MFA Lesson One: The Writer's Mindset
I sat down a few days ago, fully intending to start a collection of posts to share some lessons learned from my MFA program, but then my shower started leaking. Water streaming from the ceiling, down the cupboard, and pooling on the floor leaking. Talk about a procrastination opportunity!
I mopped, I cleaned, I wiped down every corner of the cupboard and all the spice jars. Twice. I called the plumber. They said they were booked for days. I imagined sharing my bathroom for days with the teenager who lives upstairs, and then I called another plumber. Finally, the plumber came, sawed two holes in the kitchen ceiling and…could not make it leak.
I knew I wasn’t crazy.
There had been water; I had witnesses. No leak?
He was just about to leave when I remembered the small metal bar over the soap-dish in the shower liner was loose. Could that be it? Definitely, said the plumber who caulked those holes, and packed up, leaving me feeling really stupid. I’d known that thing was loose for two years but one of the side-effects of an MFA program is you put things off.
As he drove off, I was about to unleash the usual torrent of so stupid, why didn’t I just take care of it sooner, when something different happened.
I heard a tiny voice in my head say, “I’m not going to beat myself up over this.” Then, I didn’t. I let it go. I went back to work, and life, and sent a picture of the holes to the drywall guy.
I wasn’t going to beat myself up.
What does this have to do with writing? Everything.
One semester, after a bit of insecure whining on my part, one of my advisors reminded me to be kind to your writer self, she’s the source of your stories.
If we learn all the techniques, gather up the tools, and wear our writer's tool belt as proudly as the plumber wore his, it’s easy to feel like we've got it covered. But if we’re also telling ourselves we’re no good, nobody will ever want to read this mess, and we’re not getting any better, we’re broken in a way tools can’t fix.
When I decided not to beat myself up about the plumbing, I stepped back and reset. I let it go. That’s when the “boys in the basement” (to quote Stephen King) went to work. It couldn’t have been that rod; the holes were too small to account for the amount of water coming out of the ceiling. I wasn’t dumb, I just didn’t know the answer. Yet.
So, I waited. The teenager showered and flushed for five days until....it leaked! I got video and called the plumber back. He found the source (he thinks) and we’re going to wait and see.
It’s a nice metaphor for writing a story. Don’t give up, give it some space, let the subconscious work it out, and be ready to try something new.
I realized the bigger lesson, however, was about my mindset. Before, I would have gotten into a negative spiral of self-talk and that’s often how I felt about writing. I had wasted too much time not writing, I wasn’t good enough (have you seen my rejections binder?), and what was the chance of success anyway? But I didn’t go there for the leak, and I don’t go there nearly as often for my writing any more. (I wanted to say I never do but, who's perfect?)
Spending two years studying great stories, practicing the craft, and trying new genres and formats forced me to open up my thinking.
The degree wasn’t about spending two years trying to finish a project, or getting a novel ready for submissions, it was about learning to be a writer.
My writer’s mindset coming out is different than it was going in. I’m more flexible, more willing to try a new chapter a few times, and to be more patient. Before, I would start a project with a relentless sense of anxiety – must finish, must move forward, what’s my word count? – which felt like progress but was actually just bullying myself into putting words on the page. Words I would know weren’t getting to the heart of my story, even as I typed them. I skipped all that side-writing because it didn’t count towards finished work, and although I read a lot of books about how to outline and work on plot, I rarely got past the first few exercises. It was like pounding nail after nail into a board without knowing what I was building but keeping track of how many I'd pounded in.
During my second semester, I confided in one of my advisors that I felt a lot of pressure to finish projects and get them ready to go out. She wisely suggested that I give myself the freedom to just do the work for two years. It will go quickly, she said. She was right on both counts. Giving myself permission to slow down and really learn how to write has set me up for a career, not just one project.
Having a softer attitude towards myself as a writer has given me permission to experiment, to write out of order, and to explore new ideas.
Sure, my stories sometimes come out looking nothing like what I envisioned, but when that happens, it’s just part of the process and not a reason to get down on myself.
I hope, no matter where you are in your journey, you find some space to think about how you’re treating your writer self. Are you being supportive and encouraging of the work she’s doing? If not, maybe give her a break.
If you do, your stories will improve.
And she might help you with your plumbing, too.