I launched my MFA dreams two years ago, starry-eyed and oblivious. At the time, I had three finished essays to my name (and I use the term “finished” very, very loosely). I figured, “I’ve taken a writing class or two; I have a few pieces that have gotten some positive feedback; I don’t have the SLIGHTEST clue where I’m going with any of it or what I want to write next, but I’ll do an MFA and figure it out when I get there.”
Not surprisingly, things didn’t go according to plan. I mean, it wasn’t the WORST idea I’d ever come up with–and before the days of hyper-competitive MFA admissions, it might have been perfectly fine. But it also spoke to my inexperience, not just as an MFA applicant in-the-know, but as a writer with a dedicated approach to production and craft.
I’ve always been something of a perfectionist; and when I started toying with creative nonfiction, I struggled to keep up with any kind of daily writing practice, in part because I wanted to focus on fixing and polishing the pieces that I did have–even if I didn’t really know how to do that yet, of what I was trying to say. Then, once I decided to shoot for an MFA, I stopped writing new work and zeroed in even more on the pieces that were destined for my writing sample.
Trouble was, they were the only pieces I had.
The summer before application season, I attended the Tin House Writers Workshop in Portland, Oregon. Everything about that glorious, sun-drenched, whiskey-soaked week–the intensive workshopping, the constant lectures, the alfresco readings at sunset, the incredible friendships with like-minded writers just as excited about words and language as I was–solidified my desire to pursue graduate school. But it also opened my eyes to the real life of a writer–to the necessity of WRITING, first and foremost and as frequently as possible. I had brought my intended writing sample to the workshop, expecting to get my feedback, tighten up both essays, and promptly pop them in the mail with the rest of my application materials. Instead, I learned so much–too much, it seemed at the time–and came away bewildered, awash with ideas, knowing deep down that I had heavy rewrites and major revisions ahead of me and wondering how I was going to whip my two fledgling essays into shape by December 1.
“What if they aren’t good enough?” I moaned over my post-lecture bourbon and soda. Every day around 4pm, lectures would end for the day and my fellow workshoppers and I would take to the patio, drinks in hand, to digest the day’s events.
“What else do you have?” asked Chris, an MFA grad and fellow student in my workshop group.
“That’s the thing. I don’t have anything else. And now I’m out of time.”
Chris shook his head. “You’ve got plenty of time. Start writing tomorrow. Write something every day. Even if it’s short, or it sucks, you’ll start amassing pages. Keep going, and you’ll have lots of them. If all else fails with these two essays, you’ll always have other projects to fall back on.”
It wasn’t what I wanted to hear at the time. It’s also some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten.
I can’t, in all honesty, say I’ve written every day since that July afternoon three years ago. But I’ve written more. Lots more. And now that I’m in the process of selecting a writing sample for this year’s MFA applications, I’m still writing.
On one hand, this is problematic: it keeps my attention spread and my ideas swimming constantly, even when I start to feel the deadlines breathing down my neck now, at the end of October, and I still haven’t nailed down the perfect set of essays for my first due date on December 1. On the other, it is liberating–even validating. In the midst of application madness, I’m still writing. Writing bits and blurbs and flash pieces and whole new essays that probably won’t have anything to do with my MFA applications…and then again, who knows? I’m writing because the words and ideas are there, all the time, every day. I’m writing because, even after hours battling with SOP word counts and combing through college essays in search of critical writing samples, I’m not burnt out. I’m still excited. And if anything is going to make me feel 100% certain about my choice to pursue the MFA course–or my dedication to writing on my own if this year’s apps don’t pan out–it’s that feeling. That excitement.
Maybe it’s crazy-making to imagine drafting a new essay that has the urgency, the strength, to be a writing sample contender at this stage of the game. Then again, maybe it’s the best kind of crazy.