How I Failed to Avoid the Post-MFA Slump

I have a confession to make. It has been six weeks since my last serious effort at creative writing.

One thing I’ve learned from interviewing artists is that even the best of them sometimes find themselves in a slump. And we can be very supportive of each other in these times, as I discovered when I first confessed this setback on my Facebook page:

Patrick Ross Writer Facebook screenshot

But I didn’t spend two years and tens of thousands of dollars on my Master of Fine Arts in Writing degree to simply have another certificate on my wall. One of the tools I developed in my program was a disciplined approach to writing. To meet my thirty pages of creative writing each month, I developed a daily routine of ninety minutes of creative writing at the start of each morning. After a few months those morning sessions seemed as natural as breathing. It was easy to believe I would maintain that pace.

But I knew it was all too possible to end up where I am now, in a writing rut. I wrote of my fear back in May on this blog, noting three factors that had caused problems for MFA graduates before me: Lack of external deadlines, lack of encouragement, and lack of quantifiable and regular measures of success. I have experienced all three, despite my best efforts to find substitutes.

I will not miss January in Montpelier as I spend my first winter in three years not at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. But I do miss the creative groove the low-residency program provided me.

I will not miss January in Montpelier as I spend my first New Year’s Day in three years not at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. But I do miss the creative groove the low-residency program provided me.

After I graduated this summer I joined a critique group modeled off of a low-residency MFA. At the end of each month I send my creative writing to a peer, who provides a full critique. For my first packet I cheated by submitting an essay I had already written and had critiqued in my last semester of my MFA program. In the second month I submitted a proto-essay that was really just a collection of notes. In the third month I submitted a letter of apology for not having submitted anything.

You can’t receive encouragement and measures of success if you don’t produce anything.

What will I submit at the end of this month? My hope is that I can take that proto-essay and convert it into something worthy of being read. But to do that I’ll have to sit down and actually work on it.

I believe my error was not continuing to perform generative writing.

I finished my MFA with a rough draft of a travel memoir, documenting my trip across the United States in which I interviewed artists for a video series. I then spent the next several months engaged in extensive revisions, significantly reducing the manuscript’s size and improving what remained. But none of that involved creating anything from scratch. No MFA advisor would have allowed me to submit packets that only involved revision work; I would have had to have provided some original writing as well.

I love revising my writing. Sometimes I fear I love it a little too much, as I tweak and tweak instead of simply declaring something done. But any writer knows that truly generative writing is equivalent to slicing open a vein and bleeding onto the paper. It becomes fairly effortless once it starts flowing, but there’s nothing easy about taking a blade to your skin. And so I haven’t.

Now I am not even experiencing the creative satisfaction of revision. My manuscript is done, and I’m searching for a publisher. That is time-consuming, but it does not have to be done in that magic early-morning time that I had until recently been dedicating to my muse.

Let me conclude by saying that this post is an act of selfishness. I am writing it primarily to place on the record–documented in binary ones and zeroes across the interwebs–that I must start writing again. Perhaps it will be easier to hold myself accountable if I have publicly confessed my sin. It’s a start.

I am also open to any suggestions you may have, or simply a “Hang in there!” comment. Thanks as always for reading and being a part of The Artist’s Road community.

About Patrick Ross

I'm a writer chronicling his commitment to living an art-committed life, which included a cross-country road trip meeting with creatives of all stripes.

58 Responses to “How I Failed to Avoid the Post-MFA Slump”

  1. Hey Patrick, I can totally relate to your experience. As a creative writing major (undergrad), I have been doing lots of workshopping and editing.

    I’m currently in a bit of rut right now, having not written on any new projects for awhile, and trying to get back on track. I’ve set myself the goal of simply writing 10 min. every morning for a month. That’s all I need to do–spend 10 min. brainstorming, drafting, generating content. I can write more after that, but I’m only requiring 10 min. a day. I’m currently on day 4.

    While trying to deal with my rut, I searched a lot online and looked for advice by writers whom I admire. Most of them talk about how you can’t simply wait for inspiration or write only when you feel like it, not if you want to be a professional. That is especially true for writing in long-form, which needs time and dedication. Good luck on getting back on track!

