Tuesday, December 15, 2015

9 things I learned during my graduate writing program

Pages coming to life. Photo by Maria Teresa Ambrosi, Flickr

My trusty green folder is dog-eared. My cloth book bag is worn. My colorful pens are depleted. I have filled several notebooks, reviewed hundreds of manuscripts, and printed a gajillion pages/killed a gajillion trees. Now, after three years, nine classes, and one thesis, I am done. I have earned my M.A. in Writing.

But in truth, I have been on this artistic journey since I was five years old, with significant steps in 2008 when I started this blog and in 2009 when I reclaimed my dream of writing. I puttered around on my own for a couple years, finding my way to picture book drafts; I contemplated the spiritual facets of creativity, seeking out artists on similar quests; and I finally understood that my dreams were mine alone to realize, leading me to apply for graduate school and push past roadblocks of my own construction.

No sooner did I start the program, however, then I saw the children's book author Avi at the 2012 National Book Festival and had the inarticulate epiphany that eclipsed my articulated goals. As I wrote then:
"Oh my god," I realized. "I can do this. This is a thing. And it's my thing. I can write and tell stories and touch people and talk to them and encourage them to do the same. I want this to be my life. This should be my life."

The conviction behind the thought overwhelmed me. I wasn't considering my day job or personal development; I wasn't project-managing the situation. I was simply stating what I wanted more deeply than anything else in the world.

The epiphany scared me shitless.

In that moment, my scary, hairy, audacious dream sank its fangs in my neck and could not be shaken loose. I could deny it no longer; I had to find a way to write or spend the rest of my life wondering what I could have accomplished if I'd only tried. So with my dream snuffling and drooling on my back for three years, I set about trying.

What, then, besides narrative elements and sentence constructions and query letters have I learned about writing? Or to put it another way, what would I say to my just-starting self, the eager beaver who wrote an open letter to her graduate school professors, about her goals, her passion, and her individual creative process? Perhaps this:

  • You will surprise yourself. Werewolves? Space adventures? Second comings of Christ? I never thought I'd touch such topics, and yet I did, and wouldn't you know, some of it is readable. But the surprise lay in more than just topics. It came from late nights blinking at the ceiling because my mind was busy, and from comments I overheard on the metro, and from syntax exercises that turned into labors of love. It came from parts of my brain and heart I rarely tap, and it was those revelations that led to my most moving work.

  • You are built to workshop. All those hopes and dreams and imaginations crammed into one classroom, an avalanche of voice and vision ... how could this ENFJ not revel in the boundless, thrilling potential of creative midwives attending the birth of art? Writing is by nature a solitary craft, so workshops are critical air vents for my pent-up thoughts and questions. Without them, I would give up in a fog of loneliness and second-guessing, with no one to share my vision.

  • You were right to wait to submit. A year or so into the program, I permitted myself not to worry about getting published yet and instead focus on crafting work worth publishing. By redirecting my energy to learning how I write -- my cycles, peaks, motivators, hang-ups, bogeymen, superpowers -- I built a stronger foundation for my writing career. Now I will submit my work with far greater confidence and perspective, and thus a greater likelihood of success.

  • Hustle is essential. In the words of author Kitty Kelley (via my thesis advisor), "Perseverance and determination alone are omnipotent." If I don't send my work out, I will not be published. Simple as that. So I must turn this next phase into a numbers game, one where grit and gumption see me through the inevitable and regular failures. It's not unlike a job search in that regard, where smart research and targeted applications reap a higher rate of response. Which brings me to ...

  • Your Type A personality is an asset. I used to think I was too uptight to be a good writer, too much a fan of control to let the madman overtake the judge. But there's a time and place for every skill, and when it comes to the task of getting published, my beloved spreadsheets and calendars are precisely what will take me from saved drafts to literary credits. I don't have to fit the stereotype of a flighty scribbler in a garret; instead, I can play to my natural tendencies and project-manage my way into print.

  • You will survive rejection. I am prepared for the onslaught of nos. Not ready, per se, nor accepting of it, but prepared. Because in the end, neither form rejections nor breathless acceptances define me; writing does.

  • You have found your tribe. I never feel as much like the person I believe I am meant to be as when I am with other writers. They are my gang, my kindred spirits, the ones who "get it" without me having to explain. I need to hold them close and treat them well, because they above all will keep me going through the dark nights bound to come.

  • You can -- and do -- move people. Readers have giggled and welled up at my work, but will publishers? Doesn't matter. My loyal readers know the deal, and they're in my corner willing me to move them anew.

  • You will be published. I haven't been yet. It might take forever. But I have stated the goal out loud in multiple ways at multiple times now, and I will keep saying it until I call it into being. I believe it now more than ever. I can do it. I will do it. And I will not accept anything less of myself.
So. I have submitted my thesis copies and performed my reading, checked my grade and thanked my professors. All that's left is to sustain my momentum, make good on the lessons I've learned, and be the writer I now know I am. Easy ... right?


Prayer #294: Vision Revisited (see Prayer #226)

You now see the vision I planted in your heart, and the look in your eyes is breathtaking.

You want it more than anything you've ever wanted before, I can tell. You see it cross-legged in the corner, a patient Buddha of lifelong potential, and you think you are close enough to touch it. But when you reach out, it is still one arm's length beyond your grasp.

Only one, though. Much closer than when it first emerged in a shadowy corner, soft and unformed at its edges, and infinitely closer than when it snoozed alone in the dark, hidden and unknown to you. (Though I always knew it was there.)

This I promise you: I will help you do everything in your power to make up that final length. Whether you need longer arms or wider steps or seventeen revolutions around the room, I will support you as you shorten the distance, just as I have supported you year and year, day after day, for as long as you've inched closer.

Not that you want any more advice from me, of course, but I'll say it anyway. Stay strong. Stay focused. Stay the course. Though you might not hear it, I am cheering for you -- ever louder, ever prouder.

Amen.