My writing gives the validation my younger self will need to believe in me, for me, during the years between now and when I won’t know how.
I kept trying to write a way for myself. I joined writing groups. I attended writing workshops. Other writers held my words in kindness, offered feedback, gave me community. When I learned about MFA programs, I decided to apply. When I saw the tuition, I changed my mind. When I learned about fully funded MFA programs, I changed my mind again, applied, and enrolled in one that offered me a full scholarship.
I walked away from a hefty bonus check, a company car, and a corporate card to live on a tight budget in the desert in a flea-infested house with three roommates. I had to catch the bus everywhere for the first year and learned important lessons like not buying a watermelon and laundry detergent during the same grocery trip. This was not what I’d imagined thirty would look like.
In my MFA program, it felt like everyone had been given a reading list that I’d missed. Cheever. Carver. Chandler. The Davids. These were writers I’d never heard of and that I wasn’t particularly inspired to read beyond what was assigned. I felt embarrassed I didn’t get the things these writers wrote. My peers were not name-checking Hurston, Morrison, or Beatty. Our bookshelves were not the same.
My writing was often dismissed as “not serious.” Commercial. Chick lit. I frequently fucked up my tenses. I didn’t know shit about syntax. And I couldn’t use a damn comma right. I felt like a fraud. I felt old. I felt like I was too far behind to catch up. I’d wanted an MFA because I was desperate for a path and for proof I was a writer. But an MFA doesn’t make you a writer. The only thing that makes you a writer is the belief that you are a writer. Without that belief, an MFA program is as miserable a place as anywhere else, an irritant for your insecurities mistakenly applied as a balm.
It may not seem logical, but it’s not possible to become a writer until you’ve already decided you are a writer. In a profile of Missy Elliott, Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah offers up one possibility for how Elliott survived a traumatic childhood to become an icon: “Although she does not call it this, Missy Elliott believes in the technology of the self, the idea that we can alter our lives by what we create and transmute, and in doing so, we can become invincible.” Technologies of the self, which Ghansah references, was the subject of one of Michel Foucault’s last lectures before his death.
Ghansah’s other explanation? Fate. But are fate and self-creation not the same thing? Okay, sometimes fate is just privilege masquerading as something more meaningful. But if privilege doesn’t rise up before you like a fast track to your dreams, is there any other path toward your fate than self-creation?
An MFA doesn’t make you a writer.
My future was a child’s projection: Harold’s purple crayon, Pinocchio’s wish. Crying out to a roll of thunder. Before I knew anything about what I didn’t know, I knew I would become a writer. But at some point, I grew up and joined an adult world fixated on already having all the answers. So I became something—someone—other than what I wanted. Someone who would have to find her way back to her belief.
How you become a writer is unimportant. What you don’t know doesn’t matter. You don’t have to know a damn thing about writing to write, and you will learn what you need to know when you need to know it.
I was nearly thirty when I published my first essay. Less than five years later, I’d published my writing widely, figured out how to support myself with my words, spoken on panels, led workshops, signed with an agent, accepted the rare tenure-track position as the director of a BFA in creative writing program, and landed a book deal. It was fate. It was self-creation. I transmuted.
When I quit my sales job, I couldn’t imagine any of these things happening. I was not optimistic about my future as a writer while standing at a bus stop in hundred-degree weather trying to hold a watermelon under one arm, my laundry detergent under the other, and the rest of my groceries somewhere in between.
Being a writer does not always look like this or like what you expected it to—but how many things in life do? Committing your life to your love of writing isn’t any more outlandish than the roles we’re expected to commit ourselves to for the love of money, like standing behind registers smiling at strangers or piecing together PowerPoint decks or selling the most mop buckets. There’s nothing wrong about remaining faithful to what you love, even when that love isn’t paying the bills. Write a way anyway.
You don’t have to know a damn thing about writing to write.
When I tell a friend that I’m writing this essay but I’m worried “Just believe!” will have me on the internet sounding Pollyannaish, she tells me she once attended an AWP panel anchored by Mitchell S. Jackson and an audience member asked some variation of the question “How do you make it as a writer?” He said, above all else, you had to have the audacity to believe you are the one who will make it in this numbers game. That’s a kind of survival math too. It’s not just failures; the dreams you believe in can also be self-fulfilling prophecies. My thoughts, these thoughts, are not new thoughts. These are Michel Foucault thoughts. Mitchell S. Jackson thoughts. Dr. Angela Y. Davis thoughts.
Every word I write is time travel back to that side ponytail, to those designer jeans and bare armpits, to that girl I once was and still am. My writing gives the validation she will need to believe in me, for me, during the years between now and when I won’t know how.
Keep writing your own realities. They’re already real somewhere in the future.
Minda Honey is a Louisville, KY-based writer. Her essays have been featured in “Burn It Down: Women Writing About Anger” (Seal Press) and in the Hub City Press collection, “A Measure of Belonging: Writers of Color on the New American South,” and the forthcoming “Sex and the Single Girl: Reinventing Helen Gurley Brown’s Cult Classic” (Harper Perennial). She is at work on her debut essay collection, “An Anthology of Assholes,” about dating as a woman of color in Southern California due out by Little A summer 2023.