    • Hi Yilin,

      I like your self-imposed mandate of 10 minutes a day. I can imagine setting a minimum like that makes it a bit easier to sit down and start. I also suspect that some days you find yourself going far beyond 10 minutes, because the starting is the hardest part.

      You’re also right about just doing it. On Facebook the other day I posted this quote by Toni Morrison: “I don’t wait to be struck by lightning and don’t need certain slants of light in order to write.” She’s not passively waiting for her muse.

    • Welcome to the club. I think it’s natural to have a slump after getting an MFA. After all, we have worked hard, and sometimes the rest is needed, maybe even generative. Creative juices need to be replenished, so give yourself a break. I too have had times when I haven’t written due to other obligations and lack of motivation, but something always sets me back on track: a conversation with a friend about writing, an idea that makes we want to commit to writing a story, or the fact that writing does keep me more balanced.

      • Thank you for this, Jennifer, as someone who graduated from VCFA before me. I will say that the topic of my proto-essay is of great interest to me; I’m sure once I force myself to engage more I’ll find myself running with it.

  2. Will the fact that somewhere in Africa, an unknown blogger and an aspiring creative writer without any formal education on creative writing is writing anyways and drawing inspiration from you.
    I love your blog by the way, let me know when you have a book out cos I’ll love to read it. Mfa in creative writing is just a dream to me…for now, u have it, don’t waste it

    • Wow, what a welcome comment! Thank you for your kind words and encouragement.

      Should this memoir finally reach publication and release, trust me, you’ll hear about it loud and clear here!

      Keep writing, and don’t sweat the lack of formal education. I had never taken a creative writing class before starting my MFA. The key to writing is doing it, a lot. Develop that mental muscle memory.

      • The fact that we write less post MFA is not necessarily a bad thing. VCFA faculty have said to me, “It’s crazy what you guys do,”–producing packet after packet for 2 years. One of my advisers uses the summer break from his primary faculty position to write. Though he tries to scribble stuff down while waiting for his kids in dental offices or during faculty meetings, he doesn’t expect to write much until he can fully concentrate on his writing.

        This year the structure and frequency of my reading and writing has morphed. I did my usual April poem-a-day challenge but afterwards I didn’t write for 26 days. Then the next opportunity to write came during the Cave Canem retreat in mid-June, followed by a one-day writing workshop in early August. Not much happened writing happened between August and November because my work life shifted. I started leading projects and put more energy in my paid career–had to travel across the state to collect data, then spent six weeks writing the report and going through the editing process. At least I have time to do my November poem-a-day challenge.

        I’ve shared all this to say–it’s normal, life happens, you’ll find a rhythm that works for you.

        PT

        • Hi Pamela! Thank you for this comment. You know, I’ve heard that from VCFA faculty as well, but I guess I tuned it out. My approach to my MFA was to maximize the return on investment of my time and money, so I produced at a crazy pace. But yes, I suppose that isn’t sustainable.

          Thank you as well for sharing your experience. It sounds like the poetry is there when you are mentally committed to returning to it, which is great.

  3. I’m finishing up my stint at VCFA myself–graduating July 2014–and this has been one of my fears from the day I first set foot on campus. There was something so magical that I instantly felt the eventual loss of it, which seemed far off then, but is all too close now. I remind myself, however, that I was writing long before I enrolled in an MFA program. I may have wavered on the actual routine of it, but the calling was there. The calling is what led me to Montpelier. And the calling is what will propel me beyond it. I’m pulling for you, Patrick, and hoping you find that calling irresistible again soon. Don’t be too hard on yourself; allow the hole to close and meanwhile look for inspiration all around you. It’s there and you’ll find it again. And next year, after I’m post-MFA, you can email me this advice. :-)

    • Jess, thank you for this encouragement from a VCFA peer. VCFA’ers who graduated before me told me a slump is commonplace and surmountable; I guess I wanted to be the exception that just kept going. It’s probably impossible to sustain the VCFA pace, however, and probably not good for your health or mental well being to try!

      Let’s definitely touch base next July when you graduate–how cool will that be!–and in the meantime enjoy the magic that is a Montpelier residency. (Well, other than winter cold and snow.) Hope you had a great semester and that your critical thesis wasn’t too much of a bear!

