Wednesday, September 10, 2008

After the MFA: The 8-Week Report

I promised an "after the MFA/what's next" post and now that eight weeks have blown by, it's time. Like all seminal events, the MFA now seems both a lifetime ago, and as if it just ended this morning.

First, the good news. It feels quite good to have accomplished something this important; mind you, I should clarify, something this important to me. An MFA is not important to a lot of editors, potential employers, friends and of course, it's not important at all to the world at large. But it was (is) to me. Checking off – and enjoying -- one of the bigger items on my life list, yeah, I'm savoring that a little bit.

A little more good news: While deadlines will always be my friend, keeping me productive and focused, it's great to not predictably turn into a lunatic precisely every third week when the mentor packet is due. [Turning into a lunatic once every 28 to 33 days anyway is another story.] It's wonderful to have control once again over my reading list (the stack of books earmarked "to be read after the MFA" was getting dangerously, depressingly large.

Still more good news: Rather than feeling my world has shrunk with the loss of the on-going writing community an MFA provides, I feel rather an expansive sense of possibility. Having writing acquaintances, and in many cases, good friends, in far-flung locations, involved in such a varied assortment of creative endeavors, well think of the opportunities for interaction, feedback, collaboration, support and comradeship.
And even more good news:
♦ My family is glad to have me back, mentally. When I'm writing or on deadline, I still close the office door (which translates in my house to: If you come in or knock your hair better be on fire), but the person who emerges every few hours is less stressed. ♦ It's a good feeling to know that my kids, both starting new schools this year, watched Mom set out to do something difficult, at age 46, and despite setbacks along the way, she finished what she started. Not that they'd ever admit it, but I know it's somewhere in each of their subconscious.
♦ I can get to all of those writing projects, which over the past two years I'd mentally labeled "after the MFA" and at the same time, my writing confidence has never been higher, a happy confluence.
♦ I can accept assignments that would have once conflicted with critical end-of-semester requirements, say yes to projects extending beyond a semester's timeframe, and book the family vacation without regard to the scheduled dictated by the MFA's residency.

And now for the not-so-good-news: What the hell is it again that I am supposed to do now?

Actually, I might have gotten this feeling a full 8 weeks back, not too long after pomp and circumstance stopped playing, except for one of those "good problems" life sometimes throws at me.

Here was the plan: Attend final MFA residency and graduation; take week-long family vacation in Maine (deferred two years, need I say why?); spend rest of summer hanging with kids -- take a breather, completely reorganize office, and make tidy lists of things to do in September. Work on the resume, but keep things simple. Of course I'd write, but I'd let my mind wander, sketch out only really rough drafts, play with poetry, decide which nonfiction book proposal to write first (I've narrowed it down to two!), and read anything my literary heart desired.

What is it they say again about making plans?

Even before leaving New Jersey for the final MFA residency, the owner of a website I do some editing and research for asked me to help develop a new editorial model and build and edit a news blog – interesting project, additional income. What could be wrong? Just the timing. I'd need to start right after the family vacation.

Which I did for a few hours each morning while the kids played Wii before heading to the pool. Then a writer I like, with a new gig editing a cool website, asked if I'd do a personal essay on a subject dear to me. I said yes, of course. Days later, another writer friend, also with a new editing job for a promising new print magazine, asked for an essay on another equally interesting topic. Yes again, of course.

I am NOT complaining, folks. No freelance writer with any sense complains about being ASKED to contribute to media ventures they admire, by people they like. In fact, I was – am -- grateful. It was a little more than I wanted to cope with in August, but what the heck, the kids had some camp programs going and what's a little more Wii and Nintendo time anyway?

That's when an artist asked me to evaluate a book project and outline editorial, marketing, and publishing options. In between, a piece of narrative nonfiction I'd submitted to a (paying) literary journal was accepted and the editor was keen to work on the changes before her college students returned. Yes, and yes again, of course.

Again, NOT complaining. At this point, all work = more cash saved toward paying down a larger chunk of the MFA student loan, thus lowering payments when they start in a few months.

Still, there went all that planned ruminating, rest and reorganization. Oh, I worked on the resume, and I made some lists. I thought about my next moves and even set up September and October coffee dates with writers, editors and others kind enough to let me pick their brains and bounce ideas. I did not reorganize the office. Come to think of it, I have never crossed off "completely reorganize the office" from any list I've ever put it on at any time in my adult life.

It wasn't the end-of-summer I'd planned, it wasn't the way I'd envisioned relaxing after the exquisitely wonderful grind of the MFA. It's all okay. In fact, had I not gotten so busy, so "distracted", I might not have realized that "I'll get started on the next phase of my life after the kids go back to school in September" is not in fact a viable career strategy.

So, the kids have been in school for three days now and I'm not in all that different a place than I thought I'd be. Maybe the personal work projects are not so neatly lined up as I'd hoped. The lists are not as ordered and color-coded and deadline-oriented as I'd planned.

But the good news is that, except for a two-week period when outside deadlines simply made it impossible, I kept writing. The creative stuff, the this-might-make-it-into-the-memoir stuff. New stuff. Revisions. Half-a-notebook of ideas. This is not insignificant. Scads of MFA-grads let the writing go.

So, eight weeks after the MFA, I’m doing okay.

I just need to know: If I try, say for an hour a day for the next three months, to "daydream" about what's next, will I feel as good as I thought I'd feel had I gotten those 5 weeks of summer-time R&R? Nah, probably not.

Best use that hour to write, huh?


Michelle O'Neil said...

Never underestimate the power of daydreaming!

Anonymous said...

Congratulations on being asked to do some wonderful work!

I feel your pain about the office: I have no idea what is six inches down on both of my desk's right and left corners. I should probably just throw out both piles of paper.

Kristy Lund said...

I agree with Michelle, keep daydreaming! Congrats on all the exciting opportunities! But it is funny that all of it "hit" in summer.