizemore is a second year in the MFA fiction program at Boise State University. She is from the East Coast, the Midwest, the South, and Tokyo. Before moving to Idaho, she completed a solo-drive across the country with only her dog for company. She received her BA in creative writing and history from Carnegie Mellon University, where she worked on the Carnegie Mellon University Press. Her work has previously appeared in Paper Darts, and Print Oriented Bastards. Jackie is a short story writer, poet, essayist, independent college admissions consultant, and blogger at www.aventureinwriting.com.
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