  4. Congrats, you’re not a machine… For the last 2+ years, you’ve been (a) working on a long-term project that demands creative outflow; (b) holding down a regular job and a real life, and (c) doubling your work/creative load by pursuing and completing your MFA.

    Oh, and completed the manuscript from that big project. Time to refill the creative well, sez I. Do something out of pattern, if you need to do *something* … buy a coloring book at the 99-cent store and some crayons – act like a kid. Check out the Dinovember page on Facebook. Go to a karaoke bar and make a fool of yourself in public. Playtime!

    Be forgiving… be gentle… none of it has gone away (however you define “it”) … just resting and renewing.

    • Martha, you’ve been with me on this journey for some time now; thank you for reminding me of what I’ve been doing on that path.

      Let me confess to my version of coloring with crayons: building ridiculously improbable creations with my son’s Legos. Perhaps that lies in my future once again. And thank you for the encouragement.

  5. I agree with Martha. Often, regardless of which of our creative muse we follow, we must take a new approach and give ourselves some new experiences. Our writings or art comes out of those experiences. Sooner or later we run out adventures to inspire us if we’re not ‘living’. Get out and live a little now!

    • I like the “live a little” motif! I will confess to having done that recently; if you look at my blog post from two weeks ago you’ll see some photos I took on a recent hot-air balloon ride over central Virginia. That was definitely something not in my normal wheelhouse! I’ll confess that the entire weekend my lack of creative writing productivity was out of my mind, and I am now rotating photos from that trip as my desktop wallpaper. There are other things I could do that are a bit less expensive and life-threatening, however! Thank you for the encouragement.

  6. Patrick, I wish I had some sage advice, but all I can say is, “I feel your pain.” I’ve been in a slump as well and trying to find my way back. It’s kind of the same way with running for me, every day I don’t do it makes it harder to start back again. The slump has been on and off for me. For days, I’ll spend hours in my room writing and feeling like a writer, then something interupts my routine, and I’m off kilter again for weeks. I’m trying to accept this as part of life and learning and growing, but it’s frustrating. I hope you find your sweet spot soon!

    • Oh, Cheryl, I’m sorry to hear that. You know, a songwriter and flutist I interviewed in Memphis, Tennessee, talked about creative tides coming in and out. He said when the tide is out you should take care of the business of writing; I guess I’ve been doing that with the publication search. But I like it better when the tide is in. I hope yours returns soon.

      I also am determined to provide you something approximating generative creative writing at the end of this month, assuming the program is still going on (I didn’t get anything from my paired writer this month, not even a note of explanation, which made me think we’re done for the session.)

      • Patrick, I think we still have another W2W packet, but if not and if you have something you want me to read, send it anyway. I’ll be happy to offer comments, and we’ll move along from there. I’m trying to look at life as this kind of ebb and flow process and learning to honor the low tides as time to rest, rejuvenate, and refill the creative tank, which for me means lots of reading and quiet time to think. I’ll let you know how that works out!

  7. I love what Martha and Yilin said. I would add to that lowering expectations of yourself in the quality of your writing too. You’ve received an inhumane amount of critique in the last few years. If I were you, every movement of my hand would conjure the voices of my writing instructors. Kick your internal editor out the door and give yourself permission to write total crap. In fact, the crappier, the better! Reconnect with your enjoyment of the process rather than the quality of the product. There’s time to worry about that later, and you’re much more likely to write something inspired when you’re uninhibited. You know this, of course. Just reminders. :D

    I also wonder if your once-a-month accountability is too long-term. Do you have any accountability on a day-to-day basis?

    • Wow, Sue. That’s interesting advice that touches on something I hadn’t really thought about but makes sense, in particular the issue of how much feedback I’ve received. I probably am placing a bit of pressure on my initial drafts. I know that the document I’m calling a proto-essay probably would have been something I would have felt better about before the program began.

      As to the accountability, I do not have anything day to day other than myself, but how many writers do? Any suggestions?

      • I have a few ideas for short-term accountability. First, a writing buddy. You agree to contact each other (usually by email) after you’ve completed your writing for the day, and if one of you doesn’t check in, the other comes looking for you. :) That person can also remind you of what has worked for you in the past when you’ve avoided writing, whether it’s giving yourself permission to only write for 10 minutes, allowing a shitty first draft, or whatever it may be.

