4+ years ago, I finished my creative writing MFA. For many days since, until maybe hopefully recently, I have struggled with guilt.
Since graduating, I entered a career that lets me talk about writing (which I like) and editing (which I love) with hundreds of people I would otherwise never have met from all across five continents. I get to share what I find interesting with roomfuls of (generally) open and willing humans. And I have struggled with guilt.
I’ve worked as an editor on fiction and non-fiction publications. I’ve sold book reviews and sports features. A half-dozen websites have “hired” me to write for them, and some of them even pay (poorly). I have been able to spend much of the past few years writing about sports that I care about, and even to spend most of that focus on the teams I care about and root for. And I have struggled with guilt.
15 years ago, after finishing my undergrad program, I narrowed down my career pursuits to three: law school, American studies, or writing. I got into law school and an AMS PhD program, which meant I might make a good amount of $$ down the road, or at least pay nothing while advancing my education and getting on track for a university job while incurring less student debt. Nope. I love writing and thinking about writing and talking about writing and writing about writing. So off I went.
The year I started the MFA, I’d contracted a bacterial lung infection. I lost 30 pounds in six weeks while my days became 24/7 sitting on a couch and coughing army-green phlegm into a cup. If I walked up a flight of stairs, I was out of breath like I’d run five miles. I didn’t have health care, so when my symptoms began I did what a lot of practical people without health care do: I didn’t go the doctor when I first experienced symptoms, because when you see the doctor too early they say “Probably viral. Rest. Hydrate.” You have to wait until the symptoms have just started to really come into their own, so the doc can tell you what’s going on and tell you how to fix it. In my case it took the doctors longer than usual to diagnose me; I was in the hospital the day of my cousin’s wedding hooked up to three machines when somebody finally figured out it wasn’t “probably viral.”
I was scared those six weeks. It was the first time I’d ever been sick where no one could identify what was wrong, and I just kept losing weight and getting weaker. When I started the MFA later that year, my goal was clear: get a job. Get health care someday. Never again find myself playing the wait-for-just-the-right-time-to-see-a-doctor game. I wanted a career in writing. I didn’t know or care what it would look like. I’d be happy as a writer, maybe for a newspaper. I’d be happy as an editor. I’d be happy as a professor. I’d be happy as a copywriter. Maybe ethical advertising, like for AdBusters or something. Whatever. All I cared about entering the MFA after completing a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, and a master’s of science curriculum was finding a job that would make me self-sufficient. And I did. And I have struggled with guilt since.
I’ve struggled so much, I think, because somewhere along the line of my MFA I confused my own dreams with someone else’s. No one specific. But you work closely with people who’ve published memoirs, and screenplays, and short story collections; you work with great newspaper columnists, with leading comic book creators, with clever people in giant houses who drink good wine in the Hamptons, and you’re close enough to taste it. And I was still dumb enough to think the lesson I’d been taught as a child of the 20th century mattered in the 21st — that working hard leads to stability, a roof over your head, a family you can support, a life you can feel ownership over.
I was published a few times while in the MFA. I always got good feedback on my work, yet decided to keep the big picture in mind, so whenever someone praised my writing it went in one ear and out the other. The criticisms: that’s what I cared about. I could literally hear 15 minutes of positive feedback and one complaint, and the complaint was what I remembered. Not in a depressing way. I figured this is what good writers do: be ye not tempted by a silver tongue. Keep your eyes on the prize (and the negative comments), your nose to the grindstone, your hands gripped tight around the sword in the stone, and every second of every day of your life, pull. Don’t you dare peek to see if the sword is moving. Have faith: if you pull it off, the roar of the crowd is all you’ll need to know.
I wanted to be every writer. I wanted to write a successful screenplay, magnificent short stories, an earth-shattering novel, and the greatest collections of memoirs by someone under 40 that no one had ever heard of. I made lists. I carved out slices of time when I wasn’t teaching or grading 4 or 5 classes per semester. I reached out to old friends and advisors, and found time apart had eroded bonds I assumed still stood strong; more likely, I had only glanced at the bonds in the past, fleetingly, and now that I was looking more closely I could see they’d never been what I’d imagined. Delusional thinking is great for fiction, not for real living. And I struggled with guilt. And compounding that guilt is this: what greater muse is there for any artist than struggling?
Yet I have not written that screenplay. Nor have I completed a short story collection. I’m on my third stab at a novel, which honestly means I failed twice before and now do a lot of thinking and note-jotting but haven’t actually sat down with it. No memoirs. This has been my great unending guilt. This was why I felt like a failure. If someone asked me “What have you written since graduating?” I’d have to say “Nothing.” Which would make me a dispassionate, talent-wasting, weak-spirited fake. People write in the most brutal, inhuman conditions. People with infinitely more difficult lives than me write every day. The fact that I haven’t written anything not only indicted me as a writer, but as a human being. All my struggling had done was break me.
Then I did some math.
In the past three years, I’ve written for Posting&Toasting, a site that covers the New York Knicks. In those three years, the stories I’ve published at P&T total about 140,000 words. That’s roughly the equivalent of a 400-page novel. I don’t think of it as “writing” because when I write about sports, it isn’t a struggle. It doesn’t feel like I’m ripping my soul through a fine mesh net. It doesn’t feel like work. I just like it. My job often doesn’t feel like work, either. It feels like performance art with a new audience every couple hours, then a completely new set and audience every few months. I like it. A lot. Except when I’m grading. Then it feels like this.
Maybe it’s an American thing, a Protestant thing, to think something isn’t worth enjoying if you haven’t struggled for it. I’m a failed Protestant and a C+ American at best. I like to like what I like. I still care about my fiction. It’s still an important part of me. I still have plans for it. I still have dreams. But for the first time in years, my dreams are mine again.