Whatever your MFA experience, it takes time to create or recreate the life that you can keep writing in. In this essay, Rachel Taube speaks to her cohort members regarding their first year post-MFA.
Writer Olivia Loving spent the summer missing the MFA community, where the fact of her peers “constantly thinking about writing” had allowed her to do the same. Olivia deeply values reading as part of the writing process—“I feel like when I’m talking about writing, I’m just talking about reading”—but in the early days of the pandemic, she struggled to read too. “I think I was so focused on my next steps that it was hard to think about writing,” she said. Her job teaching at a grade school was not conducive to writing, and soon her time was focused on “cobbling together jobs that I could get, because I was worried about the status of everything.”
During my conversations, we returned again and again to this minor practicality: Most of us didn’t have full-time jobs, either immediately after graduating or at one point during that year. All of us moved through housing situations, if not multiple cities. In my mind, this employment gap could have meant plenty of time for writing and editing. In reality, it meant constantly thinking about what would come next, worrying, chasing the stability of home and a regular paycheck.
One friend, who has only recently returned to full-time work, is still navigating the idea of trading away his writing time for money, as well as having spent so much time writing without yet earning income from it. He struggles with the “stupidly high expectations” that he had going into the MFA. “I knew it at the time, and I did it anyway.” Yes, me too. I wanted so much. So what next?
“I think after the MFA you should try to build a life that can continue to support good writing. I believe that strongly,” Chase told me when I asked how he structured his writing time, both during his postgraduate fellowship and after. “The structure I think is just about allowing yourself a bit of grace, if you only write two days a week, you only write two days a week; if you only write one day a week, that’s great. It’s like taking care of a child, [but] instead it’s taking care of yourself and your writing a little bit.”
I love this idea, and it felt absolutely not true at the time. Even filling notebook pages didn’t convince me that I wasn’t falling into the maw of not writing, because I wasn’t progressing on The Book. Part of it was a fear that, when I returned, I would find that my writing was not very good. Olivia put it in a way I understood: “I know deep down I have always wanted to be a writer—I still want to be a writer, it’s not going to leave—so eventually I had to just confront it.” Though she had resisted the advice she’d received about putting aside her book for a while after the program—“when you have just written it, that’s the last thing you want to do”—she was happy when she did return to it. “I was pleasantly surprised that it did not totally suck.” (I have read Olivia’s work; I am not surprised.) “Now I think, oh, I was incubating.” Almost everyone I interviewed actually said this, upon returning to their writing: that they were surprised, proud.
Becca’s return to her book followed the chaotic summer of 2020, when she’d gone to protests and read deeply and asked herself how political her writing was. “Is this an indulgence? Is making time to write right now something selfish or self-indulgent or just esoteric and obnoxious? . . . What is it to do something useful in the world? Or be active? Or, how do you participate in social change?” She thought about the balance between writing and being in the streets, did both, and finally began editing her book, which chronicles her grief after the death of her sister. “I think the manuscript felt less arbitrary. It was something that already was meaningful to me.I wouldn’t have been working on it had I not already believed that it was going to be something that was useful or helpful to people.” (This is so, so true. Watch for Becca’s book.) There would be a future complete project, and then there was the writing of the moment, which, of course, had to get done. She had a deadline.
For a while, Becca set aside her Saturdays for writing, “so that I could work on one piece at a time, and I wouldn’t be left with a giant blob toward the end of the period of time . . . And then I took time off of work. I have not figured out that balance, that mythical balance that some people seem to really do well.” Another friend treats writing like a job, waking up and typing each day. Once he left the program, he understood that the training period of the MFA was over, and there was an urgency that allowed him to draft quickly. Where he focused on narrative, Olivia, meanwhile, focuses on the line. She makes herself reading lists to drive the style of her own novel. She also recently manufactured an external due date, “because I realized that I can’t write without a deadline.” Chase, similarly, uses deadlines for journals and fellowships to give himself those due dates. “The Paris Review of course is only open in March and September. So . . . it feels like time is a little hotter around those months.”
For me, about a year after graduating, when I settled into a new job and apartment, the writing came back. I constantly reconfigure my time: One month I touch the novel draft every day, in any small way; another I wake up early to write before work; another I draft only by hand. Mostly, I schedule catch-ups with writer friends who I know will ask about the book, so that I will feel guilty, and so I can ply them with questions about their own writing processes.
I now think of the writing life as a constant returning.
“The blessing your MFA has given you is a ton of work that you’ve created,” Chase said. But he also had to accept that he couldn’t work as hard as he did in the MFA. “I was editing [stories] so intensely, like I was back in the MFA, that I was kind of making them worse.” This time was also about processing all the feedback that had been percolating since workshop, and which had sometimes been hurtful. “I would always look at my feedback when we were in our program with my [hands] guarding my face, because the feedback sort of blinded me.” But after a year, he finally felt like the right ideas “activated.”
I needed my year off to sit with the advice I’d received too. To understand how the big plot change I’d been resisting could deepen my understanding of my characters; to feel ready to let go of the parts of the manuscript that didn’t work; to distill all the voices of workshop letters into just my voice again.
Becca, too, took a new tack. “I moved completely away from what is very acceptable in the MFA world, which is just to write in fragmented vignettes . . . I actually thought that was all I could do, or all I wanted to do.” Instead, as she revised, she relied on the affirmation from readers that she’d received early on, when she first published parts of what would become her memoir on Medium: “What gave it meaning was the connections it fostered.” She stretched new muscles, and the writing “became more about the reader. I’d already gotten the draft out that was purely for me.”
There is the language, the plot, the subject matter—and then the connections. That first summer, I didn’t see how the community I thought I’d just left would follow me forward, give the work substance, help me say yes to my obsessions. This draft, I’ve pruned it back and let it go feral again. After so much delay, I can feel it building.
Whatever your MFA experience, it takes time to create or recreate the life that you can keep writing in. There is no race. Instead, Chase says, “Writing is about you getting to choose when the work is ready. And so I think what I’ve learned is, I’m choosing a little bit more . . . I don’t want to hold on to my work forever, but I do want it to be ready enough.” (You’ll all be glad when Chase is ready.) In the meantime, of course, we choose the work.
I had expected that it would take time to settle into the MFA, but I didn’t account for having to settle into my life after. If you are now approaching your own graduation, or if you’re just starting to think about MFAs—neither of which, I am sorry to report, you can really plan for—here is what I know: That you must be incredibly stubborn. That along the way, you must give yourself grace. I am sure, now, that these two things can coexist. Where I had envisioned absolute consistency, I now think of the writing life as a constant returning. If one version of it doesn’t work, we try another. Let ambition be something that exists over time, that builds in the logic of and necessity for rest, as well as the kinetic energy of coming back to the page that glows in the dark. I suspect that, in fact, most of our lives will change many times over, and this will be only one of many times that we find our way back to the writing. I will meet you there.
Rachel Ranie Taube is a writer living in Massachusetts, where she received a 2022 Literature Grant from the Somerville Arts Council. Her work has appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Millions, and more. Find her online at rachelranietaube.com and on Twitter @racheltaube.