        You can also do what Jill Badonsky calls “Parallel Universe Time,” where you agree to both write at a certain time and check in on the phone at the beginning and end of the writing session. That’s not something you’d do every day, but it can be great for those first few sessions when you just can’t make yourself show up. Knowing the other person is writing too gives a sense of camaraderie that somehow inspires. The same thing can happen at a public library or anywhere several people are absorbed in their work. It’s contagious!

        You could tweet about your writing session each day after you write. Although this might not provide reliable accountability, it does give you the sense of a pat on the back afterward, and people will likely start to watch for your daily writing tweets and expect them.

        Finally, you could do the NaNoWriMo idea. Back in May, I hosted a 30-day writing challenge where we all agreed to write 10 minutes a day, first thing in the morning, for 30 consecutive days. We checked in on my business page on Facebook. I’ve been thinking about doing that again during the holidays because I’m teaching full-time this year and my writing has gone by the wayside as well (although I did do some writing this past weekend — yay me).

        You might also think about what has worked for you in the past, pre-MFA, and try that again.

        • Love the accountability suggestions, Sue – I’ll add that if you don’t want to go public with them (Facebook, twitter, elsewhere), just keep a log. A simple spreadsheet, or even a blank sheet of paper you handwrite on: date, amount of time spent writing, illuminations (this is boring i’d rather write… solved a problem with structure… found an elegant turn of phrase… let myself be silly) of some kind. Cheers,

    • Sue, your comment about the effect of the critiquing really resonates with me. After a year of intense workshopping in my BFA, I can attest to the fact there’s a lot of pressure–not only to write a large quantity of pages, but also high quality work as well, and in a short period of time. This is great for building writing muscles, but also does lead to burn out and slumps in the long run.

      I remember once reading something about creativity and brainstorming. It said that brainstorming is actually a two-part process: idea generation and idea selection. These two are not compatible with each other and should be done separately. I think this idea applies to writing as well; we generate content, then we edit and select the best parts. If we’re critical rather than open at the drafting stage, we’ll make the drafting process too difficult.

  8. I am wondering if this is a bit of a needed breather… that your mind is relaxing in advance of a more energetic writing period (although I don’t have an MFA, I know that after I finish a draft I often muse about why I am not as regular in my writing habits). Also, as a NaNoWriMo participant, I am finding a freedom in knowing I MUST write everyday. It’s not that I am accounting to anyone but myself or that I have “permission to write whatever,” but I feel a sense of commitment to the words themselves and to myself. So it makes perfect sense that through this act of “selfishness,” by posting this blog, you may feel more willing to write. Just one writer’s musings…

    • Julia, you’re not just “one writer,” you’re a valued contributor to the conversation here and a writer I respect. Funny you should mention NaNoWriMo; that is of course focused on fiction writers, but it is also a way to force generative writing through accountability. I’m glad it’s working for you.

  9. “Truly generative writing” — when I get back to it after an absence, I feel like I’m alive again. It’s rather scary, because I think, “does my sense of well-being really depend so much on this creative activity?” Apparently. But it definitely comes in cycles, and I suppose that we shouldn’t beat ourselves up over not feasting on it daily. I’ve just landed in Mexico, back to the bosom of my critique group in Mazatlan… so I better starter “generating” if I want to be a player. All the best, Patrick, mi amigo.

    • Generate away, PJ! (And have some anejo tequila for me.)

      Interesting you should state “sense of well-being,” because I think that hits what I’m feeling right now, a lack of true well-being, an incompleteness. Of course, it was the awareness of the correlation between that and creative activity that led me back to the art-committed life to begin with.

  10. A writer friend and I were discussing the feeling that we’d written/produced more back when we worked full-time in nonwriting jobs, plus had other/family commitments – versus now as full-time writers. This prompted me to analyze my past “most productive” periods as a writer. I was surprised to find that I produced best, back then, on 2-3 hours a day/avg. I was definitely more structured back then and keenly aware that I only had a small amount of time, so it had to count. It’s made me realized that having more nonwriting events/commitments suits my personality better. (Helps fill the well? Helps combat the isolation?) I’d always thought that if I had 12 hours a day to write instead of 2-3, my output would quadruple. It didn’t. I’m actively seeking to change that.

