By Aaron Hamburger
Graduating with any degree can be a time of nervousness as well as excitement, but when your degree is in fine art, particularly the fine art of writing, sometimes nerves can outweigh the joy of accomplishment.
The summer after I finished graduate school, I sank into a deep self-questioning funk. What did I do now? Where could I turn for advice? Who was going to hold me responsible for meeting my workshop/packet deadlines?
None of the residencies to which I’d applied had accepted me. None of the agents I’d contacted had expressed interest in taking me on as a client. And though I did make it to the final round of interviews for what I thought would be the perfect part-time job—putting food on the table while still allowing me time to write—someone else ended up getting the job.
Nothing seemed to be working for me. Writing felt pointless. Job prospects were nil. The walls of my tiny Manhattan apartment were closing in to the point that I couldn’t breathe.
I had just gotten my MFA. What did I do? Panic.
What should I have done? Relax. Take a deep breath. Enjoy a break from school to rejuvenate and recharge, and then get back to work.
For writers, the only thing over which we ever have any control is our own mindset. If we stay focused on ourselves and on our work, opportunities may come, but they’ll arrive on their own time schedule. Worrying, crying, or overindulging in bad TV or good ice cream will not make those opportunities come any faster.
So now that you have your MFA, what should you do?
First, keep writing. Don’t break that momentum you worked so hard in school to set in motion. In life, there’s no one to check on you and there shouldn’t be. An MFA is a wonderful temporary launching pad, but ultimately it’s not a permanent condition. Before and while you’re in school, maybe you do need that encouragement until writing becomes a daily habit. But once you’re out in the world, if you need someone else to make you write, maybe you need to ask yourself if you’re in the right field. (And “no” is a perfectly honorable answer. An MFA in writing is a wonderful education and experience that can enrich your life in many ways. But just as some people get through med school and realize they don’t want to be doctors, it’s also possible to get through an MFA and realize you don’t want to be a writer. The only difference is you generally come out with far less debt and a new way of perceiving words, literature, and the world that will make you a far more interesting person.)
Second, create a new community for yourself. Just because the supportive scaffolding of school is gone, that doesn’t mean you can’t create a new structure of your own. Join or form a writing workshop or a book group. Sign up for classes. Maybe work independently with a mentor you liked from grad school or find a new one.
Third, find a job that supports both your writing time and you. It’s very unlikely that as a writer you’ll make enough just from writing to pay the bills, so you will need some sort of job. And you can’t write if you can’t eat and pay rent, so it’s vital that you’re able to meet these seemingly “worldly” needs. You need a room of your own, as per the wise Virginia Woolf. At the same time, if you’re doing a job that’s killing your soul or taking up too much of your time, then maybe yours is the wrong job to support your writing career.
What should that job be? To find out, take up my fourth suggestion and buy the very wise book Creating a Life Worth Living by Carol Lloyd, a self-help book for artists. It’s a great resource for figuring out the practical side of setting up a lifestyle that supports your creative endeavors. Plus, the activities in the book are just plain fun to complete.
At the end of my depressed summer, I managed to land an agent, who immediately set me to work revising what I had thought was my “perfect” short story collection. I also found a wonderful half-time job teaching ESL that even included health insurance, but also put my life on a strict academic schedule with limited flexibility if I wanted to take a trip, for example.
During my few free moments in my suddenly frenzied life, I sometimes looked back on my summer that I wasted worrying, and I wished I’d taken greater advantage of that time. I wished I’d smiled more, enjoyed more, and had faith in myself and the universe to eventually set me on the right path.
If we can’t enjoy the moment we’re in, at any moment, then ultimately what’s the point?
Aaron Hamburger is the author of The View from Stalin’s Head, winner of the Rome Prize in Literature, and Faith for Beginners. His writing has appeared in The Village Voice, Tin House, Michigan Quarterly Review, Boulevard, Poets and Writers, Out, Nerve, Time Out, Details, and The Forward. He has taught creative writing at Columbia University, New York University, and the Stonecoast MFA Program.