First year contributor, Uncategorized
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Filling The Tank

Image: David Wright

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about this Joss Whedon quote: “The last piece of advice on that level is fill the tanks, fill the tanks, fill the tanks. Constantly watch things and things you don’t [normally watch]. Step outside your viewing zone, your reading zone. It’s all fodder but if you only take from one thing then it’ll show.”

He’s talking about movies, but when I read this a couple of years ago it really resonated with me in terms of my writing practice. Back then I was in a pretty intense corporate job that involved lots of late nights, weekend work and business travel, so what I thought ‘filling the tank’ meant was making the time for creative consumption: reading books, watching movies, going to plays. It was about taking myself out of the spreadsheets and presentations that dominated my days and feeding my creative mind. Back then, all I wanted was more time to do this.

3 months into my MFA program, I have all the time I could possibly want. I take 3 classes, I have no teaching load, and I’m sticking to the discipline of waking up at 7am and working an 8 hour day. I loved the first month and a half — I threw myself into reading and writing intensely, and at one point was managing to read a novel and write a short story every week. But about a month ago, my productivity vanished. Sitting in front of my laptop at 8am I found myself procrastinating on social media (I usually use the Freedom app to block my internet, but more and more I wasn’t switching it on in the mornings). I started to dread writing, so I turned to what had always worked for me in the past: reading. But terrifyingly, picking up a book inspired the same sense of dread and fatigue that writing was causing. I had never felt this way before. For my entire life, reading had always been my escape, my joy, my rejuvenation. It was how I filled my tank.

Thus commenced several weeks of existential angst. Maybe I didn’t want to be a writer? Maybe I couldn’t write except with the daytime pressure of a full time job? Maybe I was not the introvert that I thought I was, and *shock and horror* actually needed human contact on a daily basis? I found myself missing my corporate job, particularly the more mundane aspects of it. Suddenly, and I am not joking, I felt an overwhelming urge to do some admin. Like a tax return, or someone’s end of year accounts. Commence existential angst.

After much hair-pulling I figured out that:

  1. Reading and writing had always been my escape, passion, and hobby. Now it is my full time job, and because I am a boring person who doesn’t really have other interests, it means I no longer have an escape / passion / hobby.
  2. I never quite realised it, but my unrelated finance job WAS filling my tank, in some weird background way. Or at least it allowed me the space to not think about creative stuff, which paradoxically allowed my ideas to breathe, grow and take root over time. Now that I’m spending 100% of my time reading and writing and thinking about writing, I no longer have that space.

I can’t say I’ve solved this problem yet, but for now I’m just trying to get out of the house more, to spend time taking walks, going to lectures on non-creative topics, and maybe attending classes in programming or visual art. Filling the tank no longer means movies and books, not fiction, at least. I’m reading more non-fiction and watching more documentaries. I’m spending time talking to my husband about data science. I’m looking at volunteer opportunities for the spring.

When I got here, it was such a dream come true that I binged on the creative life. It worked for a while but I guess in a way I burnt out. It makes sense though; people have told me that that’s part of what an MFA is about: figuring out how to live your writing life. I thought I had it figured out because my routine was so structured for the past 3 years before coming here. But that was a very specific routine for a very specific type of life, that in many ways wasn’t sustainable over the long term. I’m hoping I’ll find a better way now.

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Rachel Heng is currently an MFA candidate and Fiction Fellow at the Michener Center for Writers. Her debut novel, Suicide Club, will be published by Sceptre, Hachette (UK) and Henry Holt, Macmillan (US) in August 2018. Rachel’s short stories have recently appeared in The Adroit Journal, The Offing, Prairie Schooner, the minnesota review, and elsewhere. Her fiction has won Prairie Schooner's Jane Geske Award, was recently nominated for the Pushcart Prize and has been recommended by The Huffington Post. Rachel was born in Singapore, went to college in New York and spent several years working in London before she moved to Austin for her MFA. Rachel can be found on Twitter at @rachelhengqp or at www.rachelhengqp.com.

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