    • You know, Kathy, I appreciate this comment, and please let me turn this around to offering some feedback for you. One thing I’ve learned from my study of the creative process is that there is a limit to the amount of truly generative creative work you can do. I would say that most full-time writers probably don’t truly write more than 2-3 hours a day. They would add some revision to that, but then they’d read and observe, two critical elements to the creative process. So I don’t want you setting unreasonable expectations on yourself that you will fail to meet. That’s another way to become stuck.

  11. PS – From the “If It’s Any Comfort” files…we’re not alone. Here’s an interesting take on how one writer rebooted his writing:
    http://goinswriter.com/jumpstart-productivity/

  12. Working on a degree in English Writing, I too often find myself without words, mostly because they are being used on multiple final projects, and I feel as if I’ve been bled dry. I also have a tendency to edit instead of write, but it helps if I’ve been away from my story. It reminds me where I left off and shows me where to go next. You just have to start writing something, anything, even if it’s rambling until you find a rhythm, like losing yourself a minute before you find the right path. You can always go back and edit what you wrote.

    • I see a to-do list here, Elizabeth:

      1. Step away from your work occasionally and return with a fresh eye.
      2. Write. Just write, and don’t worry about the quality.

      Good tips!

  13. I have absolutely no concern that you’ll stay in a slump. Your writing is too vibrant and meaningful. Maybe you just allowed yourself a short vacation. Very ok. As for me, if I don’t take a leak, grab some caffeine and begin writing very early each morning I find ways to fritter away my time. I am especially gifted in the fritter away department.

    • Nancy, you’re just too sweet!

      I think we’re all gifted in the fritter-away department in one form or another. I’ll give you another confession; I find myself spending time doing the daily challenges on Microsoft Mahjongg on my Surface. Laura says I’m an old Chinese woman. I’m not really a video-game person, so this speaks to my need to fritter right now.

      You’re right about the sanctity of that morning routine. The coffee is already brewed (via timer) when I come down, and although I bring the paper in (if it’s arrived already) so Laura can read it when she gets up, I resist the strong urge to look at the headlines as I head straight for the computer. Well, this is my routine when I’m writing, anyway.

  14. i don’t write every day, but i think and read, and teach, and then i will go to my pewter and drum out something full of energy; there’s a whole life out there; my life is my canvass; even animals, burrow in logs for a while; it’s called time out/ vakashun/ whatever, and i would trut the rhythms; we don’t relentless tear up the ground, there’s times to heal; sorry for the runons (i’m harder on myself than my messages to others) oh dear.

  15. I’m a great believer in using prompts to jump-start my writing. There is something so much fun and so freeing about writing for 20 minutes on a prompt. It gets me in touch with the joy of letting the imagination and fingers kidnap me. My writers group has done this for many years, and the work that has emerged from the 20-minute writes is astonishing in its variety and depth. We believe in this approach to the extent we wrote a little book, “Coffee and Ink: How a Writers Group Can Nourish Your Creativity.” To be inspired, we have to be having fun. So Patrick, let go of the guilt and start playing with words.

    • Thank you for that tip. Yes, prompts can be quite useful. I think my resistance goes a bit deeper. It’s not so much that I don’t have anything to write about; it’s that I am actively resisting writing anything at all.

      By the way, feel free to return and put a link to the book here in the comments!

  16. Big changes seem to be the primary cause of slump in my experience – changes that alter the rhythm of your life for months or even years. I think it’s safe to say the end of the MFA program is one of those.

    ‘In between projects’ syndrome is another one of those changes/diseases that comes after working for so long on a single project. Working habits are structured around ‘something’ in progress, a defined direction.

    The blank canvas, so to speak, is scary. Receptive habits, false starts, etc. are a pattern of working that can be challenging to re-adapt to. I seem to remember it being easier and, so, easy comes the delusion that it was.

    So hang in there. No matter how many people you have supporting you, it might just suck for a while. Focus on new ways to sit down and get to work. You’re an INTJ, right? Design a structure from the great ideas others have offered and be accountable to YOURSELF. Something will come out of the chaos, stick and you’ll find yourself right where you want to be. We cannot demand the presence of the Muse, but we can be well practiced and present when she makes her appearance.

    Now I am going to try and follow this advice… :)
    And if any of this helps you in the slightest, it is an honour to have the opportunity to return some of the inspiration you have offered me. Guess you aren’t so selfish after all?

    • Hello again, Michelle! Good (scary) memory on the INTJ.

      This is a very valuable comment. The idea of designing a structure based on this feedback is eerily close to what I think I already was doing but didn’t consciously realize.

      And you nailed two issues, the end of something significant in my life (the MFA) and the end of a creative project (the memoir). You hear reference to that trauma list–marriage, divorce, new job, moving, buying a house, having kids–and I wonder if there’s an equivalent one for disruptions to creative flow.

      • Don’t be too impressed. Your post on MBTI types and the book “Creative You” were a revelation. I was intrigued by the way you broke down your process and it led to an investigation into my own. So it stuck. But, don’t ask me what I did last Saturday. I can’t remember…. LOL!

        As for the list, I think anything that changes our world or worldview qualifies! Some of us adapt by being creative, some of us must adapt to be creative.

  17. I love all the writerly comments here – so much truth in your post, Patrick, and so much compassion and support in the comments.
    You likely needed a break after all that work for the degree. You’ve had it, now get to work. (There’s my tough love.)

    Personally, I have a very hard time working on more than one novel or story at the same time, so your comment that you felt you should be writing something new while also working on edits gives me hives of anxiety. But that’s just me.

    The question you have to honestly answer is: Do you truly love to write? If so, then why aren’t you? Are you getting all jammed up with fearful thoughts? Are you taking yourself too seriously – as in, now you should consider yourself a ‘serious’ writer? (Been there, done that.)

    Maybe you just need to relax, and remember why you love writing? Put your framed degree in a drawer and forget about it. (Yep, I really said that.)
    Oh, and hang in there, buddy. ;)

    • Wow, Cynthia, a lot to process in this very helpful comment. And I greatly appreciate the tough love and support! :)

      So. As to the generative while revising, I’ll confess I stopped writing personal essays halfway through the program. It became clear to me I’d be able to finish a draft with advisor input if I focused solely on that task, so I was all in on that and not jumping between projects. I did so in the first two semesters, however, and lived to tell about it, so I know it can be done.

      Do I love to write? Yes. And not writing is making me sad, and being sad has me not wanting to write. I guess it’s like feeling fat, having that make you sad, and then eating junk food because you’re sad. It’s a vicious downward (but natural) cycle.

      I’ve decided I have to treat the end of this month as a true “packet deadline,” and give my reader something to read. So I do aim to get to work, and do so now, because I’d also like to spend some time with my family over Thanksgiving, including my daughter, who returns from her first semester in college on Saturday. :)

      • One more comment about W2W, Patrick. If you finish something you want me to read after Dec 1, send it to me. My schedule is very flexible, and I’ll make time to read and comment. Enjoy the holiday and the long weekend with your daughter!

      • Great question. Do you love to write? … and do you feel that what you write must be produced? sold? practical? Or do you (can you let yourself) write crap (mentioned somewhere above) or frivolous something?

        My version is to jump into something I’m no good at (in practical terms)… painting. I love the colors, love the textures the knife and brushes create. This is most definitely not how I’d make a living, but it’s great fun – and it makes my brain *see* things differently for a while. Then I can get back to the writing.

  18. Thanks for being so real (and IMO vulnerable) in this public place, Patrick. It’s an honor to know creative folk who are willing to say what’s true when it admits what might look like a failing in some other part of the world or culture. As I witness you, I perceive this post as a self-revelatory victory.

    • Thank you, Stan. You’ve been a reader for a while now, so you know the journalist in me is loathe to put myself on the page, even if it’s digital ones and zeroes. I appreciate your acknowledgment of what I did here, and your support.

  19. Thanks so much for writing and sharing this, Patrick. I don’t think I’m alone in noticing that you’ve been a powerhouse churning out content for a long time now at a relentless pace – working full-time and studying/writing your MFA work and blogging and teaching and being a husband and father and….(whew, I’m exhausted just trying to type the list !) :)

    It really sounds like you need to have a time with no expectations at all in regards to writing projects/commitments for a while. Maybe try some doodling or write a few haikus or go on a photo walk with your daughter (oh, and definitely continue to build things with Lego). I think you’ll find your desire to get cracking on your new WIP will burn strongly again after a rest.

    I’m glad you’re getting a lot of encouragement and sound advice here at your ‘hut’, because it encourages me too and we can all benefit from it. Sue suggested some great ideas (as she always does). Cynthia’s questions were addressed to you, but they hit home for me as well, especially “Are you taking yourself too seriously?”

    • Am I taking myself too seriously? Well, the daughter you mention would say I am often quite silly, but I have always held myself to a high standard. When I was younger I told myself that was how I could succeed, and I still believe there is a lot to setting high expectations, but it also means a lot of “failure.” You put pretty succinctly here how much I have managed to do during the three years I’ve written this blog, and it’s nice to have that perspective from a longtime reader and fellow creative.

      Speaking of that daughter, I just picked her up from the bus station a couple of hours ago, and am catching up on this blog’s comments while she sleeps off her overnight trip from Savannah. It will be good to have her home for the next month, even if she spends most of that working holiday hours at the local art supply store!

  20. End of creative project… forgive me if I’ve told this story before, but it was hugely significant in my life.

    My first solo gallery show was to consist entirely of new works (memo to self – don’t try THAT again!) and I worked like mad for 7 months, every spare moment, to make them: photographs, mixed media, paper sculpture. I learned to let go of my crippling perfectionism, because something was “finished” when it was good enough (not garbage, just not fussed over endlessly – if I need to revisit that particular theme, then I’d do a sequel or another version).

    Anyway. Show opened, very good feedback, and I collapsed. Didn’t want to even THINK about anything creative, let alone DO anything. I went to movies. I read, voraciously, anything – books, magazines cover to cover, menus. And I thought…. what if, I said, what would I do right now, at this time in my life, with my experience and interests, if money were not an issue?

    I jotted down my thoughts – documentary photography, opera, theatre, backstage, story. A satisfying daydream. To close the loop, I wrote it up as a letter, a proposal, and sent it off to the General Director of my city’s opera company… and thought nothing more of it. About a month or so later I melted down from stress at my day job, thought it over that evening and gave notice the next day. I had no replacement job, no idea what I could do – just it wasn’t going to be that any more. The next day I got a phone call from the opera company – could I come in and talk to them about my project?

    Leap and the net will appear, y’know? There was, indeed, no money in it – but I spent two years working on a behind-the-scenes story in documentary photography, and it became a book. And it changed my life.

    (at the time, it changed my life – I’m now back in a stressful day job, but with one eye on that retirement clock and plans to write!)

    • Martha, thank you for sharing that. I think you know enough about my back story to know the parallels we have, and how much I admire you for your leap of faith and the ability to recognize what came next as a reward, even though by a certain standard–compensation–it was not a reward.

      I’m earning about half in my current day job vs. what I earned in the job I walked away from in late 2010, but there is no way I could have even been in a position to have stalled in creative writing in that job because I wouldn’t have been doing any creative writing, period, let alone an MFA. “Leap and the net will appear.” Yes, and you have to know that the net may not always be what you expected or hoped for. Readers like you are part of my net.

  21. Late to the party here, but I brought some wine and twiglets, so can I still come in? ;)

    I experienced a similar thing myself a month or so back. The second draft of the novel I’ve been so lovingly working on was turning into a chore; it felt like I was twirling around inside a hamster wheel, running like the clappers but not actually getting anywhere. And – since I’m not a hamster – I was getting less and less inclined to jump in that wheel and keep it turning at all. I couldn’t figure out why. I still wanted to get this novel written – I just couldn’t seem to get myself in the right frame of mind to actually WRITE it…

    And then, eventually, I worked it out. Because it was Draft 2, I’d begun to expect too much of myself. Draft 1 was where I made all my mistakes and did all my awful writing – so Draft 2 had to be where I did everything right and made that story 100% READY for the final grammar/typo passes, right?

    WRONG. It didn’t matter whether I got the story perfect on Draft 2 or Draft 102. I could still be rubbish right now and it wouldn’t matter, because I could just go back and fix it again. And again, and again… as soon as I gave myself permission to write badly again, I got back on track and began to look forward to working on my novel again.

    I’m willing to bet something similar is happening with you. You’ve completed your MFA, so you’re now an officially ‘qualified’ writer; you’ve finally earned your stripes, got the big metal nameplate thingy that sits on your desk in your office… that kind of thing. You’re not a ‘trainee’ any more. And, somewhere in the back of your mind, perhaps there is this nagging feeling that this means, from now on, you have to do this here writing job ‘properly?’ Like a ‘fully qualified professional?’

    Except of course you don’t. You’re still allowed to mess it all up before you get it right, MFA or no MFA.

    Maybe you actually NEED to not write for a bit – if you haven’t had a real, proper ‘vacation’ from writing during your MFA perhaps your brain is crying out for a bit of a break to recharge itself? Don’t think of it as ‘slacking off’ – think of it as ‘taking time out to refill the well of creativity.’

    In short… don’t be so hard on yourself. It’s not like you’ve robbed a bank or anything – and your natural talent for writing (which anyone who’s ever read anything you’ve written KNOWS you have) is not going to wither away and die forever just because it hasn’t been doing its full-body workout for a couple of months. ;)

    • Well said, Wendy! I just noticed when your comment came in my inbox that even Patrick’s choice of title reveals how hard he’s being on himself: “How I Failed…” As if he hadn’t just completed an absolutely astonishing period of creative productivity, as Carole Jane Treggett described in her comment!

      At the same time, I totally get the feeling of disappointment of not being able to maintain that level of productivity indefinitely. It’s hard to get started again once you let up. BUT…those small steps and lowered expectations do allow you to ease back in when you’re ready, and eventually, the productivity does return. It’s a lifelong ebb and flow, and to expect anything else is unrealistic.

      I say it’s time to celebrate Patrick’s massive achievements of the last few years — the cross-country road trip interviewing creatives, the creation and growth of this blog, a completed manuscript, a new, high-level professional job, and an advanced academic degree — not to mention reaching #1 on Google for the term “Christmas Crustaceans”! Patrick, how about a post entitled, “How I Succeeded in Accomplishing Several Large Creative Dreams, Each Beyond the Scope Most People Complete in One Lifetime, in Just a Few Years”?

      • Thank you, Sue! You’re a true friend. I doubt I’ll write that post you suggest, however. As I told Stan above, and as you as a memoir coach know full well, I have a hard time writing about myself. It’s a bit easier for me to point out my faults than to sing my own praises, however! :)

    • So it’s forgivable that I’ve played so much Microsoft Mahjong on my Surface the past three weeks that I’ve earned a gold medal from playing Daily Challenges? :)

      Wendy, thank you for sharing your story here, and for contributing twiglets and especially wine. (I’ve got some dopplebock beer if you’re game to try it.) What you said about the drafts really resonates with me. I allowed myself with the first draft in the MFA program to experiment, knowing I had an advisor who could tell me what worked and what didn’t. I tried to write well, but I didn’t worry about it being “right.” With the post-graduation revision, of course, all that mattered was getting it “right.” And I started getting a little sick of the manuscript, having spent three years with it in various iterations. But an outside editor I hired to review it helped me gain some useful perspective, and I feel a bit better about the whole thing.

      That doesn’t mean, however, that I was ready to just jump in there again with the writing. The good news is that I had two mornings this week where I did write, revising that proto essay sufficiently that much of it was truly generative. It felt good. Now I’ve gone a couple of days not writing, but thanks to the comments here, including yours, I don’t feel as guilty about it. I like writing, but I also am realizing it’s not a failure to go a day (or two or three) and not write.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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    […] am ill-inclined to push back against a Nobel Prize winner such as Lessing. And readers of my most recent post must know the empathy I felt for Lessing when I read of her stalled creativity. But Bahrampour […]

  2. Celebrating an Escape into Fiction | The Artist's Road - December 11, 2013

    […] reader needed that reminder this past weekend. I’ve been feeling creatively underpowered, as I’ve written, but I’ve also been physically unwell and busier than usual at my day job. So this weekend I […]

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